Mercedes Lackey and Larry Dixon
Mage Wars 01
The Black Gryphon
Cold wind played against Skandranon’s nares—a wind as frigid as the hearts of the killers below. Their hearts pumped blood unlike any other creature’s; thick black blood, warmed when their commanders willed it—only when they flew, only when they hunted, only when they killed.
Their blood was cold, and yet it ran warmer than their masters’. This much Skandranon Rashkae knew; he had fought their masters since he was a fledgling himself. They were cruel and cunning, these makaar, and yet the worst aspects of these manufactured horrors paled before the cruelty of their creators.
Silence. Stay still. Quiet.
Skandranon remained motionless, crouched, feathers compressed tight to his body. He was silent to more than hearing; that silence was but one of the powers that had made his master and friend so powerful, although it was the power that had given him his name—Urtho, the Mage of Silence. Urtho’s champions had invisibility against magical sight—to mind-scanning, to detection spells, to magical scrying. The enemies of his monarchy had spent much of their resources on foiling that edge—to no avail, it seemed—and now concentrated on more direct methods of destroying Urtho’s hold on the verdant central-land’s riches.
Skan kept his wings folded, the leading edge of each wing tucked under the soft black feathers at the sides of his chest. It was important to be quiet and keep his head down, even this far from the encampment. The journey here had been one of long soars and kiting, and although he was in his best physical shape ever, flight muscles protested even yet. Better now to rest and watch. The chill wind rippled against his coat of feathers. This day had turned out unseasonably cold, which hadn’t helped him any—except that it kept the makaar willing to make only the most necessary flights.
He watched them sleeping restlessly, twitching in their dreaming. Did they know how transient, how fleeting, they were? How their creators built them, bred them, refined them, letting the bad stock die out by assigning them to the border? Did they know their masters designed them with short lives so the generations would cycle quicker, to reveal the defects more conveniently?
They were, despite their horrifying appearances and deadly claws, quite pitiful. They’d never know the caress of a caring lover—they would only know the heat of imposed breeding. They knew their lot was the searing pain of a torture-weapon if they failed. They never lay in the sun with a friend, or dashed in the air with their wingmates. . . .
They’d never risk their lives to do something because they felt it was right. Perhaps that was the greatest pity of all; they could not be broken because they had no honor to compromise, no will to subvert.
The makaar and the gryphons were a study in contrasts, despite the darker mages’ obvious attempts to mimic the Mage of Silence’s handiwork. If gryphons were sinuous, graceful storms, makaar were blustering squalls. The gryphons were bold, intelligent, crafty; the makaar were conditioned to blind obedience. And one need only ask Skandranon which was the more attractive; he’d likely answer, “I am.”
Vain bird. You’ll make a lovely skin on a Commander’s wall.
Skandranon breathed deeply behind the line of trees atop the hill; before him was the Pass of Stelvi. The coming army had stormed it, at the cost of but a few hundred of their soldiers compared to the thousand of Urtho’s garrison. Farther down the pass was the split valley which once supported a thriving trade-town. Laisfaar was now the army’s quarters, and the surviving townsfolk made into servants no better off than slaves. In the other fork of the valley the commanders had stationed the army’s supplies and creatures, including the sleeping makaar.
They might as well sleep; they did not need to fear sorcerous spying. The army’s mages had shielded the area from magical scrying, and none of Urtho’s many attempts to search the valley by spell had worked. That had left the need for study by stealth—risky at best, suicidal at worst.
Skandranon had, of course, volunteered.
Fly proudly to your doom laughing, vain bird, the best of the best; more suitors than sense, more wealth than wisdom, sharp claws ready to dig your own funeral pit. . . .
His meeting with Urtho had been brief by choice. The offer was made to send guards and mages; Skandranon declined. Urtho offered to bolster his defensive spells, as he had done so many times before; it was declined as well. What Skan asked for was enhancement of his magical senses—his Mage-sight had been losing sharpness of late due to disuse. Urtho had smiled and granted it, and Skandranon left immediately from the Tower itself, leaping broad-winged onto the wind’s shivering back.
That was three dozen leagues and four meals ago; a long time to cover such a distance. It was a tactical disaster for his side that the enemy’s army had advanced this close to Urtho’s Tower; now it appeared they were prepared to march on the Tower itself. The layout of the encampments showed three separate cadres of troops; the makaar had been assigned equally to two of them. And between those two was the Weaponsmaster’s coach, staked firmly and blanketed, flanked by two canvas-covered wagons.
Hold a moment now. With a town nearby—hearths and comfortable bedding—the Weaponsmaster is staying in a tent?
Each side in this war had Seers and Diviners, whose powers could throw secret plans, however perfectly laid, awry. A Seer waking with a premonition of an assassination could thwart the attempt, for instance. The night before Stelvi Pass was taken, a Seer’s vision told of a horrible new weapon that would devastate the garrison Urtho had placed there. It was something magical, the woman had said, but was in the hands of common soldiers. That warning alone was enough to make the gryphon wary, and had made him determined to explore this valley.
In a war of mages, the limited number of Adepts and Masters made tactical planning easier; you could study your opponents, guess their resources, even identify them by their strategies without ever seeing the commander himself. What alarmed Skandranon was the idea that the power of a mage could be put in the hands of untrained people—those who did not have the innate powers or learned skills of a mage. The units that could be fielded with such weapons would be an unwelcome variable, difficult to guard against if at all. A Master could ride onto a battlefield and call on his own powers, unleashing firebolts, lightning, hurricanes of killing wind—yet he was still just one man, and he could be eliminated. But soldiers that could do that would be devastating, even if the weapons were employed but once each. And if an Adept had discovered a way for the weapons to draw on power from magical nodes—
That was too horrifying to think of further. Skandranon had faced the Adept commander of all the troops below, the Kiyamvir Ma’ar, twenty months ago. He had volunteered for that mission, too, and had limped home wing-broken, stricken with nightmares. He had seen his wingmates skinned by the Adept’s spells, feathered coats peeled back in strips by the Adept’s will alone in full daylight, despite Skan’s attempts to counterspell. The nightmares had left him now, but the memory made him determined to protect Urtho’s people from the Kiyamvir’s merciless rule.
Skandranon’s eyes focused on the town of Laisfaar. Urtho’s garrison had not all been human; there had been hertasi, a few tervardi, and three families of gryphons. His eyes searched the ramparts, noted the wisps of smoke of fires still burning since the attack. There were the aeries of the gryphons; the ramps for visitors, the sunning beds, the fledglings’ nests. . . .
. . . the bloodstains, the burned feathers, the glistening rib cage. . . .
All the usual atrocities. Damn them.
She had been alive until very recently; she had escaped the worst of it by dying of shock and blood loss. The makaar had no love for gryphons, and their masters gave them a still-living one after a battle as a reward. Often it was a terrified fledgling, like this gray-shafted gryphon had been. The rest of the garrison’s gryphons had doubtless been wing-cut, caged, and sent to the Kiyamvir for his pleasures by now. Skandranon knew well that, unless Ma’ar was distracted by his business of conquest, there would be nothing left of them to rescue by day’s end.
If he could, Skandranon would insure the captives would not last that long. Crippled as they would likely be, he couldn’t help them escape; but he might be able to end their ordeal.
Before that, he had a larger duty to attend to.
Now he moved, slinking belly-flat to the ground, catlike; one slow step at a time, eeling his way through the underbrush with such delicate care that not even a leaf rustled. The Weaponsmaster’s wagons had plenty of guards, but not even the Weaponsmaster could control terrain. The mountains themselves provided brush-filled ravines for Skandranon to creep through, and escarpments that overlooked the wagons. The encampment was guarded from attack from above by makaar, but only over the immediate vicinity of the camp. It was guarded from penetration from below by the foot-soldiers, but only outside the camp itself. No one had guarded against the possibility of someone flying into the area of the camp, behind the sentry lines, then landing and proceeding on foot to the center of the camp.
No one could have, except a gryphon. No one would have, except Skandranon. The omission of a defense against gryphon spying told him volumes about the military commanders who led this force. The Kiyamvir would reprimand them well for such a mistake—but then, Ma’ar was the only one of their side who understood the gryphons’ abilities. Most commanders simply assumed gryphons and makaar were alike, and planned defenses accordingly.
So Skandranon stayed in the shadows, moving stealthily, as unlike a makaar as possible.
Time meant nothing to him; he was quite prepared to spend all night creeping into place. Even in the most strictly ruled of armies, discipline slackens after a victory. Soldiers are weary and need rest; victory makes them careless. Skan had timed his movements to coincide with that period of carelessness.
He noted no sentries within the bounds of the camp itself; his sharp hearing brought him no hint that the commanders prowled about, as they were known to do before a battle. Doubtless, the commanders were as weary as the soldiers and slept just as deeply.
He spent his moments waiting committing details to memory; even if he died, if his body were somehow recovered, Urtho could still sift his last memories for information. That would only work if he died swiftly, though. Otherwise, the memories would be overcome by sensory input; thus the immediate torture of gryphon captives. Daring rescues had occurred before, and once retrieved, the gryphons’ bodies were tremendous sources of information.
That could also be a clue to where the rest of the gryphon families were; it was also not unheard of to use captives as bait for rescue-traps. Captives’ minds were often stripped of the will to resist, the prisoners forced to give information to the enemy. This was why Skandranon held a horrible power—a spell of death keyed to gryphons—for mercy.
And he hoped with every drop of blood that he would never be required to use it again.
Halfway to his goal he froze as he heard footsteps approaching the stand of tall grasses where he lay hidden. The cover that had seemed adequate a moment earlier seemed all too thin now—
Clever bird, hiding in grass. Better hope the wind doesn’t blow—
But the footsteps stumbled, and Skan held his breath, not wanting to betray his position by breathing steam into the cold air. He froze in mid-step, right foreclaw held a mere thumb length above the ground.
He could not see the human who approached without turning his head, which he would not do. He could only wait and listen.
The footsteps stopped; there was a muffled curse, and the sound of hands fumbling with cloth—Then, clear and unmistakable, the sound of a thin stream of water hitting the matted grasses.
The human grunted, yawned; the sound of trousers being hitched up followed. The footsteps stumbled away again.
Skandranon unfroze and lowered his claw to the ground.
There were no other incidents as he made his way up the escarpment and slid under the shelter of a knot of wild plum bushes, to wait until dawn. He could feel the beetles and spiders of the thicket exploring their newly-arrived piece of landscape as the minutes went by. Despite the impulse to yelp and swat them, though, he stayed still. Their irritation provided a blessing in a way; something to feel, to keep his senses alert after nightfall.
Skandranon’s tentative plan was to wait until darkness, then sneak out to explore the camp. Other warriors suspected his stealthiness was a result of Urtho’s magicking, although the elder denied it, citing the gryphon’s near-obsessive interest in dancing-movements. He had often watched Skandranon mimicking human, tervardi, and hertasi performers in private. Skandranon had trained himself with a dedication he would never admit except as a boast, applying that knowledge to flight, to lovemaking, and to combat. That, in truth, was what made him quieter than a whisper of wind; no spells or tricks, just practiced grace.
Silence alone is not enough. Urtho has learned that the hard way—we’ve lost border towns for half a generation, and only now begun doing more than simply defending our borders. Eh, well, Urtho had never intended to become Archmage. He’s more suited to crafting silver and carving figures than deploying armies.
Such a pity that a man so kindhearted would be pressed into the role of a warlord . . . but better he than a heartless man.
And I’d certainly rather be off making little gryphlets.
That would have to wait until the world became a safer place to raise young, though. For now, Skandranon waited . . . until a shriek rang out from the town, echoing off the walls of the valley. Only practiced self-control kept him from leaping into the air, claws stretched to rend and tear.
One at least still lives. I’m coming, friend, I’m coming . . . just hold on a little longer. Just a little. Feh, I can’t wait any longer.
Skandranon stood and surveyed the layout of the encampment again; he’d heard screams like that too many times in his life. Not again. He spread his wings half-open and leapt, down toward the Weaponsmaster’s wagons, depending on speed to be his ally. Knifelike wind whistled against his nares, chilling his sinuses, sharpening his mind. All the sights and sounds of the world intensified when he was in motion, sizes and details of shapes all taken into account for the entire span of his vision.
Snatch and fly, that’s your plan, isn’t it, damned foolish bird? You’re going to die the hero they all call you, for what? Because you couldn’t stand another moment of another gryphon’s pain? Couldn’t wait any longer.
The wagons rushed closer in his sight, and their magical alarms blazed into light, waiting like barbed snares to be triggered. Were they traps, too, besides being alarms? Would they trap him? Were they the bait, not the tortured gryphon?
Would it matter? You’re too damned predictable, Skan, too sensitive, couldn’t stand to wait. She’d die anyway, you know it, by the time you’d have gone in. Why do it?
Colors and textures rushed past him in three dimensions, as he dove ever closer to the wagons.
It’s because you’re not bright enough, stupid gryphon. Stupid, stupid gryphon.
Well, death is inevitable anyway, so dying for the right reason is . . .
Just as final.
Too late for reconsideration, though. The wagon alarm-fields loomed nearer, and Skan had to risk a spell to disarm them—the easiest was one which made them detect another place nearby, instead of the place they were supposed to protect. He focused on them, released the flow into them, diverted their field away to an open part of the camp . . . and they did not sound. Now his troubles stemmed from the soldiers who might still be outside—and the makaar. He might be invisible to the alarms, but he was still pitch black to anyone’s vision. A soldier of Ma’ar’s army would not wonder at a shadow that moved through the sky—he’d call an alert.
He half-hoped for detection, since he would likely have the quarry before any spells could be leveled against him. Once discovered, he would not have to skulk about any longer . . . he could blaze away with a detection spell to find the gryphon whose scream he’d heard earlier. Otherwise there would be delicate searching around for—who knew how long. Of course, discovery also brought such pesky distractions as arrows and firebolts and snares and spells. . . .
He backwinged and landed, kicking up clods of dirt next to the wagon, and his head darted from side to side, looking for spotters. None yet, but that could change all too quickly. Two steps to the back of the wagon, then under it—no one ever guards the bottoms of things, only sides and doors—and he began prying at the wagon’s floorboards, next to the struts and axles, where the mud, water, and friction of traveling always rots the wood. He was curled up under the wagon completely, on his back, tail tucked between his legs, wings folded in against his ribs, hind claws holding the wingtips. He didn’t dare rip at the canvas of the wagon’s bonnet—past experience had shown that apparently flimsy defenses were often imbued with alarm-spells. His claws glowed faintly with the disruption-spell he was using, and the wood shriveled above where his claws slowly raked, silent from the sound-muffling of his cupped wings.
The enemy’s wagons traditionally had an aisle down the middle, and that was where Skandranon was working . . . another four cuts, five, six, and he’d be able to pull the boards down under the blanket of a silence-spell. Then he’d get a look inside at their coveted prize.
He began mentally reciting the silence-spell, calling up the energy from inside himself and releasing it around the wagon. He was careful to mold it short of touching the wagon itself, building it up from the ground. The wagon’s defenses might yet be sensitive to the touch of just such a spell. It was hard to tell anymore, so many variables, so many new traps. . . .
He hoped that the mages under Ma’ar’s command did not sweep the camp for magic at work.
Things were going so well, so far. Skan reached up, claws digging firmly into the crossbrace, cracked through it, and the entire aisle section fell to the ground, inches in front of his beak. . . .
. . . and Skandranon found himself face to face with a very upset, recently awakened Weaponsmaster, who was drawing something—surely a weapon—up from beneath his bedding. The weapon pointed at the gryphon and started changing.
Skan’s right claw shot out and struck the human’s scalp and squeezed, finding yielding flesh. His thumb pierced the man’s eye socket, and inside the envelope of silence, a gurgling scream faded into the wet sounds of Skan withdrawing his talons from the kill.
The man’s hands twitched and dropped the weapon, which was still pointing at Skandranon. It was a polished rod, wrapped in leather, with a glowing, spiked tip revealed where the leather ended. It rolled from the dead man’s fingers and fell to the ground, and the tip withdrew into the rod.
On your back, underneath a wagon, in an enemy camp, you kill a Weaponsmaster one-handed? No one will ever believe it. Ever. That was too close, too close, stupid gryphon.
Someone will come by soon, Skan. Move. Get the whatever-it-is and get away. That’s all you need to do. Get away.
Skan released his wingtips and pulled himself across the body of the slain human, keelbone scraping against the ragged edge of sundered wood. His wing-edges caught, pinning him in the opening, and he wheezed with the effort of pulling himself through. It was dim inside. Only the waning light from outside leaking through the canvas-openings provided any illumination. Around him, stacked in open cases, waited glistening objects, the same as the Weaponsmaster had held, each the size of his foreclaws.
Each far more deadly than his claws, he was sure.
They must be some entirely new kind of weapon, and he needed no spell-casting to know their magical origin. They exuded magic, their collective power making his feathers crawl like being in the heart of a lightning storm abrewing. Now to grab one and leave! Skan reached toward the cases, almost touching one of them, when his inner voice screamed “No!”
The Weaponsmaster had one, he was guarding these, these may all be trapped. . . .
A hair-thin crackle of reddish energy arced between the weapons and his extended foreclaw, confirming his fears.
Then there may be only one that isn’t trapped. . . .
He moved slowly, wings folded so tight it hurt. Up onto his haunches, then back down to all fours, until he faced the rear of the wagon. Then he reached down through the shattered floorboards, groping for the slain Master’s weapon. It didn’t make sense to Skan that the man would trap his own weapon, even if he was a mage; Weaponsmasters as a rule tended to be terribly impressed with themselves, and thought they could handle anything. . . . Too bad, so sad, first mistake and last. What’s that, stupid bird, you’re getting cocky because you’ve lasted this long? More to do, and every second is borrowed time.
At last came the feel of the rod, warm to his touch despite the thickness of his scaled skin. He reared back, eyes closed to the thinnest of slits, concentrating on not touching the racks of trapped arms. He transferred his prize to his mouth, clenching it tightly above his tongue, and fell forward across the gaping entrance he’d made, stretching across it toward the untied flap of the wagon bonnet.
All right. What’s the worst that could happen? I touch the canvas, and the entire wagon goes up with all the energy in these things. That’d be just like Ma’ar, if he can’t have them, no one else can. . . . I’d better count on it.
Skandranon bunched up his leg muscles, preparing for a massive leap through the exit, when he heard bootsteps outside, and a moment later, a shadowy figure opened the flap, cursing in the enemy’s tongue.
In the same instant, the figure opened the canvas, and the gryphon leapt. Skan used the man’s shoulders as a vault, crushing the man’s face against the back of the wagon from his momentum. He snapped his wings open, catching the edges, as the human crumpled underneath him. Then a deafening sound exploded around them as the wagon’s massive final trap was set off—a crimson circle of fire spread across the ground, incinerating the human, catching the other wagon. A thrashing body was engulfed in the flame arcing from it as Skandranon gained altitude.
The makaar roused.
End of your charmed life, gryphon. At least now you can cast freely before you die . . . find her, wherever she is, accomplish that at least—
Skan’s wings rowed at the air, clutching for distance from the camp. There was one thing yet to do before his conscience would let him leave. Somewhere—his mind searched through the camp and town for where—there was one of his own kind being killed, slowly. . . .
He searched, and found her tortured mind as he crested the ridge. It felt as if her body had been lanced deep by thousands of needles, cut on by a hundred mad surgeons, broken by mallets, yet still she lived. There was a wrenching moment as Skan’s mind reeled from the backlash of what had been done to her, and he felt his wings fold involuntarily.
:Kill me,: she screamed, :Stop them, something—anything!:
:Open up to me,: Skan sent to her, :Open up to me and trust—there will be pain at first, then all will be dark. You’ll fly again, as Urtho wills—:
She halted her scream as she recognized the code sign for the death-spell. No one had made a move to block it yet—
He pulled back from her for a bare second, trying to steady himself in his flight. He reached out again, riding the wind, then unleashed the spell, caught her mind, pulled it free of her body for one gut-wrenching second. The spell struck home and stopped her heart.
I am sorry, so sorry . . . you will fly again after the dark. . . . Then he released her spirit to the winds.
Somewhere in the captured inn, a bound and wing-cut body convulsed, then lay still. Above the valley, Skandranon raced away desperately, unable to cry out for her, as seven makaar surged skyward to destroy him.
At last, the General slept.
Amberdrake started to rise, then sank back down to his seat on the side of the General’s bed as Corani woke convulsively, with a tiny gasp. The anguish was still there, filling the room, palpable even to the weakest Empath. For an Empath as strong as Amberdrake, the impact of Corani’s pain was a blow to the heart.
Amberdrake waited for the General to speak, while radiating warmth and reassurance, concentrating on the soothing scents still flavoring the air as a vehicle for that reassurance; the gentle hint of amber incense, the chamomile in the oils he had used in his massage, the jessamine covering the taste of sleep-herbs in the tea he’d given Corani. He ignored the throbbing pain in his own temples, his tension-knotted stomach, and the terrible sense of foreboding that had come upon him at the General’s summons. His feelings did not matter; he was a kestra’chern, and his client—more patient than client, as was often the case—needed him. He must be the strong one, the rock to rest against. He did not know Corani well; that was all to the good. Often men of power found it easier to unburden themselves to a stranger than to a friend.
The General’s suite was in Urtho’s keep and not in a tent in the camp; easy enough here to pull heavy curtains to shut out the light and the world with it, to burn dim, scented lamps that invoked a feeling of disassociation from the armed camp beyond the keep. The General himself had not summoned Amberdrake; the few times he had called to the camp for a kestra’chern, it had been Riannon SilKedre he had wanted—slightly inferior to Amberdrake in skill, an accomplished and well-respected female. No, one of Urtho’s aides had come to the tent—quietly, with his livery hidden beneath a cloak, which said more about the aide’s visit than the boy himself did.
Urtho was still closeted with his General when Amberdrake arrived, but when he finally returned to his quarters, he did not seem surprised to see Amberdrake there. He was clearly distraught, and yet it had taken Amberdrake hours and every bit of his skill to persuade him to unburden himself.
And he knew why Urtho had chosen him and not Riannon. There were times when it was easier for a man to reveal his pain to a man—and Amberdrake was utterly trustworthy. Whatever was revealed to him remained with him forever. He was many things to many people; tonight he had been something of a Healer, something of a priest, something of a simple, noncommittal ear.
“You must be disappointed,” the General said into the lamp-lit dimness, his voice resigned. “You must think I’m a weakling now.”
That was what Corani said; Amberdrake, being what he was, heard what Corani meant.
He was really saying, “I must disgust you for falling apart like this, for looking so poorly composed,” and, “You must despise me and think me unworthy of my position.”
“No,” Amberdrake replied simply, to both the spoken and unspoken assertions. He did not want to think what the General’s collapse meant to him, personally; he must not think of it. Must not remember the messengers that roused the camp last night; the premonitions that had awakened the more sensitive and marginally Gifted among the Healers and kestra’chern from nightmares of blood and fire against the outline of the mountains. Must not think of the fact that Corani’s family came from Laisfaar at Stelvi Pass, and that while his sons had posts with the army here, his wife and all his relatives were back there. There, where Skandranon had gone. He and Gesten did not know why, or for what reason; Amberdrake only knew that he had gone off without a farewell.
“No,” Amberdrake repeated, taking the General’s outflung hand before Corani could reclaim it, and massaging the palm and fingers carefully. The muscles felt cramped and tight; Corani’s hand was cold. “How could I be that stupid? You are human and mortal; we are the sum of our weak moments and our strong. Everyone has a moment at which he must break; this one was yours. It is no shame to need help and know it.”
Somewhere, deep inside, he wondered if it was also his. There was pressure building inside him that threatened to break free at any moment. He was not so self-confident that he thought he could do without help. The question was, would there be any there for him? Too many battered spirits to mend—too many bruised bodies to comfort—the resources of Healers and kestra’chern alike were stretched and overstretched. That he was near the end of his reserves made little difference.
Far too many of his clients had gone out to battle and had not returned. And Skan had been due back this morning; it had been near sunset when the aide left him in Corani’s quarters. Skan was never overdue.
But for now, this moment, he must put his own strain aside. None of that must show—he shouldn’t let it break his concentration or his focus. Corani came first; Corani must be comforted enough, given enough reinforcing, as if he were a crumbling wall, that he could function and come to heal. Something had gone wrong, terribly wrong, at Stelvi Pass. Corani had not told him what, but Amberdrake knew with dreadful certainty. Stelvi Pass had been overrun; Laisfaar, and Corani’s family with it, was no more. It would be better for them to be dead than in Ma’ar’s hands unless they’d hidden their identities and vanished into the general population. And that was unlikely.
Corani accepted this, as wise generals accepted all facts. Corani had accepted Amberdrake’s comforting as well. For the moment, anyway. That was another of Amberdrake’s abilities; it bought time. Time to bring distance, time to heal. “My sons—”
“I think that Urtho has seen to them as well,” Amberdrake replied quickly. Urtho would have seen to everything; it was his way.
Quickly, he suppressed the thought and the anguish it caused.
The drugs in the General’s tea took effect; in the dim light, Corani struggled to keep his eyes open, eyes still red and swollen from weeping. The General had fought those tears, fought to keep them properly held inside with the determination that had made him the leader he was. Amberdrake had fought his determination with a will of his own that was no less stubborn. “It’s time to sleep,” Amberdrake said quietly.
Corani blinked, but held him with an assessing gaze. “I’m not certain what I expected when I saw you here,” he said, finally. “Based on Riannon—”
“What Riannon gave you was what you needed then,” Amberdrake replied, gently touching the general’s shoulder. “What I do is what you need now. Sometimes neither is what the recipient expects.” He laid a soothing hand on Corani’s forehead. “That is what a kestra’chern does, after all; gives you what you need.”
“And not necessarily what I want,” Corani said quickly.
Amberdrake shook his head. “No, General. Not necessarily what you think you want. Your heart knows what you want, but often your head has some other idea. It is the task of the kestra’chern to ask your heart, and not your head, what you need and answer that need.”
Corani nodded, his eyelids drooping.
“You are a strong man and a good leader, General Corani,” Amberdrake continued. “But no man can be in two places at the same time. You could not be here and there as well. You cannot anticipate everything the enemy will do, nor where he will strike. The War thinks its own way. You are not answerable for the entire army. You did what you could, and you did it well.”
The muscles of Corani’s throat tightened visibly as he fought for control. Amberdrake sensed tears being forced down. Corani was on the verge of more than tears; he was on the verge of a breakdown. This would accomplish nothing, worse than nothing. The man needed rest, and with Amberdrake’s hand resting on his forehead, he was open to Amberdrake’s will.
“You must sleep,” Kestra’chern Amberdrake said, imposing a mental command on top of the drugs. Corani closed his eyes, and this time he did not reawaken when Amberdrake rose to go.
Gesten would be where he had been since dawn; at the landing field, waiting for Skandranon to return. Amberdrake left the keep, slipping unobtrusively out into the scarlet of a spectacular sunset. The landing field was not far away, and Amberdrake decided to head there, rather than going straight back to his tent.
Depression weighed heavily on his heart, a depression that was not relieved at the sight of Gesten alone on the field, patiently making preparations to wait out the night-watch.
Amberdrake held his peace for a moment, then spoke.
“He’s not coming back this time,” Amberdrake said quietly.
His hertasi companion, Gesten, looked up at him with his expressive eyes and exhaled through his nostrils. He held his pebble-scaled snout shut for a long minute. “He’ll come. He always does,” Gesten finally said. “Somehow.”
Amberdrake wished with all his heart that the little hertasi would be right this time. Skandranon had flown from the Tower two days before, and Stelvi Pass was less than a day away, flying; he had never been delayed by so much before. Gesten was going about the task of building a watch-fire for their friend, laying out colored smoke-pots amidst the kindling. It might be a useless gesture, but it was all he could really do right now, with dawn so far away. Light up a pattern of blue and white to welcome the flyer home, let him know from afar that safety was close . . . Amberdrake tried to help, but he was awkward, and his heart wasn’t in it. How odd, that one so graceful in his calling could be so clumsy outside it.
“Urtho has called a council.” That much was common knowledge; no harm in telling the hertasi now. “Two gryphons came streaking in from Laisfaar straight to the Tower, and two hours after that, Urtho sent a message ordering me to tend General Corani.”
Gesten nodded, apparently taking Amberdrake’s meaning—that Corani needed the peculiar skills of a kestra’chern. The general had been permanently assigned to the Pass, until Urtho needed him more than his home district did. For the last week he’d been at the Tower, pleading with Urtho for some special protection for Stelvi Pass and the town. That much was common knowledge, too.
“What can you tell me?” Gesten knew very well that there was only so much Amberdrake could reveal to him. “What did Corani need?”
Amberdrake paused, searching for the right word.
“He needed sympathy, Gesten,” he said as he laid down a stack of oily fire fuel logs. “Something happened in the Tower that he didn’t want to talk about; and I can only assume that from the way he acted, the news was the worst. Kept talking about blind spots—he was near to a breakdown. That’s not like him. And now . . . Skandranon is late.” Amberdrake smoothed his silk caftan, brushing the wood chips away. He felt worry lines creasing a face even his enemies called handsome, but he was too depressed to care.
Absently, he pulled his long hair back from where it had fallen astray. “I don’t think he’s coming back this time. I can feel it in my gut. . . .”
Gesten picked up a small log and pointed it up at Amberdrake. “He will be back, I feel it in my gut, Drake, and I won’t put up with your whining about ‘poor Skan.’ He always comes back. Always. Understand? And I’ll be here, with this watch-fire, until either he comes back or this army runs out of firelogs.”
Amberdrake stepped back, thoroughly chastised, and more than a little surprised at the vehemence of the normally quiet lizard’s speech. Gesten stood pointing the stick at him for a moment more, then spit at the air and threw it on the growing stack of kindling.
“I’m sorry, Gesten.” Though he meant he was sorry about angering the hertasi, Gesten would probably take it some other way. “It’s just that . . . you know how I feel about him.”
“Feh. I know. Everyone knows. You seem to be the only one who doesn’t know.” The hertasi opened the latch on the firebox and withdrew a coal with blackened tongs. His tail lashed as he spoke. “You worry about everything, Drake, and you don’t listen to yourself talking. There is no one in Urtho’s service who is better than him. No one else more likely to come back.” Gesten dropped the coal into the folds of cotton batting and wood-chips between the two smoke-pots. “Even if he doesn’t come back, he’ll have died the way he wanted to.”
Amberdrake bit his lip. Gesten thought he was right, as usual; nothing would dissuade him. Nothing Amberdrake could tell him would persuade him that the situation was hopeless; only the things Amberdrake could not tell him would do that. And he was right; Skan had died the way he wanted to. “I’ll—keep quiet, until we know.”
“Damned right you will. Now go back to your tent. You can manage your clients without me tonight.” Gesten turned his attention to lighting the center fire, then the blue and white smoke-pots blazed into light. Amberdrake walked in the cooling night air toward the Tower and the semi-mobile city that clustered around it, stopping once to look back at the lonely figure who’d wait for all eternity if need be for the Black Gryphon’s return. His heart, already heavy, was a burden almost too great to bear with the added weight of tears he dared not shed.
Oh, not now. I don’t need this. . . .
Skandranon struggled against gravity and rough air, jaws clenched tightly on his prize. His heart was beating hard enough to burst from his chest, and the chase had barely begun—the makaar behind him were gaining, and he was only now past the ridge. As if it weren’t enough that makaar were quicker than gryphons, they possessed better endurance. All they had to do was cut him off and fly him in circles. That was clearly what they intended to do. His advantage was his ability to gain and lose altitude more quickly than they. With cleverness, he could make them react, not act. At least they weren’t terribly well organized—it wasn’t as though Kili was leading them—
Skandranon twisted his head to assess his pursuers, and spotted an all-too-familiar black and white crest—Kili, the old makaar leader Skan had taunted numerous times. Kili, who had almost trapped him once before, with a much smaller force aflight, was streaking to a pitch a thousand feet above the other six, screaming commands.
Three gray-patched makaar canted wings back and swept into a shallow dive, gaining on him all the faster by trading height for speed. Their trajectory took them below and past him a few seconds later—and they were followed by another three. He tried to watch them all, eyes darting from one to the other, as they split off and rejoined. Why head below him, when altitude was so important against a gryphon?
Instinct took over even as he realized Kili’s gambit. He folded his right wing completely, rolling sideways in midair as the elder makaar streaked past him by a featherlength. A shrill scream of rage rang in his ears as Kili missed, and Skan threw himself out of the roll by snapping his wing open again and spiraling nose-first toward the earth—and the six makaar there.
That bastard! He had the audacity to learn from me!
Skan clamped his wings tightly and plummeted through the massed makaar below him, seeing the claws and razor-edged beaks of the surprised makaar as a blur as he shot past. He followed dead on the tail of Kili. The chances of surviving that move were slim—he’d gambled on his swiftness, and the makaar did no more damage than removing a few covert feathers.
Distance for speed—let’s see if they can follow this.
Kili was so very close ahead that Skan was tempted to strike at him, but he couldn’t afford to be distracted from his primary objective—to survive and escape. Already, the two flights of makaar behind him stroked rapidly to pursue, crying out in rage. He passed the makaar leader, who predictably took a swipe at him and lost precious speed, and Kili’s recovery was further fouled by the wind turbulence of his passing underlings. The six rowed past Kili, gaining on Skandranon as he coursed back toward Laisfaar.
Stupid gryphon, the point is to get away from this place!
The barrier range swept inexorably closer. Skandranon narrowed his concentration to the rockface before him, and studied the erosion channels cut into the stone by ages past. His breath turned ragged through his nares as he struggled against fatigue. From the edge of his vision, he saw the other makaar winging through the Pass, cutting an arc toward the pursuit.
They’ll see my wings flare, and assume I’m braking to turn or climb—
Skan cupped his wings as he streaked in a straight line for the sheer cliff-face, feeling but not seeing the bloodthirsty makaar gaining on him from behind. The barrier stone filled his vision as he executed his desperate move: he folded his wings until their leading edges curled under him with a clap and his straining body rolled into a tumbler’s somersault. He plummeted in a descending arc as lift abandoned him and momentum hurled him toward unforgiving stone.
Gravity reversed itself; his head snapped into his chest as he fell. Numbly, detachedly, he realized the new, tiny pain in his chest was where the sharp tip of his beak had pierced it. Disorientation took him. All he could do was keep his jaws closed as his world went black, and wonder how many bones this last trick of his would break.
Follow through—do it, bird, do it—
He stretched his hindlegs out, and fanned his tail. Wind rushed against the lay of his feathers as he hurtled backward.
In the next instant, he was surrounded by shocked makaar, three above, three below, whose attention was locked on him instead of the rock rushing to strike them from the sky.
It’s going to work—lucky, stupid gryphon—
The dizzying sensations of gravity’s pull, momentum’s throw, and the rushing of blood mixed with the sound of six makaars’ screams and the crunch of their bodies against stone. Skandranon’s feet touched the unforgiving rock behind him—and he pushed off.
The strange maneuver stabilized his tumble; gave him the chance to spread his wings in a snap and break his fall, turn it from a fall into a dive.
Only the ground was awfully close. . . .
Pull up, stupid bird, pull up!
Wings straining, heart racing, he skimmed the rock at the bottom of the cliff, so close that his wingtips brushed it, using his momentum to send himself shooting skyward again, past the spreading stain on the rock that was all that was left of his first pursuers.
Now get out of here, idiot!
He reversed his course, away from the pass, back toward home and safety—and looked down.
At several hundred crossbows.
Of course, they couldn’t see him, except, perhaps, as a fleeting shadow. But they knew he was up there, and they only had to fill the sky with arrow bolts and rocks, and one or more of them would probably hit him. A quick glance to either side showed that he’d been flanked by the two new flights of makaar; they hemmed him in, and had several gryphon-lengths’ worth of altitude on him. Kili was not in sight; he was probably up above, somewhere, waiting.
His only chance lay in speed. If he could just get past the archers before they let fly—
From below came a whirring sound; the air around him filled with a deadly reverse-rain of crossbow-bolts and slung shot. He pulled in his wings in a vain attempt to narrow the target area.
At first, he didn’t feel pain, only impact. Out of the corner of his eye, he saw a mist of his own blood as his right wing came forward on the downstroke.
Then it crumpled.
Then it hurt.
He tumbled again, only nominally under control, shrieking incoherently around his beakful of stolen weapon.
He shuddered under the impact of two more hits; the pain came quickly this time, but he forced himself to ignore it. Once again, he tumbled out of control, and this time there was no handy cliff to push off of.
He pulled in his left wing and rolled over completely; righted himself, still falling. He dared not try and brake completely; the injured wing wouldn’t take it. Instead, he extended just enough of both to turn the fall into another steep dive, angled away from the battle and toward friendly territory.
Just after his wings flared, he saw Kili whistle past where he had been.
A little farther—a little farther—
The ground was coming up awfully fast.
He was over Urtho’s territory now, on the other side of the enemy lines, but he could not, dared not, flare his wings completely. His dive was a steep, fast one, but it was still a dive. The ground had never looked so inviting. Or so hard.
Ah sketi, this is going to hurt—
Amberdrake could not sleep; weary as he was, there was no point in lying awake and watching the inside of his eyelids. He wrapped a blanket around his shoulders, and made his way down the dark aisles between the orderly tent rows to the landing field.
As he came out into the open, away from the lights of the camp, he saw that the sky to the west was a haze of silvery light from the setting moon; it could not be long now, a few hours at most, until dawn. Gesten waited patiently beside his fire, as he had waited all night. Amberdrake had left the last of his clients to join the little lizard, but Gesten was clearly not in any mood to talk.
The hertasi tended to be silent when something affected his emotions. Amberdrake shared that tendency. In his case, it was due to long self-training; for both of them, it was to preserve the illusion of immutable and eternal stability.
It was Amberdrake’s duty to convey an impression of serene concern—for Amberdrake’s clients were always damaged in some way these days. Sympathy worked better than empathy, more often than not.
Clients didn’t want to know their kestra’chern had problems of his own.
Since he couldn’t be rid of them, he mustn’t let them show, not even for a moment. It was part of the burden or his avocation, and though he’d come to accept it, it still caused a dull ache like a sympathy pain.
Sympathy pain. Yes, that was exactly what it was like.
The depression had worsened with every rumor, every bit of camp gossip. Skan had never been this late in returning from a mission; even Gesten must know by now that he wasn’t coming back. He had often joked about how Skan always rushed back at top speed from a mission; that he couldn’t be back to his rewards and admiration fast enough.
By now the news had leaked out of a terrible disaster at Stelvi Pass, worse than any defeat Urtho’s forces had faced before. The reaction was not panic, but Amberdrake wondered if there was anyone in the ranks who guessed at what he already knew; that the garrison had been overrun and wiped out completely. As the night grew colder, so did Amberdrake’s heart, and wrapping his body in a spiral-knit blanket over his silks didn’t help at all.
Gesten still hadn’t spoken. Finally, he could bear it no longer. Without a word, he left his place beside the watch-fire and walked away into the darkness, looking back over his shoulder at the little spot of light and the patient figure hunched beside it. His heart ached, and his throat threatened to close with tears he feared to shed—feared, because once they began, he was not certain he would be able to stop them. Tears for Gesten—and for Skan. Wherever he was.
Waiting out in the darkness for someone who wasn’t going to come home wasn’t going to accomplish anything. The war went on no matter who grieved. Amberdrake, like so many Kaled’a’in, had long been thinking of the war as a being of its own, with its own needs, plans, and hungers. Those who chose to obey its will, and those who found themselves swept along in its path, had to go on living and pursuing their dreams, even if it did feel as if they were constantly trying to bail a leaky boat with their bare hands. The skills Amberdrake possessed would be needed regardless of whether the war raged on or ebbed; people would always feel pain, loneliness, instability, doubt, strain. He had long ago resigned himself to the responsibility of caring for those who needed him. No—caring for those who needed his skills. They didn’t necessarily need him, they needed his skills. It was that realization, too, that chilled his heart and had caused him to leave the smoky-white pyre.
Gesten had only his duties to Amberdrake and to the Black Gryphon, and Amberdrake could do without him for a while. Gesten clearly intended to keep his watch no matter what Amberdrake required of him. Amberdrake, on the other hand, always had his duties. And right now, he felt terribly, horribly lonely. After all, once you’ve given up a large slice of yourself to someone and they’re suddenly gone—how else could you feel? He’d never had a magical bond to the Black Gryphon, nothing that would let him know with absolute certainty if Skandranon were alive or dead. So he only had his reasoning and the known facts, and they pointed to the loss of a friend. A trusted one.
He neared the camp.
He entered the lighted areas of the camp, fixed a frozen, slight smile on his face, and checked his walk to ensure it conveyed the proper confidence and the other more subtle cues of his profession. There were few folk awake at this time of the night—or rather, morning—but those few needed to be reassured if they saw him. A frowning Healer was a bad omen; an unhappy kestra’chern often meant that one of his clients had confided something so grave that it threatened the kestra’chern’s proverbial stability—and since Amberdrake was both those things, anything other than serenity would add fuel to the rumors already flooding the camp. And for Amberdrake to be upset would further inflame the rumors. As long as he was in a public place, he could never forget who and what he was. Even though his face ached and felt stiff from the pleasant expression he had forced upon it.
Urtho kept an orderly camp; with tents laid out in rows, every fifth row lighted by a lantern on a perching-pole, anyone who happened to see Amberdrake would be able to read his expression clearly. It must look as if nothing had changed in the past few hours.
And yet, before he could do anyone else any good, he was going to have to deal with his own sorrows, his own fears and pain. He knew that as well as he knew the rest of it.
He strode into the Healers’ bivouac, his steps faltering only once. There was a distant part of him that felt ashamed at that little faltering step. He attributed that feeling to his tumultuous state of mind—hadn’t he soothingly spoken to others that there was no shame in such things? Still. . . .
Help was not far off—if he asked for it. It was his right, of course. He was entitled to counsel and Healing, and all of the skills of his own profession he wished. He had taken comfort in such ways before and had given it many times. And though a small internal voice might echo words of weakness from the walls of his mind—tell him to just hold it in, not to succumb to the strain, he was not too proud to ask for that help. Not at this point, not when he was a mass of raw nerves and trembling on the edge of a breakdown. He had seen the signs of such things too often not to recognize them in himself.
In tents and shacks he passed, small lanterns or lightstones illuminated solitary figures. They carved surgical instruments or sewed torn clothing and bandages. The surreal acoustics of the still night made an old Healer’s work-time whistling seem louder than it should be, as he cut and assembled arm slings by lantern light, apparently oblivious to the world outside his opened tent. On perches by the surgery tent, messenger-birds slept with their heads tucked under soft-feathered wings, with kyree sleeping soundly in front of them. The soft jingling of hanging harness and tackle sounded like windchimes from a tranquil garden. How odd that such poignant moments could still occur even in the middle of upheavals.
Healer Tamsin and his lover and coworker, Lady Cinnabar, were on night duty for the next ten days or so. He should be able to find them inside the surgery tent. There, past the Healers’ and surgeons’ tents, on the little rise ahead of him called “Healer’s Hill,” stood the common tents being used for infirmaries and treatment centers. Several of the tents had been used, in happier days, to hold Kaled’a’in celebrations, and had the capacity of housing a hundred or more. Their colors had been allowed to discreetly fade over the years since their current uses were anything but festive.
Lights in the central tent, and shadows moving inside it, told him that someone, at least, was there. He pushed aside the flap and moved quietly inside, and found Tamsin and Cinnabar bandaging a middle-aged land-scout, surrounded by tables bearing the debris of a thorough patching job. A mercenary; Amberdrake caught sight of the badge on his shoulder and recognized the wolf-head of Pedron’s Wolves. Urtho was very careful about the mercenaries he hired, and the Wolves had a particularly good reputation. Even the gryphons spoke well of them.
Even Skan had spoken well of—
Sketi, Drake, you’re fixated. It’s a downward spiral, and it’s got to be broken—before you are.
He sagged against a tent brace and hid his face in the shadows as he lost control over his expression. He wanted to be within sensing distance, but he also didn’t want to be obtrusive. He shielded as much of his grief as he could, but these were fellow Healers, Empaths—and the closest friends he had.
Next to Gesten and Skan. . . .
Tamsin didn’t look his way, but Amberdrake sensed his attention, and in the next moment he said to the mercenary, “You’ll do well enough, fire-eater. What you need now is some rest. Limit your activity to complaining for a few days. Here’s your green chit for days off.” He signed the wooden square with a silver-rod and handed it off. “Three days, and six more at light duty.”
Now Tamsin looked up, as if noticing Amberdrake for the first time, and added quietly, “I think I have a friend in need of a little help himself at the moment.”
The merc looked up, caught sight of Amberdrake standing in the shadows, and grunted. “Thankee, Master Tamsin. I ‘spect you’ll send me the charge, eh?”
Tamsin laughed at the tired old joke, and the mercenary shuffled off, passing Amberdrake with a nod, and pushed through the tent flap into the warm dark beyond. Amberdrake laid himself down on the cot the scout had just vacated, disregarding the binding of the silk caftan against his body as he rolled over. He threw his arms over his eyes, hand bunched into a fist. A fist was a sign superstitiously avoided among Healers as being bad luck, but his mind was not on wards and omens. He heard the sounds of hands being washed and toweled dry, and instruments being laid back in trays. Minutes passed without a word, and the after-Healing cleanup was concluded. He heard a curtain being drawn around them for privacy.
“The rumors about Stelvi are true—the truth’s probably worse than you’ve heard,” he said to the waiting silence. “And Skandranon didn’t make it back.”
He felt one hand lightly touch his cheek; felt someone else take his hand. Both touches released the flood of grief he had pent up within him and, lost in the dark waters of mourning, he couldn’t tell which of the two was touching him. Focus wavered in his mind. It didn’t matter which of the two touched him where; what mattered was that they did. He welcomed them both.
Tears threaded their way down his face, soaking the hair at his temples. The knot in his throat choked further speech.
“Don’t mourn for one who might still be alive,” Tamsin chided gently. “Wait until you know—”
But they both knew that if Skandranon were able, he’d have made it back by now or somehow have sent a message. Tamsin made a swallowing sound, as if he had stopped himself before he said anything stupid.
“I think it’s the fact that we don’t know,” Lady Cinnabar said as Amberdrake fought for control. “Drake, we love him too, you know—but we’ve seen too many times when people we’ve given up as lost made it back. Skandranon—”
“Has never failed a mission in his life,” Amberdrake cried, half in anger, half in grief. “If he didn’t—if he couldn’t—”
The rest was lost in tears, as he finally stopped trying to control himself and simply let himself weep. The cot creaked as two weights settled beside him; one of them kissed his forehead, the other embraced him, and he buried his face in the proffered shoulder as a wave of compassion and reassurance spread from both of them.
“This is too much!” he sobbed bitterly, as whoever was holding him rocked him a little, like a child. “Waiting here, waiting to see who comes back in pieces—who doesn’t come back at all. Not being there when they’re hurt and dying.”
“We know,” Tamsin murmured, a world of sorrow in his own voice. “We know.”
“But you don’t know the rest of it—rewarding the ones who survive, when inside I cry for the ones who didn’t.”
There was nothing they could say to that.
“I’m sick of detaching myself!” he burst out, in another flood of tears. “They come to me to forget their pain, but when am I allowed to mourn?”
There was no spoken answer for that, since they were the answer. They simply held him while he wept, held him and tried to give him the little comfort they had. Finally, after he had cried himself out in their arms, he was able to talk a little more calmly.
“Drake, you’ve heard it all before,” Cinnabar said as Tamsin got up to retrieve a damp cloth for Amberdrake. “But I’ll tell you again; we are here to help you, just as you help others. You’ve been bearing up through all this better than anyone else. No one has ever seen you lose control, but you don’t have to be superhuman.”
“I know that,” he said, exhausted by his bout of emotion. “Gods, that’s exactly what I just got through saying to someone else tonight. But I’ve never felt like this before. It’s Skandranon this time—he was my constant. I always knew he’d be all right, that it was safe to love him because I never thought I’d lose him. He never comes back with anything worse than a lost tailfeather.”
Cinnabar smoothed Amberdrake’s damp hair back from his forehead with the cool cloth, cool as winter skies, as the ache in his heart struck him once again. “Now—just losing him—I can’t bear it. It hurts too much!”
Early morning sounds, muffled by the cloth and canvas of the tent, punctuated the talk. Wasn’t it too early, yet, for all of that? Maybe time had simply gotten away from them. Maybe that was the next lesson in all of this—that no matter how Amberdrake felt, all would still go on without him. Still. . . .
Tamsin settled on the other side of him as Cinnabar captured his hands in hers.
“There’s nothing I can say that you don’t already know,” Tamsin said quietly. “You have a harder task than we—a double burden. We have flesh to make whole again; you have hearts and minds to heal as well. The only comfort I can offer is to say you aren’t alone. We hurt, too. Skan is our friend, and he—”
The noise outside didn’t settle to the dull murmurs of daybreak. Instead, it kept rising.
It sounded, in fact, as if a small riot was approaching the surgery tent. A pang of what have I done now! struck Amberdrake in his self-pitying state, but left when reason returned a heartbeat later.
Amberdrake pushed the cloth away from his eyes and sat up—just as a pain-filled shriek ripped through the pre-dawn air, shattering his eardrums, and ensuring that all three Healers had their full attention taken by the noise outside.
“What in—” Tamsin leapt to his feet, Cinnabar beside him, just as the tent flap flew open and the mob shoved its way inside.
In the center of the mob was an unholy mating of gryphon and brush pile, all liberally mired in mud. Amberdrake would not have recognized it as Skandranon, except for the black feathers and the incredible vocabulary of half-delirious curse words.
He rolled off the cot and to his feet, as Gesten directed the litter team—for there was a litter under all that mess—to get what was left of the gryphon up onto one of the surgery tables. The hertasi looked around for a Healer; spotted Tamsin and Cinnabar, and Amberdrake behind them.
“You’ll do. Here!” Gesten snapped.
Gods, if he ran the army. . . .
But the three Healers had begun their work before he spoke; Tamsin getting the clattering trays of surgical instruments, Cinnabar calling for their assistants, and Amberdrake pushing aside the litter bearers to get at the injured gryphon, heedless of anything else.
Amberdrake touched the Black Gryphon and felt Skandranon’s pain as if it screamed through his own nerves, striking him like a hammer blow to the forehead. This was the drawback of working on so close a friend. He shielded somewhat, automatically, but that pain also told him what was wrong, so he dared not block it all out.
As Cinnabar’s assistants scraped and washed the mud from the tangled flesh and cut branches away from broken limbs, Amberdrake took Skandranon’s pain deeper into himself, warning the others when they were going to cause more damage by moving something. He could feel his mouth agape as he sucked in halting breaths; felt his eyes widen in double-Sight, his mind split between seeing the physical and Seeing inside. It seemed an eternity before they got Skandranon’s body free of the remains of the tree he’d crashed into, another eternity before they got him washed down so that they could see the external injuries clearly.
Wordlessly, the other two left the wings to Amberdrake and concentrated on Skan’s legs and body. Amberdrake was one of the few in camp who knew the gryphons’ anatomy well enough to Heal wings to be flightworthy again. Muscle, tendon, bone, vein, all were dependent on each other in living bodies—yet in an avian’s body this seemed doubly true. Alter this and balance and weight distribution and control surface and a hundred other things would change.
The right wing had a crossbow wound, still bleeding sluggishly. The left was broken in several places. Amberdrake directed Gesten to put pressure on the bleeding bolt wound. Gryphon wing-bones tended to knit almost as soon as they broke, like a bird’s, and the sooner he got to the breaks, the less likely that he would have to rebreak anything to set it properly.
Skandranon whimpered a little and coughed, until a fourth Healer, still sleepy-eyed and robed from bed, came to stand at his head, and with one hand on either side of the huge beak, willed the gryphon into slumber. Skandranon’s throat gurgled as his beak parted.
The wing muscles relaxed, and Amberdrake went to work.
He eased the shattered fragments of each broken bone together, then held them in place with his bare hands while his mind forced the bits and pieces into the right order and prodded them into the process of knitting, all the while drawing away the fluids that built up around the damage. When the bone started healing, he called for splints and bandages, wrapped the section of wing tightly, and went on to the next, pausing only to wipe the drying blood from his hands before it caked so thickly it interfered.
“Drake?” Gesten said, barely making a stir in his concentration.
“What?” he asked shortly, all of his attention focused on getting the final bone to draw together.
“I think you’d better hurry.” That was all the hertasi said, but it was enough. He left the splinting of the final bone and the binding of the wing as a whole to one of the assistants, and came around to Gesten’s side of the table.
He knew with a glance why Gesten had called him; the sheer dead weight of the injured wing was so great that the bolt wound was tearing open, and the great wing vein was perilously close to the site of the wound. A fracture under that pressure could simply break wide open and sever the vein as it went.
Quickly, he directed Gesten under the gryphon’s wing, to take some of the strain off, and reached out to hold the wound closed, being careful not to pinch. He closed his eyes and concentrated, Seeing the injury, examining it with his inner sight, bringing together the torn muscle fibers, rejoining bleeding veins, goading it all into the process of Healing at a rate a thousand times faster than it would naturally, and providing the energy the body required to do so from within himself. Infection threatened; he burned it away ruthlessly. He strengthened the rest of the muscles, taking some of the strain off the injured ones. When they threatened to cramp, a finger’s touch soothed them. He found smaller broken bones, wounds and cuts he had not noticed in Healing the larger ones. He dealt with them all, searching out dangerous blood clots and filtering them from the bloodstream, until the wings had been wrapped in a binding of energies that would, in time, allow Skandranon to fly again.
Skandranon moaned and coughed weakly, as if something were caught in his throat. His breathing steadied as the fourth Healer pushed him back into slumber, but he was taken by a fit of coughing again that caused everyone near to hold onto him tightly. Amberdrake was peripherally aware of Tamsin putting his arm down Skandranon’s gullet while an assistant held the beak open with a metal bar, and then the badly wounded gryphon wheezed, shook, and fell into deep sleep again.
The assistants administered fortifying herbal and mineral infusions of all kinds into the gryphon while Amberdrake set Skandranon’s fractured forearms and splinted his foreclaws.
Finally, it was over, and he swayed away from the table, letting the assistants do their mechanical labor of bandaging and bracing. He saw then that Tamsin and Cinnabar had already finished; Cinnabar was telling the litter bearers where to take Skan, and Tamsin had disappeared. The early morning sun shone brightly through the walls of the tent, making them glow with a warm amber light.
The tables and floors were a disaster. Blood—how could a flyer hold so much blood? he thought—and cut-away feathers pasted bits of bark and leaves to the floor. On the table, a length of a crossbow bolt lay amid the other debris, next to something that was relatively clean—a leather-wrapped handle of some kind, perhaps a broken sword. That must have been what was blocking his throat, Amberdrake thought numbly. How would it get there. . . ?
Amberdrake blinked once and staggered back.
“No, you don’t!” Gesten left Skandranon’s side to go to Amberdrake’s, getting under the kestra’chern’s arm and bracing him upright. “It’s bed for you, Drake. Skan’s going to be fine—but you’d better lie down before you pass out!”
“I think you’re right,” Amberdrake murmured, actually finding a chuckle somewhere. Skan’s going to be all right. He made it back. That was all that really mattered, after all. The cold place inside him had warmed; the emptiness erased. Skan made it back.
With Gesten’s help, he tottered off down the slight slope to the kestra’chern’s portion of the camp, just beyond the Healers’. He was so tired, he hardly noticed when he was guided into his own tent, except that the bright light of the morning sun dimmed, and the cool, fresh air took on a tinge of incense and body-scent. That was when he pulled away from Gesten, staggered to his bed, and collapsed across it. He managed to position himself the right way, but after that, he knew nothing more.
Amberdrake felt Skandranon’s pain and frustration as he awoke. Even after—how many?—hours of needed oblivion, there was a dull ache in Amberdrake’s body in all the places he’d helped Heal in Skandranon’s body the night before. In all the places that Amberdrake didn’t have a direct analog to—the wings and tail, especially the wings—there was an ache. It was an aftershock effect that Healers knew well and had to live with; in the case of the wing pain, it bunched in Amberdrake’s shoulder blades and upper arms, like a bruised muscle cramping to the bone.
Amberdrake had awakened feeling as if he had run for days carrying a full pack; as if he had worked for two days without a rest—
—in short, as if he had served his full roster of clients, then Healed a gravely injured gryphon.
Gesten—loyal, competent Gesten—had drawn the sleeping-curtains to block as much light as possible from reaching the exhausted kestra’chern and was, no doubt, away from the tent clearing Amberdrake’s schedule of responsibilities.
Amberdrake pulled the blankets from himself and stood up, steadying himself on a ring set into the oversized bed frame. He washed quickly and gulped down a meal of meat strips and flatbread, then pulled on the caftan and belt Gesten had laid out for him. By his clothes was a roster-sheet of appointments for the day; all but one had been crossed out, and that one was not due for another two hours.
Amberdrake stepped out from the spell-quieted canvas of his multiroomed tent into the afternoon daylight of the camp. Messenger-birds shot past, brightly colored, calling their descending chittering cry, while smoke from cook-fires scented the air they flew through. Three laughing children ran by, wearing the green and yellow ribbons of their parents’ cadre, chased by a playful kyree with a bright red ball in its mouth. This was the way life should be. Amberdrake stretched, then ran a hand across his chin and cheeks as he squinted in the light; time to shave again before serving that client. A thorough general grooming was in order after he insured that Skandranon was healing properly. Being immaculately groomed always made him feel better.
He threaded his way through the shacks, forges, and service huts to the great tent where he’d left the Black Gryphon languishing that morning. In the daytime, the camp was far more inviting, despite the tension that was apparent everywhere you looked.
Assistant Healers and surgery aides surged past Amberdrake as he stepped inside, all intent on taking care of small administrative tasks and stocking supply shelves while the luxury of time was theirs. Casualties could course in like an overwhelming wave at any moment, so any spare minutes had to be spent in preparation. The war hadn’t left the Healers much time to rest; they (and the grave diggers, body burners, and clergy) had few hours of leisure time. That was the nature of a war, after all. It ate spirits and bodies. It fed like any other creature.
War forced individuals and species together in ways no peacetime situation would duplicate, and some of the oddest friendships—even loves—came out of that. Amberdrake’s affection for Gesten was natural, given the long association that hertasi had with the Kaled’a’in. Only the war and the needs of the fighters for support personnel had prevented Amberdrake from acquiring an entire troop of the little lizard-folk. As it was, he had to share Gesten’s services with Skandranon.
But the bond between himself and the Black Gryphon—that was something that would never have occurred in peaceful times. The gryphons were literally unnatural—creations of Urtho, the Mage of Silence—and they would never have been found near the rolling plains that the nomadic Kaled’a’in called home. At least, not in Amberdrake’s lifetime. He had heard Urtho mention some kind of vague plans he’d had, of planting them in little aeries in some of the wilder parts of the mountains, creating yet another population of nonhuman intelligences, as Urtho’s predecessors had done with the hertasi and kyree. But that plan, of course, had come to nothing with the onset of war among the Great Mages.
Urtho had tried to stay out of the conflict, with the result that the conflict had come to him. Amberdrake wondered if he sometimes berated himself for waiting. There had probably been a point early in Ma’ar’s career when Urtho could have defeated him easily, had he not stayed his hand. But who could have known that war would have come to roost in Ma’ar’s willful head? Urtho couldn’t be blamed for not bottling up the Kiyamvir long ago.
There were little joys amid all the pain, and some of those joys could come from the bindings of affection that just sprang up, like wildflowers in a battlefield.
Amberdrake sighed a little. He loved Skan as much as if he and the gryphon had been raised in the same nest, in the same home, but he wondered now if Skan felt anything more than simple friendship. It was hard to read the gryphon; the raptorial features reflected emotion in far more subtle ways than, say, a kyree’s mobile face. And Skan was—well, Skan. He often kept his deepest feelings to himself, covering them with jokes and pranks—or complaints and feigned irritation. If he felt affection for someone, he was just as likely to mock him as praise him.
Caring for the gryphon certainly had its drawbacks.
Amberdrake made his way quietly and unobtrusively through the rows of smaller tents housing the recovering wounded. There was a special section for gryphons; an array of tents with reinforced frames, built to be used for traction, to keep any of the gryphons’ four limbs or two wings immobile.
He spotted Gesten leaving one of the tents just as the hertasi saw him. Gesten looked uncommonly cheerful, all things considered; his eyes twinkled with good humor and he carried his tail high.
“His Royal Highness has one demon of a headache, and he says he’s too nauseous to eat,” Gesten reported. “Cinnabar says that’s because he’s got a concussion, and His Highness irritated his throat with the thingummy he stuffed into his crop, and since I couldn’t get him to eat anything, she wants you to try.”
Amberdrake nodded. “What was that thing he tried to swallow?” he asked. “It kept intruding on my dreams last night.”
Gesten ducked his head in a shrug. “Some magical weapon Urtho sent him after,” the hertasi said indifferently. “There was a big fuss over it after I got you to bed—half the mages in the Tower came looking for it when Himself found out Skan had been carried in. One of ‘em woke Tamsin and tried to dress him down for not reporting it right away.”
Amberdrake noticed the careful use of the word “tried.” “I take it that Tamsin gave him an earful?”
Gesten chuckled happily and bobbed his head. “It was a pleasure and a privilege to hear,” he said with satisfaction. “It was almost as good as you do when someone gets to you.”
“Hmm.” Amberdrake shook his head. “So, it was some kind of mage-weapon. Well, I suppose we’ll never know the whole truth of the matter.” It occurred to him that this “weapon,” whatever it was, may have been the reason that Laisfaar had been taken. Or it might have been the single factor that made its loss possible, which made it imperative for Skan to have found one and gotten it back so that Urtho’s mages could create a counteragent.
If Skan knew that, he wouldn’t reveal it. The less anyone knew, the better, really. It was terribly easy for a spy to move through Urtho’s camp—precisely because Urtho’s people as a whole were far less ruthless than their counterparts on Ma’ar’s side of the conflict. And camp gossip, as he had seen last night, spread as quickly as flame in oil-soaked tinder.
Amberdrake had long since resigned himself to the fact that he was going to overhear and accidentally see a million tantalizing details that would never make sense. That, too, was in the nature of his profession.
“Anyway, if you can get His Grumpiness—”
“I heard that,” came a low growl from the patient behind the tent flap.
“—His Contrariness to eat something, I can get the place ready for your next client,” Gesten concluded smoothly.
Amberdrake chuckled. “I think I can manage. For one thing, now that I know his throat is irritated, I can do something about that.”
“Don’t strain yourself,” Gesten warned, as he pulled back the tent flap to go inside. “He isn’t your only charge. And he isn’t even paying.’”
That last had to have been added for Skandranon’s benefit. The gryphon only raised his chin off his bandaged forearms a moment, and said with immense dignity and a touch of ill temper, “I ssshould think thisss sssort of thing came underrr the heading of ‘jussst rewarrrd for a missssion sssatisssfactorilly completed.’ “
“I would agree with you,” Amberdrake said absently, noting that Skandranon was pointedly rolling his sibilants for “emphasssisss.” Skandranon’s diction was as crisp as any human’s, when he wanted it to be. Amberdrake extended his finely-honed senses and found nothing more amiss than healing bones, healing wounds, and—yes, a healing concussion.
“How’s the head?” he asked conversationally, letting his awareness sink into the area of Skan’s throat and crop, soothing the irritation caused by the foreign object Skan had (inadvertently?) swallowed. It was something of a truism that a gryphon could not store anything in the crop that was bigger than he could successfully swallow, but that did not mean that the object in question would be a comfortable thing to store. Particularly if it was angular and unyielding as Amberdrake thought he remembered.
“The head isss missserable, thank you,” the gryphon replied with irritation. “I ssshould think you could do ssssomething about it.”
“Sorry, Skan,” Amberdrake replied apologetically. “I wish I could—but I’m not a specialist in that kind of injury. I could do more harm than good by messing about with your head.”
He exerted a touch of Healing energy—being careful not to overextend himself; he hadn’t needed Gesten’s warning on that score. He’d run himself into the ground once already; if he did it again, he was asking for trouble, and it generally took two or more Healers to fix what a stupid Healer did to himself. In a moment, the heat that meant “soreness and irritation” to Amberdrake faded and died from Skan’s throat, and the gryphon swallowed experimentally.
“Well, I suppose you aren’t going to go away unless I eat something,” Skan said, without a sign of any kind of gratitude. “So I’d better do it and get you out of here so I can sleep.”
Amberdrake didn’t make any comments; he simply held out hand-sized pieces of fresh, red meat for Skan to swallow whole. Like all gryphons, Skan preferred his food to be fresh killed, as fresh as possible, although he could and would eat dried or prepared food, and actually enjoyed breads and pastries. Gesten had left a large bowl of the meat chunks; Amberdrake didn’t stop handing them to the gryphon until the bowl was empty, even though Skan looked as if he would have liked to take a piece of Amberdrake’s hand with his meal.
Amberdrake tried not to let his feelings get hurt. He’d seen this kind of thing often enough in other cases of those who had been extremely active and had been forced by injuries to depend even a little on others. Skan had been completely immobilized by his injuries, and couldn’t even use his forelegs.
Add to that the pounding of his concussion-headache, and he really wasn’t behaving too badly, all things considered.
But on the other hand, Amberdrake was a friend, and Skan was treating him in ways that he wouldn’t have inflicted on an indentured servant.
Some of this must have shown in Amberdrake’s expression, for just as the last strip of raw meat went down Skan’s throat, Gesten returned, took one look at the two of them, and proceeded to give Skan a lecture on gratitude.
“You’d think that the smartest gryphon in Urtho’s army would have a mudcake’s sense, wouldn’t you?” he railed. “You’d think that same gryphon might recall Amberdrake putting his wings together for him until Drake fell over with exhaustion! You’d think that same gryphon might possibly remember that Drake would be feeling phantom pain this afternoon from all that Healing. But no—” Gesten snorted. “That takes common sense, and common courtesy. So when Drake isn’t sitting here right by the tent, waiting for a certain gryphon to wake up, that gryphon pouts and thinks nobody loves him and then acts like a spoiled brat when Drake does show up even before he’s had a shave.”
Skan couldn’t possibly have looked worse, but his ear-tufts, which had been lying fairly close to his head, now flattened against his skull. And the gryphon looked distinctly chagrined.
Silence followed Gesten’s lecture, as the hertasi gave Skan his “you messed up” glare, and Skan sighed.
“Drake,” the gryphon said softly. “I am sssorry. I have been verrry rrrude. I—”
Amberdrake knew this mood. Skan was likely to keep apologizing for the next candlemark—and perversely, getting more irritating and irritable with every word of apology.
“Skan, it’s all right,” Amberdrake said hastily. “You haven’t been any ruder than some of my clients, after all. I’m used to it.” He managed a weak chuckle. “I’m a pretty rotten patient myself when I’m sick. Just ask Gesten.”
The hertasi rolled his eyes, but said nothing.
“So don’t worry. We’re just glad you’re back, however many pieces you came back in.” Amberdrake slid his hand in among the neck-feathers and scratched places where he knew Skan had not been able to reach—and would not for some time.
The gryphon sighed, and put his head back down on his bandaged and splinted forelegs. “You arrre too patient, Drrrake.”
“Actually, if I don’t get him moving, he’s going to be too late,” Gesten interjected, apparently mollified by the apology. “You’ve got a client, Kestra’chern. And you’re going to have to make up for the fact that you had to cancel out all your morning appointments.”
“Right.” Amberdrake gave Skan’s neck a final scratch, and stood up, brushing out the folds of his robe. “And I’d better shave and clean up first. How much time have I got?”
“Not much, for the grooming you need,” Gesten replied. “You’d better put some speed on it.”
A little later, Amberdrake wondered why he’d bothered. This was not one of his usual clients, and he had not known what to expect, but he could have been a wooden simulacrum for all the man looked at him.
He was a mercenary mage, one of the hire-ons that Urtho had taken as his own allies and apprentices proved inadequate to take on all the mages that Ma’ar controlled. While he was probably a handsome man, it was difficult to tell that at the moment. His expression was as rigid and unreadable as a mask, and his needs were, to be blunt, basic.
In fact, if he wanted what he said he wanted, he need not have come to Amberdrake for it. He could have gone to any of the first- or second-rank kestra’chern in the cadre and spent a great deal less money. The illusion of grace and luxury, relaxation, pampering—and the inevitable: a kestra’chern was not a bedmate-for-hire, although plenty of people had that impression, this mage included. If that was all he wanted, there were plenty of sources for that, including, if the man were up to it, actually winning the respect of someone.
Amberdrake was tempted to send him away for just that reason; this was, in its way, as insulting as ordering a master cook to make oatmeal.
But as he had told the General, as every kestra’chern must, he had learned over the years that what a client asked for might not be what he wanted—and what he wanted might not even be something he understood. That was what made him the expert he was.
When a few quiet questions elicited nothing more than a growled order to “just do your job,” Amberdrake stood up and surveyed the man from a position of superior height.
“I can’t do my job to your satisfaction if you’re a mass of tension,” he countered sternly. “And what’s more, I can’t do it to my satisfaction. Now, why don’t we just start with a simple massage?”
He nodded at the padded table on the brighter side of the chamber, and the mage reluctantly rose, and even more reluctantly took his place on it.
Gesten appeared as if Amberdrake had called him, and deftly stripped the man down and put out the oils. Amberdrake chose one scented with chamomile and infused with herbs that induced relaxation, then began with the mage’s shoulders. With a Healer’s hands, he sought out and released knots of tension—and, as always, the release of tension released information about the source of the tension.
“It’s Winterhart,” the man said with irritation. “She’s started pulling away from me, and damned if I know why! I just don’t understand her anymore, but I told her that if she wasn’t willing to give me satisfaction, I could and damned well would go elsewhere for it.”
Amberdrake surmised from the feelings associated with the woman’s name that “Winterhart” was this fellow’s lover—or at least, he thought she was. Odd, for that kind of name was usually worn by one of the Kaled’a’in, and yet he seldom saw Kaled’a’in associating intimately with those of other races.
“So why did you come here?” Amberdrake asked, prodding a little at the knot of tangled emotions as he prodded at the knotted muscles. “Why not someone—less expensive?”
The man grunted. “Because the whole army knows your name,” he replied. “Everyone in our section will know I came here this afternoon and there won’t be any question why.”
Very tangled emotions, he mused. Because although the top layer was a desire to hurt by going publicly to a notorious—or famed, depending on your views—kestra’chern, underneath was a peculiar and twisted desire to flatter. As if by going only to the best and most expensive, he was trying to say to Winterhart that nothing but the best would remotely be a substitute for her.
And another layer—in doing so he equated her to a paid companion, thereby once again insulting her by counting her outside his personal, deeper emotional life. Still, there was that backhanded flattery. Amberdrake was not a bedmate for hire, he was a kestra’chern, a profession which was held in high regard by Urtho and most of the command-circle. Among the Kaled’a’in, he was the next thing to a Goddess-touched priest. The word itself had connotations of divine insight and soul healing, and of friendship. So, then, there was wishful thinking—or again, the desire to impress this “Winterhart,” whoever she was.
There were more mysteries than answers no matter where he turned these days.
“You do know that what happens in this tent depends upon what I decide is best for you, don’t you?” he asked, just to set the record straight. If all the man wanted was exhausting exercise, let him go elsewhere for it.
Amberdrake was massaging the man’s feet, using pressure and heat to ease twinges all through the body, without resorting to any actual Healing powers. Amberdrake had detractors who thought he worked less because of his power to Heal flesh and soothe nerves. His predecessors had used purely physical, learned skills—like this massage—for generations, driven by sharp senses and a clear mind. In his role as kestra’chern, he used his Healing gifts only when more “conventional” skills were ineffective. Still, one did complement the other, and he would use the whole of his abilities if a client warranted it. So far, though, this mere hadn’t warranted it; he hadn’t even warranted the kind of services he would get from a perchi. This was still at the level of banter-and-pose.
“Well . . . urrgh . . . I’d heard that—” He said it as if he hadn’t quite believed it.
“If you aren’t satisfied with that, I can suggest the name of a perchi or two, accustomed to those of rank,” Amberdrake ventured. There was no point in having the man angry; he was paying for expensive treatment, and if he felt he hadn’t gotten his money’s worth, he might attempt to make trouble.
“What you do . . . ah . . . isn’t important now, is it?” the mage replied shrewdly. “It’s what Winterhart thought you did. You are required to keep this confidential, that much I know, so I’ll let her use her imagination. It’ll probably be more colorful anyway.”
Amberdrake was tempted at that point to send the man away. He was right; what he was planning was also very cruel to his lover.
Assuming she didn’t deserve it; she might. He could have no way of knowing.
Amberdrake sighed. There was still his professional pride. He decided to give the man his money’s worth—and to make certain that, as it progressed, as little of it as possible was what the client had anticipated.
“I hope that’s all for tonight, Gesten,” Amberdrake said, as the curtain dropped behind him. He rubbed the side of his nose with his knuckle and sighed. “I’m exhausted. That last client wanted a soft-hammer-massage and an argument. Roster indicated a gentle counseling session.”
“That’s all you’ve got for the night,” Gesten replied, a bit smugly. “The last two made up for all the clients you canceled this morning, since they were straight-pay and not reward-chits. I’d have warned you if I’d known about the last. He didn’t say anything about the hammers; I’d have had them warmed and ready for you if I’d known. He was pretty closemouthed.”
“I’m not complaining. You’d probably have sent him elsewhere if he had said anything; I’m certain he would have made it into an insult somehow.” Amberdrake didn’t elaborate. The last two clients had been, to be charitable, annoying. And since Gesten always discreetly monitored the workroom, he was probably well aware of that. The hertasi simply laid out a clean sleeping robe, simple and unadorned (unlike the robes Amberdrake wore for his clients), and uncovered a plate of army-bread and cheese. Few delicacies appeared in the hands of Urtho’s folk these days, even for those who could afford them; the ones Amberdrake got his hands on he reserved for his clients who often responded well to gustatory pampering. Rumor had it that Urtho himself had given up his favorite treats. One thing there was no shortage of, at least, was water. There was a hot bath waiting in the corner, steam rising invitingly from the frame-and-skin tub.
“Thank you, Gesten,” he said with genuine appreciation.
Amberdrake stripped off his sweat-dampened silks and slipped into the bath, wincing a little at the heat. He was going to look as if he’d been boiled in a few minutes, but it would be worth it to relax his muscles. He recalled, as from a distant past, that before they had packed up their families and herds and moved here, the Kaled’a’in had created hot springs where they settled, if there were none there already. But much had changed; mage-created hot springs required an enormous expenditure of magical energy, and that was now a luxury no one could afford.
The war tried to eat up everything in its path. For Amberdrake and those who supported the warriors, it was the war they fought, not the army, spells, and makaar. This was the way many of the warriors saw it, too—saw war as a natural enemy, to be dealt with firmly and then put behind you. But war’s devouring power was why Urtho had tried to avoid it for so long—why he had successfully avoided it until it came to his very doorstep. Folk from northern climes referred to the people of the South as “civilized”; it had little to do with their technologies and powers, but far more with their philosophy—and they were as pragmatic as they might be idealistic. When Ma’ar’s army threatened at the border, opposition was there to meet it.
That was why Amberdrake’s services, which in peacetime would have been divided between the wealthiest of outsiders and the needs of his own people, had been volunteered to be the reward for heroes. . . .
And as the very expensive indulgence for those whose egos demanded the best.
That thought brought him uncomfortably right back to that mere mage, a man whose cold soul he had been unable to warm. Most of the mages in Urtho’s forces were there because they felt Urtho’s cause was right, or because they honored Urtho as one of the greatest Adepts ever born and hoped to be able to learn from him as they helped to defend his land. Or simply because they hated Ma’ar, or their own lands or overlords had been destroyed by the rapacious conqueror. Few fought in this army simply for the money.
This man, Conn Levas, was one who seemed to care only about the money. He had few friends and few interests outside his own skill and power. He was, in fact, one of the most monofocused people Amberdrake had ever seen: a narcissist to a high degree. Everything for him was centered around how he could increase his personal wealth and prestige. To him, the war was a convenient way to do that. Urtho was the master to serve because Urtho gave his mages much more autonomy and better rewards than Ma’ar.
Still, it was that kind of focus that made the hunting beasts of the world so successful, so perhaps he shouldn’t be faulted for it. But how a Kaled’a’in woman had ever become his lover, Amberdrake could not guess.
Levas had at least admitted that his own coldness was a part of why this Winterhart was disenchanted with him. Amberdrake had the feeling that such an admission that anything was due to personal fault was a major concession.
Disenchanted . . . now there was a thought. Could this mage have worked a beglamorment on the woman? He couldn’t have used a stronger spell, since other mages would have noticed, but a beglamorment, at the right time, would have made him what she most wanted to see. She could have found her way into his bed long before she realized he wasn’t what she had thought. To have a Kaled’a’in lover was considered a coup by some mercs in Urtho’s forces; to have a Healer as a lover even more so. She might represent just another symbol of success to be acquired. And—
Why was he worrying about her! He didn’t even know her, only that her name sounded Kaled’a’in. She might not be Kaled’a’in at all; there were others who took on colorful names or were given them at birth. For that matter, why was he worrying about Conn Levas? The man had gotten good and ample service for his money. He was unlikely to return, given his uneasiness with Amberdrake’s probing questions; Amberdrake knew the merc had been disturbed by how much he had revealed. Well. The service he’d rendered was easy enough, even by kestra’chern standards. Still. . . .
If you worry about every man and woman in the army, you’ll tie yourself up in knots for no good reason, he told himself. You’re making things up out of nothing, then worrying about them. You’ve never even seen this Healer Winterhart. Why work yourself into a headache?
Oh, he knew why he was worrying about them; it was to keep from worrying about Skan.
As if he didn’t have enough to worry about already.
Skandranon was grateful to be alive, even more grateful to have gotten his mission completed successfully, and entirely grateful to have been put back together. He’d been assured—repeatedly—that he would be able to fly again. But he was in constant pain, his head pounded horribly, and on top of all of it, having to be that grateful made him want to bite.
This was very bad of him, and he knew it, which made him want to bite even more. He only liked to be bad on his own terms. If only he could have someone show up to see him who deserved a good, scathing dressing-down—the fool who had assured Urtho that Stelvi Pass had been in no danger, for instance, or the idiot who had issued the orders that grounded the gryphons between specific missions. Even the imbecile cook who had first sent him raw fish for breakfast instead of good, red meat, then had made it worse by sending yesterday’s stew instead of fresh, still bleeding meat. But the only people who came near him were those he was supposed to be grateful to—how annoying!—Gesten and Drake, Tamsin and Cinnabar, the members of his wing, and the scouts and mercs who had risked their lives to get him home. After Gesten’s lecture, he made doubly sure to convey his proper gratitude to them.
But he still wanted to bite—so he did. The camp could find another pillow somewhere.
Now if only his beak didn’t hurt; there was a persistent sting from small scratches around his nares, and an itch across his cere, and his sinuses felt like—
Like you hit something hard after a prolonged plummet, bird.
It didn’t help that he was forced to lie in a completely unnatural position, forelegs stretched in front of him, hindlegs stretched straight under him and bound by splints, unable to get comfortable. He knew Healers could fuse the bones of a mage-bred creature like himself in a single session of concentrated Healing. He also knew that there was plenty of pain on the front lines, and people in real danger of dying if they didn’t get to a Healer, and that such a session was fairly low on the list of priorities.
That didn’t help.
But much to his surprise, late in the afternoon, Tamsin and Cinnabar made an appearance at his tent—and from the implements their hertasi was carrying, this was no social call. Tamsin was in his usual simple green breeches and shirt, his short-cropped blond hair and beard in stark contrast to many of the other Healers, who usually let their hair grow long and went clean shaven. And he could not have made a better foil for the graceful and tall Lady Cinnabar; he was as stocky and muscled as a wrestler. Cinnabar, of course, was as elegant as if she had just come from holding court, her scarlet gown cut to mid-calf, showing scarlet leather boots and slender ankles, her sleeves cut tight, displaying her graceful arms without an unseemly show of flesh. Skandranon had heard that by human standards she was not beautiful, not even handsome, but her strong-nosed face, so like a proud falcon, seemed attractive enough to him. She even had a crest; her hair was cut short on the sides and top so that it stood up, and flowed in a braided tail down her back. Lovely.
Both of them looked relatively rested and full of energy. Skan’s hopes rose. Were they—?
“All right, old bird,” Tamsin said cheerfully as he held the tent flap open for the laden hertasi. “We need to do something about those legs so you can get a proper rest. Think you’re up to it?”
“Do you think I would sssay otherwisse?” Skan countered. “I would do anything!”
“Anything?” Cinnabar replied archly. Then, at Tamsin’s eloquently raised eyebrow, she added hastily, “No, don’t answer. You are the most insatiable creature I have ever met!”
Skan wanted to leer but couldn’t manage it. “Pleasssse,” he near-whimpered instead.
By near sunset, after much effort on their part and pain and cooperative effort on his, the fractured bones of his forelegs fused, and the hindlegs healed enough that the splints could come off and he could carefully walk a few steps. He could attend to his personal needs—which was just as well, since so far as he knew, no one had come up with the equivalent of a chamber pot for a gryphon. He would be able to feed himself, and since Cinnabar had blessedly done something about the headache, he was ravenous. Now he could lie back down in a much more comfortable position to listen to his bowels rumble.
Cinnabar looked as serene and composed now as when they had started; Tamsin was clearly tired, but just as cheerful. “That should do you, old bird,” he said, slapping Skan on the flank. “Dinner first, or visitor?”
“Both,” Skan replied. “If it isss sssomeone who cannot bearrr to watch a gryphon eat, let him come back laterrr. And if it iss sssomeone I do not want to sssee, he will be the dinner.”
He would not be eating little chunks of meat tonight; no, Cinnabar and Tamsin knew gryphons, and unless that idiot cook mistakenly countermanded their orders, there would be a nice fat haunch of something fresh-killed and bloody, something Skan could tear into and take out some of his frustrations on. Maybe even half a deer or ox—he was quite hungry enough to eat either.
A silver-brocaded hertasi signaled from beside the canvas doorway, and the other hertasi disappeared as if they had evaporated. A moment later, the tent flap was pushed aside, to reveal a beloved and unique personage.
“I should think I can bear to watch a gryphon eat,” said Urtho, the Mage of Silence.
He swept into the room with a single step; he said nothing more, but projected a soothing presence into the damp, warm room. It was impossible to tell Urtho’s real age; he could be sixty or six hundred. For as long as Skan had known him, Urtho had looked the same, an eternal image of genius. Tall and thin, storklike, with a waist-length fall of curly silver-gray hair, huge gray eyes, a nose as prominent as Lady Cinnabar’s and a lantern jaw kept scrupulously clean-shaven, he did not look like the finest of Adept-class mages. He did not look like any kind of mage. He looked more like a scribe, or perhaps a silversmith or retired acrobat.
Skan thought there might be Kaled’a’in blood in Urtho’s veins. That might well be true, given his nose and the long-standing association he had with them. But if that were true, no one had ever confirmed it in Skan’s hearing.
Urtho held the flap open for two hertasi bringing in the forequarters of a deer; both front legs, shoulders, and the chest; hide and all. No head, though, but perhaps that was a bit much to ask. Humans were so queasy when it came to delivering a gryphon’s dinner with head intact, never mind that the head was delicious. Well, humans were queasy about a great many silly things. Skan seized the prize in his foreclaws as soon as the hertasi had laid it in front of him, and tore off a mouthful of meat and hide before acknowledging the commander of one of the two largest armies that Velgarth had ever seen.
He tossed his head and swallowed the bite whole. Like the raptors the Kaled’a’in bred, he needed the hair and stringy hide to clean his crop. “Join me for dinner?” he offered.
Urtho laughed. “Is that like a falcon offering to meet a mouse for lunch?” Tamsin and Cinnabar both bowed respectfully and made a somewhat hasty exit. Urtho’s power tended to overawe people who didn’t know him well. He nodded to them both, took one of the two seats the Healers had left, and settled himself down onto it.
Skandranon tore off another mouthful of meat; it tasted wonderful, rich and salt-sweet. He swallowed, feeling the striations of the blood-slick muscles slither against his throat, down into his crop. He flicked an ear and cocked his head at his leader. Their gazes met, and tales sped between them in the flicker of their eyes.
“Well, old man, I sssurvived afterrr all. I hope you have it.”
Urtho nodded casually. “So you did. And you were right, when you insisted you were the one to go. You did very well, Skan, and yes, I have it. Even though you tried to swallow it whole.”
“I wasss the only one ssstupid enough to trrry, you mean,” Skan replied, trying not to preen with pride. He scissored another bite out of his meal.
“I seem to recall that you not only volunteered, you insisted.” Urtho made it a statement and a bit of a challenge. Skan simply grunted.
“Perhapsss,” he suggested teasingly after a moment, “your memorrry isss faulty.”
Somewhat to his surprise, Urtho sighed. “It is,” he said wearily. “I’ve been forgetting a great deal lately. Kelethen has been most impatient with me.”
“You have much to rrrememberrr,” Skan pointed out quickly. “Kelethen isss as fusssy as any other herrrtasssi. You ssshould tell him that if he isss upssset, he can jussst keep an appointment calendar, asss if you werrre a kessstra’cherrrn.”
“Sometimes I feel like a kestra’chern,” Urtho told him ruefully. “Expected to please everyone and generally pleasing—”
“Almossst everrryone.” Skan interrupted. “Bess-sidesss, sssomeone hasss to lead, and I am too busy. What arrre you doing down herrre anyway? Isssn’t there a weapon to invessstigate, a Passss to retake? I am only one sssstupid grrryphon, afterrr all.”
“True.” Urtho sighed again. “But you are a very special stupid gryphon; I was concerned and I wanted to see that you were doing as well as the Healers claimed. The weapon has been dealt with, and a counterattack on the Pass is in the hands of the commanders; there is little I can do from here now that it has been launched.”
Urtho’s face was a little thinner, and Skan guessed he had not been sleeping or eating much in the past few days. He could sympathize with the mage for wishing to escape from his Tower for a little. Still . . . “I hope that sssomeone knowsss where you are.”
“Kelethen does. I wish that this were over or, better still, had never begun.”
Skandranon wiped his beak against the fur and cast his eyes supportively to Urtho. “Urtho. It isss begun and continuesss. We fly thessse windsss together. You did not cause the windsss to become a ssstorm.”
“I would say that I had done nothing to cause this, but the simple fact of our existence was enough to trigger this assault from Ma’ar. I’ve studied him. Even as a young man, he wanted power far more than he wanted anything else, and he enjoyed having power over people.” Urtho shook his head, as if he simply could not understand anyone with that kind of mind. “Whatever he had, it was never enough. It was a kind of hunger with him, but one that could not be sated. There could only be one master of the world, and that one must be Ma’ar.”
“Insssane,” Skan replied.
“Not exactly,” Urtho said, surprising the gryphon. “Not insane as we know the meaning of the word. But his sanity holds nothing but himself, if that makes any sense.”
“No,” Skan said shortly. What he had seen of Ma’ar and Ma’ar’s creations did not convince him that the Mage of Black Fire was anything but evil and insane.
“I would help him if I could,” Urtho said softly.
“What?” Skan squawked, every feather on end with surprise. He felt very nearly the same as he had when he’d hit the ground; breath knocked out of him and too stunned to even think.
“I would,” Urtho insisted. “If he would even stop to think about all the harm he has caused and come to me, I would help him. But he will not. He cannot. Not and still be Ma’ar.” He shook his head. “His obsessions are like mine, Skandranon. I understand him far better than he understands me. He thinks I am soft enough that at some point I will surrender because so many have died and more will die. He thinks I don’t realize that the killing would not end just because we had surrendered. I don’t think he has the barest idea what we will do to stop him.” There was no mistaking the grim determination in Urtho’s voice.
Skan relaxed; for a moment he had thought that the latest turn of the conflict might have unhinged the mage.
“He isss a mad dog,” Skan said brusquely. “You do not try to help a mad dog, you ssslay it.”
“Harsh words, my child.” Urtho frowned a little, although by now he should have been well aware of the gryphons’ raptorial and somewhat bloodthirsty nature.
Skan thought of the tortured gryphons at Stelvi Pass, and hissed. “Not harsssh enough. I did not tell you what they did to the Ssstelvi Wing. Everrrything you have everrr hearrrd of. All of them, down to the nessstlingsss, and worsse than you could imagine.”
Urtho turned pale, and Skan instantly regretted what he had blurted out. Urtho had never wedded and had no children. He considered all of his intelligent creations to be his children, but that was especially true of the gryphons.
An awkward silence loomed between them for a moment, and Skan cursed his habit of blurting out the first thing he thought. Stupid bird; you might think before you say something once in a while. It would be a distinct improvement.
During the silence, the camp sounds seemed particularly loud and intrusive; people shouting to one another, and somewhere nearby, the hammering of metal on metal. Skan continued eating, his hunger overcoming his manners, as he thought of a way to apologize.
“I am sorry, Urtho,” he said finally. “I am hungry, hurt, and a very irritable and stupid bird. Think of me as being in molt.”
“You’re right, Skan,” Urtho said finally. “You’re right. Despite what I just said, I sometimes don’t think of what Ma’ar is capable of. It stretches my imagination and willpower to think like Ma’ar, and it isn’t something I—enjoy.”
Skandranon had no reply for that; perhaps there was no possible reply. He simply swallowed another beakful of meat.
“Well, thanks to you, those new weapons of his will no longer threaten us,” the mage continued, changing the subject. “And what I really came here for, my friend, was to discover what you want as your reward. You more than deserve one. Offspring, perhaps? You certainly have a high potential, and any female in the wings would be happy to oblige you. I would like to see the Rashkae line continued.”
The offer of the reward did not surprise Skan, but what Urtho had called him—”my friend”—certainly did. And yet, the simple words should not have been such a revelation. Urtho had spent many hours talking to him, not as commander to subordinate, nor as master to servant, nor even as creator to creation—but as equal to equal. Skandranon alone of the gryphons was privileged to come and go at will from Urtho’s Tower, and to interrupt the mage at any time of the day or night.
“I will think about it,” Skan replied. “At the moment, I ssshould be verrry glad merrrely to be healed and flying again.”
Urtho nodded. “As you will. I’m sure you’ll think of something. Just please be mindful of our limited resources! And the impossibility of transporting massive libraries wherever you go!”
Skan gryphon-grinned; Urtho had not forgotten his love of books. “I am sssure I ssshall think of something.”
Urtho showed no disposition to rise and go his way, however, so Skan simply continued eating while the greatest single power in their entire army spoke of camp gossip. And it was in the midst of this that Commander Loren found them.
No doors to knock on existed in a tent, of course, but the ostentatious clearing of a throat outside the closed flap told Skan that there was a visitor, and one whose voice he did not recognize. Skan instinctively bristled, all his reactions trying to force his body into readiness to protect Urtho, even though he was in no shape to do so.
Urtho did recognize the voice, of course; it was one of those traits of his that Skan could only marvel at, that he knew every leader in his huge army well enough to recognize their voices. Urtho’s memory was remarkable and reputedly utterly reliable, so much so that forgetting even minor things upset him.
“You might as well come in, Loren,” Urtho said immediately. “If it’s all that important that you tracked me down.”
When Commander Loren pushed aside the tent flap, Skandranon recognized the bricklike face and body, although he could not have put the proper name to the man. Loren was neither outstandingly good in deploying the gryphons assigned to him, nor outstandingly poor at it. Only one or the other would have made a gryphon take notice of him.
So Loren’s first words made Skan raise his head from the remains of his meal in surprise.
“I need you to reward a gryphon, Lord Urtho,” Loren said, apologetically. “And I would never have troubled you when you had so obviously gone to the effort of losing your aides, except that I didn’t want this one to slip through the cracks.”
“Obviously, this gryphon has done something exceptional—” Urtho paused significantly.
“Very.” Loren’s beefy face reddened with pride. “She was on patrol in what was supposed to have been a safe sector, and discovered and eliminated three makaar.”
Three makaar? Skan was impressed. “Who isss flying with herrr?” he asked. “I ssshould like to know who ssset them up for herrr.” Setting someone up for a triple kill took almost as much skill and more courage than actually making the kills.
“That’s just it, Black Gryphon,” Loren said, face practically glowing. “She did it by herself. Alone. It was supposed to be a safe area; as thin as my patrols are spread, we thought it was reasonable to fly safe areas in singles instead of pairs, to give the younger or smaller gryphons experience without risking them too much. Her name is Zhaneel.”
To destroy three makaar was remarkable; to destroy three at once was uncommon even among experienced frontliners. Who is this “Zhaneel?” he thought, beak agape with surprise. And why have I never heard of her before this?
From the dumbfounded look on his face, Urtho’s surprise was just as great as Skan’s, and that was astonishing in itself. The gryphons were his favorite creations, and he knew and kept track of every promising youngster. Yet he did not appear to know of this one.
“You mussst bring herrr herrre,” Skan said imperiously before Urtho could speak.
Loren looked to Urtho for permission first. When the mage nodded, he pushed back the tent flap and stalked out into the sunset-reddened dust and activity of the camp.
He returned much more quickly than Skan would have expected, though not too soon for the gryphon’s impatient nature. He had bolted the last of his meal and called the hertasi to come take the remains away and light the lamps before they arrived, partially to be able to devote all of his attention to the visitors, and partially out of a wish to be seen at his best, limited though that “best” might be at the moment. He hardly presented a gallant sight - swathed in bandages, propped up by pillows, and without having had a proper bath in days. Still, Gesten had groomed him as best he could manage, and it did not do to be presented to a brave lady with the leavings of a greedy meal in front of him.
You just want to look good for the lady, vain bird. As if you want to be sure that you could add her to your harem if you wanted, like a collector of figurines lusting after yet another little statue.
Still, he didn’t want her to think that he was some kind of ragged-tailed hooligan. The gods only knew what she’d heard about him; Drake and Gesten wouldn’t repeat half of the stories they said they’d heard about him. But then again, he had only their word for the fact that they’d heard these stories at all. . . .
It was a good thing that this was a relatively large tent, made for two gryphons as patients, and only holding Skan at the moment; once Commander Loren brought his young gryphon in, things became just a little crowded.
“This is Zhaneel, my lords,” Loren said formally. “Lord Urtho, Skandranon, this is young Zhaneel, who today disposed of three makaar single-handedly.”
While Urtho made the usual congratulatory speech, Skandranon kept very quiet and examined Zhaneel. She was small and lightly built, with a deep keelbone but narrow chest. Her ear-tufts were compact and dainty, her feathers very smooth, and she had no neck-ruff at all. In color she was a light brown with a dusty-gold edge to her primaries; like most gryphons except the unassigned, her primary feathers had been bleached, then dipped in the colors of her wing—in this case, red and gold. On her head and face, she had malar-stripes of a slightly darker brown, and eye-markings flowing down her cheeks, like soft-edged tear tracks.
While Loren and Urtho spoke, she kept her head down and turned to the side, as if shy or embarrassed—the gryphon equivalent of blushing. Was she simply shy, or was she truly uncomfortable in their presence? Most of the gryphons that Skan knew might have been subdued in the presence of their overlord and creator, but they wouldn’t have acted like this.
When Loren finally coaxed her to speak, her voice was low and soft, and she spoke in simple sentences with a great deal of hissing and trilling—and yet it was not because she was stupid. A stupid gryphon would not have been able to do what she had done. It was as if she simply could not get the words past her shyness.
“It wasss nothing,” she insisted. “I only fly high, verrry high. Sssaferrrr it isss. Makaarrr cannot fly ssso high. I ssssee them, thrrree, below me.”
Skan could readily picture it in his mind’s eye; especially if she had been flying as high as he thought she was. Those tapering wings—surely with wings like those the aspect ratio would be remarkable, and the narrow leading edge would complement the long primaries. The makaar would have been halfway between her and the earth; she would have been invisible to them.
“Too farrr to rrreturrrn to rrreport, it wasss,” she continued. “They would be gone when warrrri-orrrsss came. They mussst have been looking for sssomething. Ssssent. They would have found it and gone.”
Now Skan nodded. “True,” he rumbled, and Zhaneel started at the sound of his voice. “Quite true. Your duty was to try to stop them.”
Her hissing had made him conscious of his own speech; normally he only hissed and trilled when he was under stress or very, very relaxed, among friends. When he chose, he could speak as well as any human, and he chose to do so now. Perhaps it would comfort her.
“But how did you kill them?” Urtho persisted.
She ducked her head. “I wasss high. They could not sssee me. I sssstooped on them; hit the leader. Like thissss—”
She held up one foreclaw, fisted.
“I ssstruck hissss head; he fell from the sssky and died.”
No doubt; coming from the height Zhaneel had been at, she must have broken the leader’s neck on impact, and the ground finished him.
“I followed him down; the othersss pursued, but I climbed again, too fassssst for them to follow.” She pantomimed with her foreclaw, and Skan saw then what he had not noticed before—a reason she may not have struck to slash, or bind to her quarry as he would have. Her talons were actually very short; her “toes” long and flexible, very like stubby human fingers. A slash would only have angered the makaar unless she had managed against all odds to slash the major artery in the neck.
“I go high again, verrry high; the two follow, but cannot go sssso high. I turrrrrn, dive, hit the first asss he fliesss to meet me.” She sat back on her hindquarters and mimed that meeting with both of her odd foreclaws; how the makaar struggled to gain height, how she had come at him head-on, angling her dive at the last possible moment to strike the top of his head with her closed fists.
“He wasss ssstunned; he fell, brrroke hisss neck when he hit. I follow him down, to be sssure, then turrrn dive into climb again.” She would not look at any of the three of them, keeping her eyes fixed on some invisible point on the ground. “The thirrrd one, he isss afrraid now, he trrries to rrrrun. I go high again, asss high asss I can, and dive. He isss fassst, but my dive isss fassster. I hit him. He fallssss.” She ducked her head. “It isss overrr. It isss nothing ssspecial.”
Nothing special—except that these were tactics few, if any, gryphons had tried before. Spectacularly successful tactics, too, if Zhaneel’s experience was anything to go by. Most gryphons, when they fought makaar, closed for the kill, binding to the prey’s back and bringing it down, or slashing with talons in passing strikes. Hawk and eagle tactics, not falcon. Zhaneel had fought as would a very hungry—or very brave—falcon, when taking a goose or very large duck, prey that would outweigh her twofold or more—knocking the prey out of the sky, and not using her talons.
“Zhaneel, your act of courage has probably saved any number of our people, and no few of your own kind,” Urtho said, as these thoughts passed through Skan’s mind. “I am quite impressed and quite pleased that Commander Loren thought to bring you to my attention personally. At the very least, my dear child, I am going to present you with the reward you richly deserve.”
With that, he reached into a pocket and pulled out one of the reward-tokens he used instead of medals or decorations. Urtho felt medals were fairly useless; he rewarded bravery directly. This particular token was the highest possible; a square of gold with a sword stamped on one side and a many-rayed sun-in-glory on the other. He slipped this into the tiny pouch Zhaneel wore around her neck, an accessory that most gryphons not on duty wore. She could trade that particular token for virtually anything in the camp, from a fine tent to the exclusive services for a month of her very own hertasi. Or she could save it and add it to others to obtain other luxuries. Skan simply kept a running account with Gesten, whose services he shared with Amberdrake. Before he had left on this last mission, he had been quite a few months ahead, and Gesten would be a very wealthy hertasi when the war was over.
“But child, I am curious,” Urtho continued, his eyes fixed on her, as Loren beamed his approval and the young gryphon stammered her thanks. “Who are your parents? Who trained you besides them?”
“My parentsss arrre no morrre,” she replied. “They died when I wasss jussst fledged and I have no ssssiblingsss.”
Urtho’s disappointment was clear even to Skan; there would be no more like Zhaneel unless she mated. But before he could persist in finding out how she had been trained, since her parents had obviously been unable to give her that training, one of his aides burst into the tent without so much as an “excuse me.”
“Lord Urtho! The counterattack at Stelvi Pass—”
That was all the boy needed to say; Urtho was off, following him at an undignified run that belied his silver hair, out into the lamplight, and from there into the darkness.
This was not the first time Urtho had left Skan holding the line, and it probably would not be the last. Skandranon knew what to do; summoning as much dignity and aplomb as his injuries permitted, he proceeded to deal with the situation.
“Lord Commander, thank you for bringing Zhaneel here,” he said, raising his head and then bowing it slightly to Loren. “Once again, you have gone beyond mere duty, and if Urtho had not been forced to leave, he would have told you so himself.”
He hoped that Loren would take that as a hint, and so he did. “Thank you, Black Gryphon,” he replied, then continued, with an honesty that was not necessarily common among the commanders, “it has taken me a while to learn the best way to employ fighters other than human, but I hope that Zhaneel’s success is a harbinger of more such victories to come. Now, if you will excuse me, news from Stelvi Pass is going to affect all of us, and I must go at once.”
He turned to Zhaneel. “Scout Zhaneel, you are officially on reward-leave for the next two days. I will inform your wingleader, and I hope you can enjoy your well-earned rest.”
Loren turned and pushed aside the tent flap, following Urtho into the night, though at a more dignified fast walk.
Skan had hoped that the departure of the humans would relax the youngster, but she was clearly still terrified. It was a bit disconcerting. No one had ever been terrified of him before, not among those on Urtho’s side, least of all one of his own kind, and an attractive lady at that. He would have expected flirtatiousness, not fear.
He fluffed his feathers and let his eyelids droop a little, hoping his posture of relaxation would make her relax in turn. A good theory, but unfortunately, it didn’t work.
“Since Urtho has been called away, I must ask the rest of the questions he wanted to ask you,” Skan told her, in a very low, coaxing voice. “Believe me, it is not that we wish to make you uncomfortable, but we need to know these things to improve the training of the next batch of fledglings.”
She bobbed her head stiffly but gave no indication of relaxing. “It wasss no grrreat deed,” she insisted. “I did not clossse and fight prrroperly. No one can learrrn prrroperrr fighting frrrom thisss.”
Skan had heard any number of “modest” protestations in his time and had made a few of them himself, but this didn’t seem to be the kind of modesty that covered the very opposite. On the contrary, Zhaneel apparently believed what she was saying; that she had done nothing of note.
“Not all gryphons are large and powerful enough to close with makaar,” he reminded her gently. “And for even those, it is not always wise to try, particularly when there are more than one of them. Who trained you to strike like a falcon?”
“N-n-no one,” she stammered. “I did thisss becaussse I cannot fight like a prrroperrr grrryphon, becaussse I am too sssmall and weak to be a prrroperrr grrryphon.”
Small, perhaps, but she was certainly not weak, and Skan would far rather have brains on his side than brawn. He’d seen too many muscle-bound specimens close with makaar believing themselves invincible and had to go to their rescue when they found out otherwise. Whoever, whatever her trainer was, Skan was just about ready to put the being on report. This little female had emerged with a load of self-doubt from training that should have given her confidence in her own abilities. She would have been useless except for her own courage, determination, and sense of responsibility. It was also fairly obvious that this self-doubt carried right on down to how she felt about her physical appearance. She held herself as if she was certain there was nothing attractive about her—in fact, as if she thought she was a horrid freak.
Didn’t he recall some of the fledglings in training baiting a smaller one a while ago, about a year or two? It could have been—
Yes, he remembered now, as Zhaneel continued to protest that what she had done was less than nothing, unworthy of reward. Three or four, all nest-brothers by the look of them, surrounded the smaller one and had been name-calling and insulting the little one. The object of their taunting could have been Zhaneel; he only remembered that he had broken it up when the trainer did not appear to intervene, and that the youngster was a small, awkward adolescent. Considering the way she was trying to disappear into the tent canvas now, it would not be surprising that—if it had been her—he did not remember her.
But that had been some time ago, and the only reason he remembered it was because the appropriate authority had not stepped in to handle the problem, and the noise had gotten on his nerves. There was a certain amount of competition among the youngsters; gryphons were still not a “finished” race, and Urtho took those who could not succeed in training for the less demanding jobs of messenger and camp-helper. These were, of course, never permitted to breed.
But if that youngster had been Zhaneel, she had proved herself by completing her training. Now, Zhaneel was a working member of a wing, and entitled to the same care and protection Skan himself got. There should be no reason why she should continue to suffer these feelings of inferiority. There would be a Trondi’irn assigned to her wing, whose job was to see to everything but serious injuries, whose duty was to know every gryphon in the wings assigned to him by name and peculiarity. So why hadn’t the Trondi’irn noticed Zhaneel’s problems?
Well, there was someone who would take notice of her mental state, do something about it himself, and then see to it that the Trondi’irn in question would get an earful afterward.
“If you have no plans for your token, you might take it to Amberdrake,” he suggested casually. “He’s the best there is.”
Drake will have her feeling better in no time—and by the time he and Gesten get done massaging, grooming, and adorning her, she’ll be so elegant that she’ll have half her wing at her feet. That should make her feel better about herself. That was one of the many things a truly talented kestra’chern and his or her assistants did; spending hours, sometimes more, taking an ordinary creature and transforming her (or him) into the most stunning example of her race possible within her physical limitations. Most gryphons went to a kestra’chern before a mating-flight, though few could afford the services of one like Amberdrake.
“That is simply a suggestion, of course,” he added. “You may already have something in mind.”
“N-no,” she said. She seemed a bit stunned, though whether it was the suggestion itself or that Skan had made it, he couldn’t tell. “If you think it isss a good thing to do. I have neverrr had a token beforrre. . . .”
“Well, this is likely to be only the first of many tokens for you. You might as well spend this one on something you are going to enjoy,” Skan told her. “You won’t regret going to Drake, I promise you.”
She seemed to take that as a dismissal, although it had not been meant as one, and stammered her thanks, backing out of the tent before Skan could ask her to stay. He thought about calling her back, but it was already dark, and she probably had things she wanted to do.
He wondered about Urtho’s interest in her; it had been something more than the usual interest in a successful fighter. It was as if something about either the gryphon herself or the way she had fought had brought back a memory that Urtho had forgotten for more pressing concerns.
But now that the visitors had left, and darkness had crept over the camp, not even the lamps could keep Skan awake. His pain was bearable; he could lie down in relative comfort, and he had a full crop. Urtho had that mysterious weapon, and in any case, there was nothing for Skan to do until he healed. Sleep seemed in order, and there were no mysteries so pressing that they could not wait until tomorrow.
He shifted himself around on his cushions until he found the best possible position. He put his head down on his forelegs and yawned once—and that was the last thing he remembered doing or thinking until the Healers woke him at dawn.
Gesten had rearranged Amberdrake’s schedule to include Skan as a regular “patient” for the next several days. Amberdrake discovered the change when he checked the roster the next morning. He didn’t bother to comment on it; he knew that Gesten’s reply would be sardonic. Dear Gesten, whom he’d hired on so long ago, liked to think he fostered a heartless image, constantly spitting barbed comments and double-entendres. Even though the little hertasi failed utterly at posing as a bossy ogre, Amberdrake was not going to tell him so, directly or by implication. So often the gruffness people showed the world was a defense, meant to protect the ones they loved. That was how it was with Gesten. It was also how it was with Skandra-non, and when Amberdrake wasn’t indulging himself in self-pity, he was well aware of that.
And Skan was first on the day’s roster, with a generous amount of time allotted to him. Amberdrake could visit him, add his own touch to the Healing meld, and spend some time simply enjoying Skan’s company before returning to work at the tent.
This was interesting; his schedule was bracketed by gryphons today. The first patient was Skan, and the last a gryphon named “Zhaneel.” A female, according to the log, with a gold-square token. He’d have to make certain Gesten had the bleaches and dyes ready; she might want a feather-tip job in addition to whatever other pampering and primping she desired. Amberdrake’s other talents often obscured this one, and few knew he had ended his apprenticeship at the ancient trade of kestra’chern as a feather-painter, and still enjoyed doing it. Skan, of course, wouldn’t let him practice on his feathers, no matter how Amberdrake tried to assure him that it would be a subtle pattern, sophisticated and elegant. No, the Black Gryphon was the Black Gryphon, and black he would remain. Skan had made it clear time and time again that the only dye to touch his feathers was the stark black he himself had chosen.
But female gryphons, to whom nature and Urtho had given fairly drab coloration, tended to be very fond of painted feathers. In peacetime they had sometimes sported patterned feathers as gaudy as a Kaled’a’in weaving or a messenger-bird’s bright plumes—now they had to confine themselves to something that made them less of a target. If she’s got goshawk coloring, perhaps I can persuade her into something in blue and gray, he mused. That way she’d have the advantage of sky-camouflage when she was flying, but up close she would be dappled in fishbone patterns and ribbons.
That would be a pleasant way to end the day.
He washed and shaved, tied his hair back, then donned a plain linen tunic and breeches to stroll over to the mess tent for breakfast. He could eat in his quarters, and often did when he was pressed for time or tired, but he preferred to share at least one meal with the other kestra’chern. Experience and observation had taught him that if the top-ranked kestra’chern acted no differently than the rest, there would be less acrimony and jealousy, both of which could lead to unpleasantness and outright sabotage. He was careful to dress plainly when off duty, shared his knowledge and experience freely, and when forced to cancel appointments, did his best to see that the canceled clients had been distributed fairly among the others. Thanks to this, the rest of the kestra’chern tended to regard him as their unofficial leader and spokesperson. He had mixed feelings about that, but it was probably better that he was in that position, rather than someone else. He was the only Kaled’a’in among them; the other Kaled’a’in kestra’chern chose to work among the Healers and save their other skills for their own people. No other working kestra’chern in the camp had as much training as Amberdrake, and when the Kaled’a’in had moved to Urtho’s Tower and the question of what his job should be had come up, he had felt no hesitation. He made, at best, an ordinary Healer, and to operate under the constraints of a Healer would have made him feel as if he worked with half his fingers gone. It was best to do what he was truly good at.
Breakfast was unusually quiet; Amberdrake’s companions were tired and subdued. Like the rest of the army; after all, the kestra’chern were by no means immune to what had happened at Stelvi Pass. Even if none of them had friends or acquaintances there, the fighters themselves would, inevitably, bring their troubles to the anonymous comfort of those whose business was pleasure and support.
No one seemed in any mood for conversation on a personal level; no one looked at Amberdrake with the desperate eyes of someone who had taken on more pain than he or she could handle, nor asked Amberdrake for advice in affairs of their own hearts. At first, he simply ate his breakfast, keeping the conversation light, intending to leave with a quiet greeting for everyone.
One of the junior kestra’chern inquired about Corani, and was met with a brief, sharp glance from Amberdrake. This served as an impetus for several other kestra’chern at the table to start talking about the news from Stelvi Pass, Laisfaar, and the Tower, each adding their own slices of information. They had likely as not gleaned it from their clients as much as from camp gossip. As long as no one revealed the identities of the clients, many of them thought, putting the pieces of the puzzle together in the confidence of other kestra’chern was something of a challenge to all concerned. It was done all the time, and Amberdrake knew it, and although it was a source of some of the kestra’cherns’ hidden power, he didn’t entirely approve of this free sharing of basically private knowledge. Still, the war made its own rules, and they fought the war itself, and not the army of the enemy. Perhaps this technical transgression of kestra’chern protocol could yield valuable insights. So he told himself.
Regardless of Amberdrake’s private mullings about the talk, it went on unabated, and he found himself offering up the occasional “It may well be” and “From what I know, unlikely” comments, which helped lay in more pieces of the puzzle. When he felt it was time to go, he directed the discussion back toward client care and techniques, then slipped out unobtrusively.
When he reached the Black Gryphon’s tent, Skan was awake, and evidently in a much better mood this morning, as he looked Amberdrake up and down in mock amazement. “Tchah, the kestra’chern has lost his commission? All your fine plumage is gone, strutting-bird!”
“Heh, dressing to match the job.”
“It seems likely you turned in here mistakenly on the way to the horse-stalls, then,” Skandranon replied smoothly. Yes, he was definitely feeling better. Yesterday he would have growled.
“Has anyone looked at your wings?” Amber-drake asked.
“Not since you did,” Skan told him. His pronunciation was much improved from yesterday, too. He hissed his sibilants only a little, hardly enough to notice. “All who have come have said it was best left to the expert.”
“They’re probably right, but lacking an expert, I’ll have to do,” Amberdrake said absently, running his hand just above the surface of the splinted and bandaged right wing. He extended his awareness down into the wing itself, into the muscle, tendon, and bone. “You’re doing all right, though. Bear with me for a minute, here, I need to probe some more.”
He shifted from simple awareness into true Healing with a deft twist of his mind. Carefully, for if he sped the Healing of the bones too much, they would not Heal properly but would remain weak, as the bones of a very old person might be after setting. He sent energy to the torn muscle, to the tiny arteries and veins that had been savaged, and then, delicately, to the bones.
Finally he pulled his awareness away and came back to himself, shaking his head a little to clear it of the shared pain. “I’d leave the bandages on for now,” he continued. “It’s going to take another couple of days of work to mend those wings, and a couple of weeks to strengthen them enough that you can use them. Having them bandaged like that keeps them from being strained. I hope you have feathers saved from your last molts; we’re going to have to imp a lot of broken secondaries and primaries. That’s one thing we can’t do for you—grow new feathers.”
“You’re the Healer,” Skan replied philosophically. Then he looked sheepishly at Amberdrake out of the corner of his eye. “I have to apologize to you, Drake. Again, I mean. The apology I gave you yesterday wasn’t exactly sincere.” He took a deep breath and let it out slowly. “I treated you badly yesterday. It wasn’t fair, and it wasn’t right. My only defense is that I was in pain, and I’m not at my best when I hurt.”
Amberdrake snorted. “Not at your best? Skan, you could give a makaar lessons in surliness!” But he smiled and scratched Skan’s ear-tufts, while the gryphon feigned indignation. “That’s all right; I’m not a good patient either, you know. It’s just a good thing I’m not hurt or sick very often, or I’d probably lose Gesten.”
“Not Gesten, he enjoys suffering. He enjoys letting you know he’s suffering even more,” Skan replied wickedly—and accurately. “What’s happening out there? Nobody tells me anything; they’re afraid I might not want to heal up.”
“Ma’ar’s forces threw back our counterattack,” Amberdrake told him, knowing that if he didn’t, Skan would find some other way of getting the information. “We’ve lost the Pass, for now at least, unless Urtho can come up with some way of dislodging them.”
Skan shook his massive head and sighed. “I can’t see how, Drake. Stelvi was built well, as impregnable as possible, with water supplies in every part of the fortress. That was part of the reason why no one took an attack there seriously.” He stared at the canvas wall of his tent, as if by sheer force of will he could see beyond it to the Pass. “So it’s to be another retreat, then. Eventually abandoning the Tower, if this goes on.”
Amberdrake nodded. “I’m afraid so.”
“Damn them.” Skan glared at the tent wall until Amberdrake was afraid he might burn a hole in it. Then he shook his head, and when he turned back to Amberdrake, his eyes were clear, although wrinkles betrayed a deep and abiding anger burning at the bottom of them. “Has Ma’ar given us any new and unpleasant surprises?”
It was Amberdrake’s turn to shake his head, but this time it was with relief. “Like that mage-shot he pelted us with last month? Not that I’ve heard, and I heard most of the rumors three times over between my tent and yours.”
“Good.” Skan had been tense; now he relaxed a bit. Amberdrake would have given a month’s pay to know what had prompted that question—and knew very well that Skan would never tell him. He could surmise that there had been some kind of new weapon in use by Ma’ar’s army—and that Skan had neutralized it somehow. He could surmise it, but Skan would never reveal the truth of the matter.
“So, wicked one, what have you been up to while I have been wallowing at my ease in a nest of pillows?” Skan asked, quickly changing the subject before Amberdrake had a chance to ask him anyway. “Any new and interesting clients?”
“One new one yesterday, who I hope is never going to come back,” Amberdrake told him. “A more unpleasant man I have never met, and a mercenary mage on top of that.”
He told Skan all there was to tell about Conn Levas, without revealing the man’s name or divulging anything that might identify him—not even the fact that the man’s lover might be Kaled’a’in. He didn’t often break client confidentiality, and even then it would only be to a superior, like Artis Cam-lodon, the Chief Healer, or to Urtho himself, should he ever find himself in that exalted being’s presence. Few people overawed Amberdrake; he had seen too many of the great and powerful unclothed both physically and spiritually, but Urtho always left him feeling as if his mouth were hanging wide open. The blazing intellect, the aura of controlled and absolute power, and the overwhelming competence of the man added up to the kind of charisma that left Amberdrake weak in the knees. What he looked like didn’t matter; Amberdrake invariably saw the Mage of Silence with a kestra’-chern’s eyes—the eyes of one who saw past the surface, always.
Still, Amberdrake found himself telling Skan more than he would have told anyone else, and Skan listened with every indication of interest. It was marvelous, simply having a friend to talk to this way, and they both exulted in it behind their calm and rehearsed exteriors.
“I feel sorry for that one’s lover,” Skan said finally. “Very sorry, actually. She seems more important as a possession than as a person to him.”
“That was the conclusion I came to,” Amber-drake admitted. “What was worse, though, was that I was supposed to be dealing with my client’s problems, and I found myself wishing there was a way I could have a good long talk with his lover instead. That wasn’t very professional of me, I suppose, but then again, he wouldn’t let me help him.”
“The more fool he,” Skan said scornfully, “to pay good money and then refuse to take what it purchased.”
Trust Skan to put the situation into the simplest possible terms! Amberdrake had to smile. “Thank you, Skandranon Rashkae, you’ll make me a perchi yet. Should I simply become a baker, and save myself some worry?”
“You would find another way to take on the army’s burdens as a baker. Each little slice of bread would have a soldier’s very life and spirits slathered upon it,” Skan snorted.
Amberdrake laughed in response. It was, after all, a good return volley. “I suppose that in the grand context of an entire army, one mage’s emotional problems aren’t too high on the list of things I need to worry about.”
Skan chuckled. “That is a reasonable statement. More reasonable than the fretting. You’ve spent more time with me than you should have. Your other clients will be unhappy if they find out.”
“Then they won’t find out.” Amberdrake got up to leave. “This is going to be a very interesting day; I’m going to begin and end with a gryphon. It’s the first time something like that has ever happened.”
“I thought I was your only gryphon client,” Skan mock-chided. “I may become jealous!”
“Don’t bother, old bird,” Amberdrake told him. “This is just a once-only, a reward. I’m not sure why this gryphon chose me when she could have had the same treatment from an apprentice at a fraction of the fee, but it will be a nice change from emotionally-damaged fighters and deservedly-traumatized mages.”
Skan snorted approval at the small insult to Conn Levas. He had long maintained that Amberdrake was too gracious. “I may still be jealous.”
Amberdrake smoothed his unwrinkled tunic as a mocking gesture. “She’s a young female, I believe, and if you’re very good, I might introduce you to her after Gesten and I finish prettying her. Not that you’ll be in any shape to seduce her, but you might be able to persuade her you’ll be worth keeping in mind when you heal!”
Skan’s face wore a very peculiar expression, as if he tried to hold back something. He seethed with amusement. Amberdrake couldn’t for a moment imagine why, though; the female gryphon hadn’t been listed as being from any wing Skan had ever flown with, and was several years his junior besides. Whatever his secret was, however, he managed to keep it behind his beak. Amberdrake waited for him to betray himself, but he said only, “I should like very much to meet this young lady once you’ve been with her.”
“I’ll see what I can do,” Amberdrake said. And since Skan didn’t seem disposed to reveal anything, he finally waved good-bye and went back to his scheduled work.
Very much like to see her, indeed . . . vain bird, he’s probably planning his post-mating dinner with her already.
Amberdrake was wiping thick oil from his hands with a rag when Gesten reminded him of his last client for the day. It had been a day marked by trauma and pain, from the emotional trauma of a young Healer who had seen one too many die, to the pain of a horseback skirmisher who’d had three beasts shot out from under her at the attempt to retake Stelvi Pass. She had had so many wrenched and displaced vertebrae from falls that Amberdrake almost sent her to the Healers instead, regardless of what she said she wanted. But she swore to him that she would rather have “the best kestra’chern in the world” put her spine back in place than any Healer and seemed thrilled to be with him, as if she spoke to a great dancer or singer. She’d sworn that she could bear the pain he would have to put her through to do so.
The reason? An admirable one; she’d felt that the Healers were overburdened, and that they would feel obliged to pain-block her, which would add to their burden. Yes, she’d known that the Healers would treat her for nothing, and that his services cost a high-ranking reward-chit. No, she hadn’t cared. “I’ve got a pile of these things already, so I’m saving them up for a better commission once the war’s dead,” she’d said gruffly. “Urtho’s aides brought me a new horse—Kaled’a’in-bred at that. I’ve got a new tent. I don’t crave pretties. I look like a horse myself, so fancy clothing on me would look like barding on a mule. So what else am I going to spend a chit on? Besides, this way I get an attractive man to put his hands all over me. That, I can use.”
So he manipulated her vertebrae as she stifled her gasps of pain, until her gasps turned to ones of sheer relief. He was so impressed by her courage and sense that he’d had Gesten prepare a hot soaking tub for her, with aromatic oils in it. He had her soak until her muscles completely relaxed, then he gave her the massage she had paid for, rubbing her down gently until she was just dozing. Then he did for her what he would not do for Conn Levas. They were good hours.
She left his tent smiling and exhausted. He sat back while Gesten cleaned up and prepared for the last client of the day, smiling just as widely as she had. Once in a while, he got a client who was worthy of his skills in every way—that skirmisher was just such a one, and it had been a privilege to help her. Odd; both she and Conn Levas were mercenaries, and yet they were so unlike each other. Ah, well, experience had shown that the only thing similar about most soldiers was the uniform they wore.
“That was a fine lady,” Gesten observed as he expertly put away the oils and stowed the massage table. “I think I ought to go over and suggest she spend one of those ‘useless’ chits of hers on a makeover with us. I don’t see any reason why she has to keep on looking like a wild mare. She’s lean enough to be elegant, and if she’d just let me do something with her hair . . .”
“That’s a good idea, if you want to,” Amberdrake agreed. “I’d take the exotic approach with her. You know, she could carry off some of the Kaled’a’in costumes quite impressively. Maybe with a cat-stripe paint pattern across her shoulders—”
“That’s what I like about you, Drake,” Gesten interrupted cheerfully. “You always see the potential. Think you can exercise that one more time today? That gryphon Zhaneel will be here shortly.”
“Gryphon?” Amberdrake replied, momentarily confused. Then he hit his head with the heel of his hand. “Right! I nearly forgot! My mind is still muddled from this day. I’m just tired. Did you—”
“I’ve got the oils and the satin cords and the beads and feather-paint,” Gesten said, snorting a little. “As if I’d forget! Listen, I’d like to go over and put Skan to bed if you don’t mind. Do you think you can handle this youngster alone?”
It was Amberdrake’s turn to snort. “As if I hadn’t been taking care of gryphons all by myself long before you came looking for some fool to hire you! Of course, I can.”
“All right, then, fool-who-hired-me,” Gesten replied, giving him back as good an insult as he’d gotten. “I’ll go make sure that featherhead up on the hill gets his sleep, then I’ll see to it you don’t drown yourself in the tub when I get back.”
Gesten indicated a bright but battered wheeled storage chest with a nod of his snout. “Everything you need is in there, and I replaced whatever had dried out or was too old to use. If I do say so myself, I don’t think there’s a kestra’chern in the army with a better stock of ‘gryphon pretties.’ By the time you get done, she should be stunning. Provided you can do your job.”
He whisked through the curtain before Amberdrake could make a rejoinder. Amberdrake just laughed and took his time getting out of his chair. He changed into a utilitarian pair of loose linen breeches and baggy shirt, tying a sash about the latter. He would not need any fancy robes with this client; instead, he needed clothing he could work in, clothing that could be splashed with dye and not take harm. Over that he wore his receiving robe, with its intricate designs.
Amberdrake stepped outside the tent to take in some of the camp’s relatively fresh air before the client arrived. “Small” feathers—the size of a hand—drifted by in the breeze, discards from some gryphon’s vigorous preening, no doubt. Activity in the camp had stepped up a bit from earlier that day; it seemed that the rumors had fed a packing frenzy. The children that he’d seen before were engaged in tying blankets and packs, with the help of two kyree tugging with their teeth. He saw adults mending wagon covers and double-checking the wheels of carts. Farther beyond that, a set of soldiers and an Apprentice mage—who looked to be Vikteren, one of Amberdrake’s social acquaintances—leveled and tested a hovering-sled. The large sleds floated half a man-height above the ground—although they could be raised higher—and were mainly used for troops’ supplies. A few of the kestra’chern, Amberdrake included, had bought one for use in moving their own gear, rather than relying on the army to do so for them.
Next to them, the horse-skirmisher he’d cared for earlier—who was moving much more freely than before he’d begun—was keeping a number of her fellow warriors enthralled with some great tale. Or if not great, certainly one that called for a substantial amount of gesturing.
Maybe she’s talking about me. . . ? That would be good if she was. Let them know I treat the lower ranks as well as I do their commanders.
Hidden back behind the cluster of humans, though, was a mere wisp of a gryphon—a fledgling, judging by her size, or a subadult. She—yes, definitely a female—was eavesdropping on whatever it was the horse-skirmisher was saying. How strange. Normally, gryphons simply walked into conversations they wanted to be a part of, invited or not.
Then Amberdrake’s attention was taken by a flight of messenger-birds winging past, darts of living paint flittering across the sky. Their bounding flight carried them and their messages toward the Tower; with luck, they carried news that the war’s hunger was sated for a while.
Amberdrake turned back inside, and set about finger weaving feather-shaft-adornments for his next client. It would be so relaxing, for a change.
Zhaneel, when she arrived, turned out to be the little gryphon he’d seen lurking behind the warriors earlier. She was a very pretty thing, in a quiet way; lean and fit, with long wings and feathers set very close to her body. He’d walked out from the back room of the tent with a handful of finger-woven satin cords, and found her in the receiving area, hesitantly nosing around the cushions and boxes.
She’s never been to a kestra’chern before, I can tell that right now. Nervous, expectant, unsure of herself.
He cleared his throat gently, and she started. “Welcome, Zhaneel,” he said in a soft but commanding voice. “My name is Amberdrake. I am honored to serve you.” He executed the sweeping, graceful bow that customarily accompanied the greeting and ended it down on one knee, so that he would not be looming over her. His receiving robe gathered around him in glossy folds as he knelt, a shimmering contrast to the work clothes underneath it.
Her eyes darted across his entire body as he bent forward to touch one of her forelegs, as was also customary. It was in this first touch that an experienced kestra’chern could tell the way the session was going to go. Involuntary reactions mixed with postures and poses, hopeful or desperate projections, all would be caught by a sensitive kestra’chern in good form. One did not have to be an Empath to read body language; that was a skill taught to every kestra’chern during his or her apprenticeship.
In this case, the signals were decidedly odd. Zhaneel slicked her feathers down and turned her head until her delicate beak touched the wrist joint of her folded wing. A soft, sibilant voice came from that beak, in as near to a whisper as gryphons could manage.
“The Black Grrryphon sssent me to you. You are my kesssstrrra’cherrrn.” Then her head dipped and her wings fluttered near her body, spread ever so slightly.
“Yes. I am the kestra’chern that will serve you, Zhaneel, as you requested, and as your reward for bravery. I will adorn, comfort, and help you and give you the attentions you may deserve and the insight you may need.” Amberdrake raised his other hand and touched the remaining foreleg, reading her physical reactions clearly while another part of his mind reasoned out what to do about it.
She’s practically seething with sexual tension . . . definitely worked herself up into a frenzy somehow over the past candlemark. Well, I know what that usually means. Some feather-work and oils should increase this unique beauty of hers, so her lover will be especially pleased by her after our session. Still. . .
Still, this sleek little creature wasn’t coming across like the usual gryphon client to be prepared for a special tryst. There was anticipation, and an electric desire, but there didn’t seem to be any confidence in the outcome of the night, nor the sense of certainty that gryphons were so well known for.
And no gryphon went for an expensive tryst-grooming unless she was positive she had a partner waiting for her!
Suddenly, Zhaneel looked directly at him and stepped forward, causing Amberdrake to rebalance himself—and then she kept moving forward. Amberdrake fell backward as Zhaneel straddled him. Her long wings spread to either side of them, with her tail up and neck feathers roused. Her beaked face was nearly touching his nose when she asked, “You will give me pleasssurrre, Amberrrdrrrake?”
Oh, gods . . . that explains what. . .
He stared at her beak, remembered the size of gryphon talons, and felt himself blanch. “Zhaneel, no—wait—you’ll hurt me,” he begged. “Please let me up!”
Skandranon marked his page with a discarded feather and stretched, looking back to where Gesten meticulously brushed and treated his back just above his tail. Urtho had sent down a book by an explorer who had been in his employ from before the war had started, and the heavy tome was filled with small notes written in the margins, observations and anecdotes by others that the book had been loaned to. Urtho had sent it by messenger-kyree to make up for his hasty departure earlier; yet another small gesture that told the Black Gryphon of his status in Urtho’s eyes. Gesten had been there for at least two candlemarks, quietly putting all of the details right for Skandranon; cutting, sanding, and rounding partially snapped feathers, rubbing in soothing gels around strained feather-shafts. Without saying a dozen words, he’d moved Skandranon—who was twice the weight of most human men—into easier positions for tending tiny cuts the Healers hadn’t gotten. He had sanded down the chips in Skan’s beak, filling in near-invisible cracks with cement, and coping his overgrowing talons. He then moved on to a deep and thorough combing, removing all the tiny snags and remaining bits of burr and twig from Skan’s black coat.
Skan was in good shape—much better than even this morning, he mused—and in little pain, thanks to one of Lady Cinnabar’s clever abilities, a trick with shunting pain away. She was a delight to know, even peripherally, and seemed to have the sort of personality he’d like to find in a gryphon mate one day.
Skan counted himself fortunate that he’d lived this long. Ah, but taking a mate? Seriously considering the possibility of fathering young had been reduced to a worn pastime over his years of service, one that at some times felt like his only reason for persevering, and at others like an impossible fantasy from a laugh-singer’s tale. The concern was not one of merely finding sex. He had no lack of lovers; there were few gryphons who wouldn’t be ecstatic to raise their tails to him, but, still, they were at best casual friends, and none of them fertile. Mmm, but there were those that had been so sweet, so warm. . . .
He shifted the way he was lying; thinking about lovers was causing his belly to tighten with longing. He’d never been embarrassed about his virility before and felt no pangs about such now, but his healing state kept poking reminders at him about how limited his movement really was.
Gesten didn’t miss a stroke while grooming Skan’s flank and tail, although he surely noticed the outward signs of Skan’s line of thought. There seemed to be very little the little hertasi missed; but, as with other topics that came up around him daily, Gesten’s best comment was not to comment at all.
Tchah, by now little Zhaneel is settled in warm and comfortable with Amberdrake. Amberdrake knows how to make everything right. He’s such a good kestra’chern; so clever, so graceful, so intelligent. I’m proud to know him; I’m glad I sent her to him.
I’m going to kill Skandranon for this, Amberdrake fumed as he faced away from Zhaneel. Surely that mindless, oversexed, bug-bitten, arrogant mass of black feathers had given Zhaneel the impression that Amberdrake was going to make love to her somehow. This was an unforgivably cruel joke on Skan’s part! After this situation was handled, Amberdrake resolved to go over and give Skan a verbal flaying—asleep, injured, or in whatever condition he happened to be.
Zhaneel had disentangled herself from him only a moment before and was now watching his every move for some cue to resume, her head bobbing up and down and hind-claws clenching.
Amberdrake wiped a palm across his face and turned back to speak to her pointedly. “Zhaneel, I can’t be the kind of lover you want. You and I aren’t physically compatible. I just can’t—”
A moment passed.
An unmistakable, inexplicable look of horror transformed Zhaneel’s entire demeanor from one of desperate desire to one of emotional devastation. She let out a gurgling cry and suddenly bolted through the opened tent flap and into the darker and more private inner room.
Skandranon finished the annotated chapter on social organization among the southeastern tribes, and luxuriated in the attention Gesten was giving his recently-battered crest.
By now she must feel like the most beautiful and capable gryphon in the entire world! Amberdrake always knows how to say exactly the right thing to make someone feel good. He’s given me so many compliments, and he’s hardly ever wrong. Maybe once I’m recovered, he can give me a tryst-grooming, and we can talk about how much good my suggestion did Zhaneel.
The Black Gryphon sighed and settled down for a nap, smug in the knowledge that all was right with the world as far as Zhaneel and Amberdrake were concerned.
Amberdrake found Zhaneel curled into a ball in the farthest corner of the tent, shivering, her head tucked under her wings. It was a saddening, unnerving thing for Drake to see; this was the gryphon equivalent of racking sobs, as bad as any he’d seen in mourning or after nightmares. Surging, palpable waves of shame pounded at him; feelings of self-blame hissed in his mental “ears” the closer he got to her. He braced himself to receive a backlash and reached out to touch her quivering body.
Instead of the expected strike, she didn’t acknowledge his presence at all. Nothing. Yet, with the touch, a staggering rush of sickening emotions blinded Amberdrake for the span of a heartbeat.
She hates herself. She genuinely hates herself. Self-doubt, self-pity, an overwhelming sense of worthlessness, of loss. From a gryphon! This I could expect from a human, but from a gryphon? They’re all convinced that Urtho created them as an improvement on all other races! Who or whatever made her this way was long in building. If it can be stopped, it has to stop now. If I can change her—it has to start now.
He spoke quietly, soothingly. “Zhaneel?”
She whimpered, the barest whisper of sound.
“Shh, little one, I am here for you. Please listen. Please listen. I’ll make you feel better, I promise it. I am here for you.” He moved in closer and folded his robed body across hers, to comfort her as he had other distressed gryphons with the sensation of protective, caring wings wrapped over them. He could feel her underneath him, body temperature high, breathing fast, and there, yes, her eyes tightly shut. Her delicate ear-tufts folded back tight to her head. Drake stroked her neck feathers and spoke more reassuring words, keeping his voice steady and deep, speaking “into” her, and held her as her shuddering subsided.
The sexual anticipation earlier can help some, at least. . . . Amberdrake swam through Zhaneel’s nerves with his Healing powers, found her pleasure-centers, and gently stimulated them while he soothed her with his words. Gryphons’ bodies held stores of specialized fluids, elements, in various glands and repositories, and the delicate touch of an experienced Healer could release them at the right time. A careful nudge there and a feather-light stimulation so, and the “rewarding” sensation following a mating coursed through her veins; in a small amount, by no means as great as the euphoria following a real mating, but definitely there. It had the desired effect; she slowly went from quivering to a state of relaxation—physically, at least—and uncurled from her ball after what felt like a harrowing eternity. All the while, Amberdrake reassured her and spoke encouragements. It didn’t cure any of her problems, no, that could come later, but her gradual relaxation at least opened a doorway toward a cure.
A candlemark must have passed since her arrival before she spoke again. It was a time in which her kestra’chern held her and scratched her ear-tufts, all the while carefully touching her mind and soaking in the feelings she unknowingly projected into him. He could not help thinking that it was a good thing she had chosen him, rather than a kestra’chern with no Empathic or Healing abilities. Anyone else would have had to send for her Trondi’irn—and an apprentice would have been as terrified and traumatized as she.
“Zhaneel,” he said urgently, “you must tell me why I distressed you so. I had no intention of hurting you.”
She shivered all over. “You . . . kessstra’cherrrn. Think I am mmmisssborrrn, too. No desssirrre, nev-errr. . . .” She hunched her shoulders and hung her head, deep in purest misery. “Should have died,” she cried softly. “Not worth raisssing, ssshould have died. Trried.”
Amberdrake didn’t hesitate a moment; strange how, after waiting in silence for so long, a moment’s delay in a reply could cause damage. “No, lovely child, you misunderstood me entirely! You’re far from misborn, Zhaneel. You were made by Urtho as his proudest creation. And you are lovely to me.”
She uncoiled some more, and nervously looked at him with one eye. “But you sssaid—no lover. Physssically. Not even you want me—”
He rubbed his cheek against hers, as a gryphon-sib would do, and replied quickly. “Zhaneel, no, little one! I said I can not, not that I would not if I could. I am only a human. Thin skin, and smaller than you. We wouldn’t fit, you and I, our sizes and bodies are too different. And you’d tear me up trying.” He allowed a small chuckle. “Dearheart, believe me, if I were a gryphon, you and I would be in the sky together the moment after I saw you.”
She opened both eyes and blinked, twice, as if the dry observation that humans were perhaps a third the size of a gryphon—in every salient way—hadn’t even occurred to her.
Some people think a kestra’chern can do anything!
“Never learned how mating goes. Parents died. Left me, left me alone.” Zhaneel slumped down, her beak touching the floor. “Misborn, wings too long and pointy, too long for body, head too big, too round, no ear-tufts at all!” she cried out, shivering. “That’s why they left me, why they flew and died. I was misborn, and they were ashamed.”
Amberdrake scratched her head, fingers disappearing into the deep, soft down-feathers, and projected more calm into her, soothing her, lest she ball herself up again and never uncurl. “I just can’t believe that, Zhaneel. You are lovely and strong. Your parents must surely have treasured you and looked forward to seeing you fly.”
Apparently, a floodgate had been released when she had first started speaking. She continued to pour out her feelings. “Not enough talon to hurt even mites—”
Amberdrake surveyed the outstretched forefoot dubiously. The talons looked plenty long to him.
“—freakish, misborn, should have died,” she whispered hoarsely. “No one wants Zhaneel in wing. No one. No one wants Zhaneel as mate. Worthless.”
Amberdrake lifted her head up, a more difficult task than he tried to make it appear, and caressed her briefly around the nares, then held up the forgotten reward-square.
“If you’re so worthless, then how did you earn this? They don’t give these away for digging latrines, sky-lady. Only the bravest receive this kind of reward.”
His left arm was complaining bitterly about supporting the weight of her head when she finally lifted it herself and blinked. Then she looked down.
“Not brave,” she insisted faintly.
Amberdrake smiled gently. “Why don’t you tell me how you earned it, and let me be the judge of that? I would sincerely like to hear, Zhaneel. Join me. I’ll make you a fine strong tea.” He stood up creakily and gestured for her to come with him; she rose, took three hesitant steps toward his bed, and then sat beside it.
“No one would accept me into their wing. But I wanted to fly for Urtho. So I—I just moved into a wing. Kelreesha Trondaar’s wing.”
Ah. Interesting, the same wing that merc mage Conn Levas is attached to. Amberdrake prodded the coals in the ever-burning brazier, then set a copper kettle of water on it. “And then. . . ?”
“I flew patrols. The back patrols—the ones fledglings fly in relays.” Her voice broke at that. The duty she described was humiliating for an adult gryphon, usually reserved for punishment because of its length and uneventfulness, and for training fledglings in procedure. “It gave me—time away from the camp. Time to fly. Can fly the circuit faster than anyone else.”
Amberdrake dropped herb-packed cloth pouches into the kettle, and spoke gently. “Faster than any other gryphon; that is wonderful in itself. How much faster, Zhaneel?”
“A third faster. I fly the circuit alone.” Amber-drake raised an eyebrow in surprise and appreciation. “I was at fifth-cloud height,” she continued. Half again higher than other gryphons fly on patrol—even more interesting. “And I found makaar. There were three, leaving our territory. They had to be stopped somehow, they must have been spying. But I can’t Mindspeak well—I couldn’t call for help. So I dove on them and fought them. It didn’t matter if I died stopping them.”
Amberdrake’s thoughts ran quickly, despite the practiced, impassive expression on his face. She means that. She means that if she died trying, that was better than living. It’s plain why she said she wasn’t brave. She was suicidal. And she wanted her death to mean something. He took a deep breath and smoothed back his hair.
“Zhaneel, I’ve known many warriors, many shaman and priests and High Mages. So many of them have felt inadequate, and I’ve spoken to them as I am doing to you, dear sky-lady. When warriors feel afraid they lack something, it is only because they are forgetful. They have forgotten how capable they truly are.” He settled down on the bed beside her and caressed her brow as she listened. “If you were anyone besides Zhaneel—lovely, powerful, sleek Zhaneel—you would have gone for help, or flown away frightened, or attacked the makaar and failed. You succeeded wholly because of who and what you are, and by the power of your mind as well as your body. That is no small thing, given that some gryphons I know have no more brains than an ox.”
Again, he held up the token and gently touched it to her beak. “And now you have this, given by Urtho’s own hand. Do you know how rare that is?” She shook her head, humanlike, indicating she didn’t. “It’s very rare, Zhaneel, very unusual. It shows that you are exceptionally good, dear one, and not a freak. Not misborn. And far from worthless.”
“Doesn’t matter,” she croaked. “Everyone thinks I am.”
“Everyone didn’t stop three makaar, and everyone didn’t get this token.” He shook his head, certain that he had her attention now. “Sometimes ‘everyone’ can be wrong, too. Didn’t ‘everyone’ say that Stelvi Pass was impregnable?”
Her ear-tufts rose just a little, and she bobbed her beak once in cautious agreement.
He considered her; her build, her very look. “You are different, Zhaneel, just as I am different from my own people. And when I came here, I felt a little like you do—no, a lot like you do. I was scorned simply because of who I was, and what I do. The Healers wouldn’t accept me because I was kestra’chern. The kestra’chern were wary of me because I could Heal. Yet as I saw them dance away from me, I studied the moves of their dance.” Amberdrake smiled again as Zhaneel relaxed some more and gazed at him, an enraptured raptor listening to a storyteller. “They would look at me and I was a mirror. They could see parts of themselves in me, layers and shards of their own lives they’d tucked away in their sleeves. When I spoke, the Healers knew I had that kestra’chern insight and they felt threatened. And the other kestra’chern distrusted my station and Healing abilities. Yet through it all, there I was. Still myself, Zhaneel, just as you are still you. Those who push you down fear you. They are jealous of you. And you are stronger than you know.”
Zhaneel fidgeted, uneasy under his care-filled eyes. “Not strong, sir.”
He shook his head, and chuckled again. “Nah, sky-lady. Please don’t call me ‘sir,’ I am only Amberdrake—a friend. Ah.” He moved gracefully to the tea kettle and poured two cups, one large, one small, as he spoke. “If you were not strong, I would never have met you, Zhaneel. You would have been dead and forgotten, not honored by the Mage of Silence himself. And not noticed by the Black Gryphon.”
Zhaneel turned her head aside, and her nares flushed in embarrassment. Ah, so she’s as impressed with Skandranon as he is by himself. I’m still going to skin him later, but I’ll certainly use his image to Zhaneel’s advantage.
“Let me tell you of Skandranon, Zhaneel,” he began. “They make fun of Skandranon, too. He is called a glory-hound, reckless, arrogant, petulant, and some say he has the manners of a hungry fledgling. Still, he is there, doing what he is best at. They are jealous of him, too—mainly because he actually does what they only talk about doing. Actions define strength. And you, sky-lady, fly faster and farther than they do, and can strike down three makaar alone.”
She blushed again, and once more he wondered what went wrong in her childhood. Where were her teachers, her parents? The simple things he told her should have been the most basic concepts that a young gryphlet was raised on. Normally, though, was the key word. Amberdrake had seen a thousand souls laid bare, and knew well that what most called “normal” was anything but reality. He also felt the warmth in his chest and belly, and the simmering heat in his mind, that told him that the hunt was good this time—that this young Zhaneel was going to survive.
“Always, I hear how they have said this or that, and yet, I have never come face-to-face with one of them. Who are they anyway?” he asked—rhetorically, since he did not truly expect her to answer. “What gives them a monopoly on truth? Why are they any more expert than you or I?”
Another few steps, and he presented her with the larger cup. He marveled at the deftness with which she grasped the cup, with a single foreclaw—no—with a single hand. And she followed his gaze.
“No claws to speak of. Have to wear war-claws like silly kyree,” she murmured, and looked down again.
“Tchah, no. That’s no defect, sky-lady. See my arms and legs, my muscles? They match my body well, as the parts of your body match well. Now see my hands, and their proportion to my arms.” Her sight fixed on his hands.
And her eyes widened as she realized what she was seeing. “Your hands—are like mine.”
“Yes! Very similar. All the Powers made me this way.” He nodded his approval. “And Urtho created you, with exactly this shape to your foreclaws, your body, your wings. Do you believe that Urtho would be so incompetent as to create an ugly, mismatched creature?”
That went against the most basic of gryphonic tenets; even Zhaneel would not believe that. “No!”
He smiled; now he had her. “Of course, we all know that Urtho would not. He has always been thorough and detailed, with a vision unmatched by any Adept in history. No, I believe, Zhaneel, that you are something new. Sleek and small, fast—like a falcon. The others, they all have the shapes of broad-winged birds, of hawks and eagles—but you are something very different. Not a gryphon at all, but something new—gryphon and falcon. Gryfalcon.”
Her eyes sparkled with wonder, and she caught her breath, still holding the cup of steaming tea. She spoke the word that Amberdrake had just made up, testing it on her tongue as she would try a sweet apple or cold winter wine. “Gryfalcon.”
This was going so much better than a candlemark ago. Amberdrake took a sip of his cup of tea and luxuriated in the play of flavors—rich and bitter, sweet and acidic, each in turn. Complex blends that suited the mood of a complex problem.
Outside the tent, dusk had darkened to night as they talked further, and Zhaneel had told him, in words that faltered, of her parents’ fate. They had both been killed on what should have been a low-risk mission; once again, the war had hungered, and had fed as all things must feed. Zhaneel had been left alone, a fledgling cared for thereafter by a succession of foster parents and Trondi’irn who felt no particular affection for her. One by one, they changed or disappeared, and the memories of her parents became a soft-edged memory of nurturing acceptance, a memory so distant it came to seem like a dream or a tale, having nothing to do with her reality.
It was the contrast between the fledgling’s memories of loving care and the subadult’s reality of indifference that had suffocated her in the cold box of self-hate.
Conversely, however, the same thing had kept her from killing herself.
The knowledge, only half-aware, that when she was still in the downy coat of a fledgling she was loved had given her soul the broad feathers it needed. There were no specific images now, and no remembered words; there was only the sensation that, yes, with certainty, they had trilled their affection as she drowsed and taught her when she awoke. Brief as that time had been, it had given her an underlying strength, and a reason to endure.
By the time their cups were empty, most of the night had passed by, and they had wandered into mutual observations. Zhaneel asked about the life of a kestra’chern. He’d wondered aloud, once he knew the subject would not alarm her, where she had gotten her idea that Amberdrake would be her lover.
Her nares flushed. “The horse-rider was telling the others about you, and I listened. I didn’t understand some of it, but I thought it was because she was a human.” She ducked her head a little as her nares flushed deeper. “I thought, this must be what you do with all who come to you. I thought, this was why Great Skandranon had told me to come to you when I was given the reward.”
He clenched his jaw for a moment. I might have known Skan was at the bottom of this! No wonder he was acting so—so smug! But a confrontation with Skan would have to wait. Now, all unknowing, she had given him another opening to bolster her self-esteem.
“Skan sent you here?” He blinked as if he were surprised, but he continued quickly before she could burst into frantic protest that he really had, as if he might doubt her truthfulness. “Do you realize just how impressed he must have been with you, Zhaneel? Why, it was only two days ago he was brought in, injured—he is still not Healed, and he has made it very clear to me, his friend, that he does not wish to be troubled with inconsequential things. And yet he thought enough of your proper reward to send you to me! How much time did he spend with you?”
“I—do not know—half a candlemark, perhaps?” she said, doubtfully.
“Half a candlemark?” Amberdrake chuckled. “I cannot think of any other he has spent so much time with, other than his Healers. Truly, he must have found you fascinating!”
“Oh,” she replied faintly, and her nares flushed again. “Perhaps he was bored?” she suggested, just as faintly.
Amberdrake laughed at that. “If he was bored, he would have sent you elsewhere. Skan’s cures for boredom are reading, sleeping, and teasing his friends, in that order. No, I think he must have found you very interesting.”
By now, from her body-language and her voice, it was fairly obvious to him that Zhaneel had—at the very least—a substantial infatuation with the Black Gryphon.
“He doesn’t pay that kind of attention to just anyone,” he continued smoothly. “If he noticed you, it is because you are noteworthy.”
She perked up for a moment, then her ear-tufts flattened again. “If he noticed me, it wassss sssurely to sssee how freakish I am.”
“How different you are—not freakish,” he admonished. “Skandranon is not one to be afraid of what is different.”
“Am I—” She hesitated, and he sensed that she was about to say something very daring, for her. “Am I—different enough that he might recall me? Notice me again?”
Amberdrake pretended to think. “I take it that you want him to do more than simply take notice of you?”
She ducked her head, very shyly. “Yessss—” she breathed. “Oh, yessss—”
“Well, Zhaneel, Skan is not easily impressed. You would have to be something very special to hold his interest. You would have to do more than simply take out a couple of makaar once.” That was a daring thing to say to her, but fortunately she did not take it badly; she only looked at him eagerly, as if hoping he could give her the answers she needed. “I know him very well; if you want Skan, Zhaneel, you will have to impress him enough that he wants you—enough to make him ask you to join his wing.” Before she could lose courage, he leaned forward and said, with every bit of skill and Empathy that he possessed, “You can do this, Zhaneel. I know you can. I believe in you.”
Her eyes grew bright, and her ear-tufts perked completely up. “I could—I could entrrrap the makaar.” She paused as he shook his head slightly. “Perhaps if I made of myself a target, outflew them to ambush?” Again he shook his head. Both her ideas were far too impulsive—and suicidal.
“It will have to be something that only you can do, Zhaneel,” he suggested. “You don’t have to make a hero of yourself every day. You don’t have to have an immediate result, either. But whatever you do must be something only you can do—just as the way you killed those three makaar was done in a way only you could have performed. Perhaps something that Urtho or Skan said to you could help you think of something. . . .”
She sat, deep in thought, while Amberdrake got himself a second cup of tea. Finally she spoke.
“Urrtho asked me what training I had, and he was disappointed that no one had given me any special attentions.” She looked up at him intently, and he gave her an encouraging nod. “Skandranon also seemed surprised that I had no special training. And if I cannot fly and fight as the others do—perhaps—perhaps I should train myself?” Again she looked to him, and he nodded enthusiastically. “Perhaps I should ask for—for courses, such as they put the young humans across, only for flying.”
“That is a good plan, sky-lady,” he told her firmly. “It is one that will benefit not only you, but others who are also small and light. And as you become skilled, you will definitely attract Skan’s attention.”
But now she had turned her attention to his hands, and then to her own foreclaws.
“Amberdrrrake, I have hands, like humans—I can do human things, can I not?” She flexed her hands, first one, then the other, as if testing their mobility. “Perhaps I can use a weapon—or—perhaps I can fly to help wounded!” Her beak parted in excitement, and Amberdrake had to work to suppress his own excitement. The idea of a gryphon-Healer, even the kind of field-Healer who could only splint bones and bandage wounds—that was enough to make him want to jump up and
put the plan into motion immediately. How many fighters had bled their lives out simply because no one could reach them? The mobility of a gryphon would save so many of those otherwise lost lives.
“This is going to take time, Zhaneel,” he cautioned, repeating the words to himself as well as her. “All of it is going to take time to learn, more time to practice. But it is a wonderful idea. I will help you all I can, I swear it!”
Zhaneel listened to his cautions, then bobbed her head gravely. “One weapon,” she declared. “I ssshall learn one weapon. Crosssbow; it ssseems easy enough to massster. And I shall learn the simple healing that the green-bands know.”
By “green-bands,” she meant the squires and sergeants who wore a green armband and acted as rough field-Healers, who knew the basics. Enough to patch someone up long enough for them to get to a real Healer.
Enough to save lives.
“And I would be honored to teach you that Healing, my sky-lady,” Amberdrake said softly.
“And—” she dropped her voice to a shy whisper. “And Skandranon will notice me?”
Amberdrake chuckled. “Oh, yes, my lady. He won’t be able to help himself. You will be one of the few things that he does notice, I think.”
She cocked her head to one side. “Few things?” she asked curiously.
He shook his head, and shrugged. “Oh, sometimes I think he is so obsessed with topping his last escapade that he does not notice much of anything, including his friends.”
She continued to stare at him quizzically and finally said, “He notices. He loves you. The whole camp knows this.”
That was not what he had expected to hear, and for once, he was taken by surprise. “He—what?”
Amberdrake replied. He thought for a moment that he had misheard her, but she repeated her statement.
“He loves you as if you were a nestmate,” she insisted. “Perhaps he does not say so, but all the camp knows that Amberdrake and Skandranon might as well have come from a single mother.”
As his mouth dropped open a little, she gurgled—a gryphon-giggle, and the first sound of happiness he had heard from her yet. “I heard this—I heard him tell some of the captains that you were a being of great integrrrity!”
“You what?” he said, trying to picture Skan doing anything of the sort.
“I heard him,” she said firmly, and with coaxing, the story emerged. She had, once again, been eavesdropping when she shouldn’t have. Some of the mercenary captains had been bandying about the names and reputations of several of the perchi and kestra’chern, and Amberdrake’s name had come up just as Skan passed by. That would have been enough to attract his attention, but one of the captains had called out to him, tauntingly, asking him to verify what they had heard “since you know him so well.”
And Skan had, indeed, defended Amberdrake’s problematical honor, at the cost of some ridicule, which Skan hated worse than cold water.
“So,” Zhaneel concluded. “You see.”
Amberdrake did see—and he was rather overwhelmed at this evidence of affection, affection that he had hoped for but had not really believed in. A kestra’chern had so few friends-—so few of those more than the merest of superficial acquaintances. . . .
He blinked, finding his eyes stinging a little.
“Amberdrake,” she said into the silence. “You are a Healer.”
He blinked his eyes clear and returned her grave stare, expecting a return to the earlier topic of discussion. “Of course, sky-lady.”
But she turned the tables on him. “And when you are hurt, who heals the Healer?”
Has she suddenly turned into Gesten, or Tamsin, to sense my feelings before I know them? he thought, startled again. But he chuckled, to cover his confusion, and replied, “My lady, I am not likely to be needing the services of a Healer, after all. I do not ply my various trades on the battlefield.”
She snorted, in a way that sounded very like Skan, but she said nothing more. And just at that moment, the sentries called midnight, and they both blinked in surprise.
Half the night has gone—but why am I surprised? It almost feels like half a year.
“You should take some rest, lady,” he said, taking the half-forgotten token and putting it back in her pouch. She started to protest; he placed a hand on her beak to stop her. “It is at my discretion to determine my fee. You keep this. If you have some difficulty convincing your wingleader that you need special training and equipment, you could use that to deal with him. And when you find someone worthy of you, then come to me with it, and I shall turn you from simply lovely into the most breathtaking creature ever to fly.”
Her nares flushed again, this time with pleasure. She started to leave, then paused on the threshold.
Tugging a hand-sized covert-feather loose, she gravely handed it to him. “And when you need—anything—you bring me this. Healer.”
Then she was gone, leaving him with a slate-gray feather in his hand, and a great deal to think about. He let down the entrance flap, closing his tent against the night and any observers, and ran the feather between the fingers of his right hand.
Who heals the Healer. . . ?
“Well, great hero,” Tamsin said dryly, pushing his way through the tent flap, “I see you have a tent-mate now. Did they discover you weren’t a general, and you weren’t supposed to have private quarters?”
Skan chuckled; it was amazing how much better a tiny improvement in his condition made him feel. Not great, but less like snapping someone’s head off anyway. “No, they decided that I must be lonely, but instead of giving me a lithe young female, they sent this disgusting heap of tattered feathers. Meet Aubri. Be careful not to step in him.”
The other gryphon in the tent, swathed in bandages covering burns, raised one lazy eyebrow and snorted. “I thought I was being punished. I was put in here with you, featherhead.” He raised his head from his foreclaws and regarded Tamsin and Cinnabar with a long-suffering gaze. “I’ll have you know,” he continued, in mock aggravation, “he whistles in his sleep.”
“So do you,” Skan countered. “I dreamed I was being attacked by a giant, tone-deaf songbird, and woke up to discover it was you. Maybe it was yourself you heard, loud enough to wake yourself up!”
“I don’t think so,” Aubri countered, then put his head back down on his foreclaws and pretended to sleep.
Skan chuckled again. “I like him,” he confided to Tamsin in an easily-overheard feigned whisper, “But don’t let him know. He’ll get arrogant enough to be mistaken for me.”
A single snort of derision was all that came from the “sleeping” Aubri.
“Well, you know why we are here,” Cinnabar told him, coming up behind her lover and giving him a greeting that was more than half a caress.
“Yesss,” Skan said. “You are here to pretend to tend to my hurts, while you put your hands all over each other. Tchah! You lifebonded types! Always all over each other! Bad enough that as humans you are always in season—”
“And you are not?” Aubri rumbled from the background.
“What?” Skan asked. “Did I hear something?”
“No,” Aubri replied. “I am asleep. You heard nothing.”
“Ah, good.” Skan returned his attention to the two humans who were doing their best not to break into laughter. “As I said, bad enough that you are always in season—but you lifebonded types are always preening each other. It’s enough to give an honest gryphon sugar-sickness.”
“Then Skandranon is in no danger, for he is hardly honest,” came the rumble.
Skan shook his head, sadly. “What did I tell you? The lout not only whistles in his sleep, he mumbles nonsense as well. Perhaps most of his injuries were to his rump, since that is surely where his brain resides.”
“He’s upset I’m not succumbing to his imagined ‘charisma,’” Aubri grumbled, raising his head. “And upset I beat him in his fledgling-baiting ‘logic puzzles.’ “
“You have no logic to use. Lucky guesses, all of them. I beat Urtho with them.” Skandranon looked back to the Healers, chagrined.
Cinnabar moved to the gryphon’s left, hands moving expertly over his wing and flank. “Gesten did a fine job with you, I see—you look very fit. You’ll soon be in good enough shape to dazzle all the potential mates you like, Skan. Are you finally going to take a mate?”
Skandranon flicked his wings suddenly and stabbed a glare at her which was much harsher than he’d really intended. He felt his nares darkening. How maddening to be constantly asked that! As if they had placed bets on who and when and how!
Cinnabar bit her lip and backed off, pretending—pretense that was just a little too obvious—to search for something in her belt packs. Tamsin broke the tension by clearing his throat and pulling, Skan’s head toward him.
“Here now, Skan, let me look at your eyes.”
“He’ll just think you’re in love with him,” Aubri snickered.
Before Skan could make any retort, Tamsin clamped Skandranon’s beak closed with one hand and stabbed a Look at him. This was serious business. Gryphons could judge relative distance and speed from each eye independently, and could clearly compare minute details of objects directly ahead. The paper texture of the book Skandranon had been studying, for instance, had been in sharp relief to him, even the furrows left by the pen. Like many other parts of a gryphon’s body, though, the eyes were used to judge the health of the rest of the body. Tamsin leaned in until his face was barely inches away from the lens of Skandranon’s right eye, becoming an encompassing blur which filled most of his wide field of vision. “You’re dilating well. Not as scratchy as I’d expect. No problems with focus? Good depth perception from each eye?”
“With Aubri, theme’s little depth to ssstudy,” Skandranon said dryly. “But yes, all seems to be well enough. I want to be back in action immediately.”
“There’ll be plenty of action for you, warrior, and that surely means we’ll see you back in surgery soon enough,” Cinnabar joked. “By now, Ma’ar’s troops have stopped wagering on you. They know that sooner or later every one of them will get a chance to shoot at you.”
Skandranon stood, feeling more lively than before, and mantled in indignation. In walked an opportunity for mischief. “They haven’t killed me yet! Have they, Jewel?”
A laden and bewildered hertasi looked at Skan wide-eyed, having just come in bearing rolls of blankets for Aubri. “N . . . no?” she said, with a nervous glance at the Healers.
This, of course, was a favorite trick of the Black Gryphon’s—getting people involved in his arguments, whether they liked it or not or whether they had any knowledge of the subject at hand. Always fun! Especially when the topic of discussion was him, and it had turned unflattering. “There, you see? Jewel knows. This was just a temporary setback, and I’ll be back to save Urtho’s army in no time at all.” He puffed up his chest feathers and struck an heroic pose.
“Oh, save me from him!” came Aubri’s plaintive cry. Tamsin and Cinnabar broke up in laughter, while Jewel scurried about positioning the rolls of blankets for Aubri’s comfort, still bewildered by the whole scene. Skan, of course, continued to play to his audience.
“He’s unaccustomed to being near greatness.”
Skan gave Aubri a lofty and condescending sidelong glance.
“I’m unaccustomed to drowning in such sketil. I can’t stand him asleep or awake!” Aubri moaned. “Healers, could you please either still his tongue or eliminate my hearing? Something? Anything?”
“Tchah! Blind fledgling,” Skandranon retorted. “I am forced to take up company with the unappreciative. It’s worse than physical wounds, I tell you honestly.”
Jewel paused for a heartbeat, took in the tableau of laughing and posturing, and evidently decided that folding fresh bandages for Aubri was the right thing to do. She fell into doing so with religious fervor on the far side of the tent. Lady Cinnabar recovered from her laughter and flashed her wide grin at Skandranon as Tamsin tweaked Skan’s tail. Tamsin then wiped his hands as if he’d just finished a day’s work and shot a satisfied look at his lover.
“I’d say our labor is done here, Lady. He’s as good as he’ll ever be.”
“What a sad thought,” Aubri muttered.
“Oh, please,” Skan countered. “I have capacities I’ve . . .”
“Boasted about for years,” Aubri inserted quickly. “And never fulfilled.”
Skan decided that a quick change of subject was in order. “Are you two keeping an eye on our Lord and Master?” he asked. “When Urtho visited me, I thought he looked underfed.”
“It hasn’t been easy, but I’ve been making certain he gets at least a bite or two out of every meal brought him,” Cinnabar replied with a sigh. “And his hertasi have been bringing him meals every two candlemarks or so. Still—no sooner does he settle down to eat than more bad news comes from the front lines, and off he goes again, food forgotten.”
“He’s giving more than he can afford to,” Skan told her, sitting down and becoming serious for a moment. “He never wanted to be a warlord. He isn’t suited to it.”
“He’s doing well enough. We’re all still alive,” Cinnabar offered. “The only reason he’s in charge is because the King folded up. And all the King’s men, the gutless lot.”
Aubri’s eyes twinkled. “She only says that because it’s true.”
But Skan stuck his tongue out in distaste. “She’s being charitable, Aubri. When Ma’ar first swept down, the border lands burned up like kindling. All the Barons were terrified, and the King’s best efforts couldn’t hold them together. It all fell apart, and we had only Urtho to turn to. No one else had any knowledge of what we faced. Cinnabar’s family and a few others stood against the Kingdom’s dissolution; the rest fled like frightened hens, and were just about as witless.”
“We remembered that we serve our subjects. The ones who ran served themselves and left their people crying in their wake,” Cinnabar added. “We don’t know what happened to most of them. Some had their faces changed. Some went mad or died. Most are still in hiding. Urtho doesn’t blame them even now. He told the King that Ma’ar sent a spell of fear into them. However,” she said while re-braiding a lock of hair, “it seems not all of us were affected.”
A shadow fell across the threshold and was followed a second later by a severe-looking, impeccably uniformed woman. Her brown hair was shortcut but for three thin braids trailing down her back, each as long as a human’s forearm, all placed in mathematical precision along her smooth neck. As she stepped in, her hazel eyes flicked from human to gryphon to hertasi in that order; she then flowed like icy water toward Aubri. Or rather, she would have flowed, had she not been trying to cover a limp. Skan stared at her; to intrude uninvited into a tent was not only rude, it was dangerous when the tent contained injured gryphons. Yet Aubri did not look surprised or even affronted; only resigned.
“May we help you?” Tamsin asked, openly astonished that the woman had not offered so much as a common greeting.
The woman did not even look at him. “No, thank you, Healer. I am here to tend to this gryphon.”
“And you arrre. . . ?” Skandranon rumbled, his tone dangerous. Either she did not catch the nuance, or she ignored it.
“His Trondi’irn, Winterhart, of Sixth Wing East,” she replied crisply—not to Skan, but to Tamsin as if Skan did not matter. “His name is Aubri, and he has suffered burns from an enemy attack,” she supplied.
Oh, how nice of her. She’s provided us with details of the obvious, as if we had no minds of our own or eyes to see with. How she honors us! Except that she was paying no attention to the nonhumans, only the humans, Tamsin and Cinnabar. What does this arrogant wench think she is? Urtho’s chosen bride?
But the woman was not finished. “I’ve also come to reassign you, hertasi Jewel. Your services are required in food preparation with Sixth Wing East. Report there immediately.” Jewel gulped and blinked, then nodded.
Winterhart drew a short but obviously sharp silver blade from her glossy belt and cut one of Aubri’s bandages free, looking over the blistered skin underneath.
“I don’t think—” Tamsin began. The woman cut him off as Jewel scurried out of the tent.
“Aubri doesn’t require her any longer,” she said curtly, “and the Sixth is shorthanded.”
Skan ignored the rudeness this time, for Winterhart had caught his attention. “Sssixth Wing—that of Zhaneel?” he asked.
The woman looked at him as if affronted that he had spoken to her, but she answered anyway. “Yes. That is an extraordinary case, though. She surprised us all by somehow distinguishing herself.” Win-terhart’s shrug dismissed Zhaneel and her accomplishments as trivial. “Rather odd. We’ve never had a cull in our ranks before.”
Skandranon’s eyes blazed and he found himself lunging toward the woman. “Cull?”
Tamsin and Cinnabar held onto both of Skandranon’s wings. He repeated his incredulous question. “Cull?”
Winterhart ignored both his obvious anger and his question. Instead, she rebandaged Aubri and held her hands over his burns.
Even Skan knew better than to interrupt a Healing trance, but it took him several long moments to get his anger back under control. “Cull, indeed!” he snorted to Tamsin, indignantly. “Young Zhaneel is no more a cull than I am! These idiots in Sixth Wing don’t know how to train anyone who isn’t a musclebound broadwing, that’s their problem! Cull!”
Tamsin made soothing noises, which Skan ignored. Instead, he watched Winterhart closely. The fact that this cold-hearted thing was Zhaneel’s Trondi’irn explained a great deal about why no one had tended to the youngster’s obvious emotional trauma and low level of self-esteem. Winterhart simply did not care about emotional trauma or self-esteem. She treated her gryphon-charges like so many catapults; seeing that they were war-ready and properly repaired, and ignoring anything that was not purely physical. Zhaneel needed someone like Cinnabar, or like Amberdrake, not like this—walking icicle.
But she was giving Aubri the full measure of her Healing powers; at least she was not stingy in that respect. And she was good, very good, provided that the patient didn’t give a hung-claw about bedside manner or empathy. Aubri was clearly used to treatment like this; he simply absorbed the Healing quietly and made neither comment nor complaint when she had finished.
But for the rest of her duties—those, she scanted on. She did not see that Aubri was comfortable. She did not inquire as to any other injuries he might have, other than the obvious. She did not ask him if there was anything he needed. She sinmply gave Tamsin and Cinnabar another curt nod, ignored Skan altogether, and left.
No one said a word.
“Well!” Cinnabar said into the silence. “If that is the quality of Healers these days, I should have Urtho look into where that—woman—got her training!” Tamsin nodded gravely, but Cinnabar’s expression suddenly turned thoughtful.
“Odd,” she muttered. “I could have sworn I’d seen her before, but where?”
But a moment later, she shook her head, and turned to Aubri and said, “I’ll have one of my personal hertasi come see to your needs until we can get Jewel back for you. Is there anything I can do for you now?”
Aubri’s ear-tufts pricked up in surprise. “Ah—no, thank you, my lady,” he replied, struggling to hide his amazement. “I’m really quite comfortable, actually.”
“Well, if there is, make sure someone sends me word.” Having disposed of the problem, Cinnabar turned back to Skan. “Do you think you can keep your temper in check when that one comes back?” she asked. “If you can’t, I’ll have Aubri moved so you won’t have to encounter her again.”
“I won’t promissssse,” Skan rumbled, “but I will trrrry.” It was a measure of his anger that he was hissing his sibilants and rolling his r’s again.
“I won’t ask more of you than that,” Cinnabar replied, her eyes bright with anger as she glanced at the still-waving tent flap. “It is all I could expect from myself.”
Tamsin mumbled something; perhaps he had forgotten that a gryphon’s hearing was as acute as his eyesight. It would have been inaudible to a human, but Skan heard him quite distinctly.
“I must speak with Amberdrake about that one. . . .”
Tamsin chewed his lower lip for a moment, his brow wrinkled a little with worry, and then sighed. “Well, greatest of the sky-warriors,” he said lightly, with a teasing glance to the side, “I think you won’t have any real need for us in the next few hours, so we’ll go tend to those with greater hurts and smaller egos.”
Skan pretended to be offended, and Aubri snorted his amusement; Cinnabar lost some of her anger as her lover took her hand and led her out.
Aubri settled back down, wincing a little as burns rubbed against bandages. Skan arranged himself in his own nest of cushions with a care to his healing bones and watched his tent-mate with anticipation, hoping for another battle of wits. But the Healing had tired Aubri considerably, and the easing of some of his pain had only left an opening for his exhaustion to move in, assassinlike, to strike him down. Before either of them had a chance to think of anything to say, Aubri’s eyes had closed, and he was whistling.
Skan snorted. “Told you,” he whispered to the sleeping gryphon.
At least the poor thing was finally getting some sleep. Skan was only too well aware that Aubri’s sleep had been scant last night and punctuated by long intervals of wakeful, pain-filled restlessness. Skan had wondered then why his tent-mate’s Trondi’irn hadn’t come to ensure that the gryphon at least got some sleep. Well, now he knew why.
Because this “Winterhart” doesn’t care for us. We’re just weapons to her; weapons that have the convenient feature of being able to find their own targets. All she cares for is how quickly she can get us repaired and back on the front line again. She might as well be fletching arrows.
Winterhart wasn’t the only person in Urtho’s forces to think that way; unfortunately, two of Urtho’s commanders, General Shaiknam of the Sixth and his next-in-command, Commander Garber, had the same attitude. Urtho’s most marvelous creations meant the same as a horse or a hawk or a hound to them. If a gryphon didn’t do precisely as ordered, no matter if the orders flew in the face of good sense, there was hell to pay. Obviously, Shaiknam picked underlings who had that same humanocentric attitude.
Skan put his chin down on his foreclaws and brooded. It wasn’t often he had his beak so thoroughly rubbed in the fact that he was incredibly lucky to have Amberdrake as his Trondi’irn and Tamsin and Cinnabar as his assigned Healers-of-choice.
And if anything ever happened to Amberdrake?
I could end up with another cold, unfeeling rock like Winterhart. And I would have no say in the matter . . . just as I have no say in when I may sire young, which commander I must serve, nor any way to change battle-plans if the commander does not wish a gryphon’s viewpoint.
The gryphons found themselves treated, as often as not, as exactly what Shaiknam and his ilk thought them to be; stupid animals, deployable decoys, with no will, intelligence, or souls of their own.
The more he brooded, the more bitter his thoughts became. Thanks to Amberdrake, he had led a relatively indulged life, insofar as it was possible for any of Urtho’s combatants to be sheltered. But Zhaneel was an example of how a perfectly good gryphon could be turned into a self-deprecating mess, simply by neglect.
Because too many of Urtho’s folk—and sometimes even Urtho!—treat us as if we aren’t intelligent beings, we’re things. We have no autonomy.
From where he lay, he had no trouble reading the titles on the spines of the books Urtho had loaned to him. Biographies and diaries, mostly—all humans, of course—and all great leaders, or leaders Skan considered to be great. Did Urtho have any notion how Skan studied those books, those men and women, and what they did to inspire those who followed them? How he searched for the spark, the secret, the words that turned mere followers into devotees? Or did he think that Skan read them as pure entertainment?
Make your motivations secret to the enemy, fool them into false planning, use their force against them, lead them onto harsh ground, hold true to the beliefs of your followers, and show them the ways they may become like you. Lead by example. Those weren’t fictions on a page, they were a way of life for those who had become legends in the past. Urtho knew half of these writers. A quarter of them worked for him when he created us. One he served.
Urtho had learned from all of them, and now so did Skandranon. So why must things remain the same?
Amberdrake came awake to the smell of simmering bitteralm-and-cream. Gesten bustled about with fluid efficiency as the kestra’chern awoke, whistling jaunty hertasi tunes while he folded towels and polished brass, pausing only to check the bitteralm pot on the brazier between tasks. Amberdrake couldn’t help thinking of morning-wrens greeting the dawn, like the hertasi tale of how the sun had to be coaxed from slumber each day with music.
Amberdrake rolled over and slid sideways, stretching his legs underneath the glossy red and silver satin cover that Urtho had sent to him when he had joined Urtho’s forces as a kestra’chern. He curled up around a body-pillow and hoped that Gesten wouldn’t realize he was awake, but it was too late. The hertasi pulled back a corner of the blanket and offered a cup.
“Morning and daylight, kestra’chern. Much to be done, as always.”
Amberdrake blinked and mumbled something that could have been interpreted as rude, if it had been intelligible. Gesten was as unimpressed by it as he’d been the last hundred times and proceeded to prop up pillows behind the Healer’s head. “There’s hot bread and sliced kilsie waiting outside. We have three clients today. Losita has pulled muscles and can’t take her usual clients, so I accepted one of hers for us. Should not take long. And before you ask, nothing has gone wrong with Skandranon. He is fine and sends his best regards.”
Amberdrake took a sip of the hot, frothy bitteralm-and-cream and smiled at Gesten. What would any kestra’chern do without hertasi, and what would he do without Gesten? “So things are back to normal.”
“As normal as ever in a war. Tchah,” the hertasi spat, and flicked his tail. “New orders are down from Shaiknam and his second, Garber. ‘All hertasi of convalescing personnel are to be reassigned to more important tasks, according to the judgment of the ranking human officer.’ “ He thumped his tail against the bedframe. “I don’t think Urtho knows. It’s the most stupid thing I’ve heard in years—we aren’t tools to be traded around! Hertasi know their charges. It takes time to learn someone! And to send off a hertasi when their charge is in pain—it’s unthinkable. Worse—it’s rude.”
Amberdrake finished his cupful and thought for a moment. Gesten apparently expected him to do something about this—an assumption that was confirmed when Gesten produced Amberdrake’s full wardrobe for the day, laid out his sandals, and stood with his arms crossed, impatiently tapping his foot.
“So, just how did you manage to get yourself bunged up?” Skandranon asked his erstwhile companion when they had both finished the hearty breakfast that Gesten brought them at dawn. Somehow—possibly from Cinnabar, or one of Cinnabar’s hertasi—the little fellow had learned that Aubri was without an attendant and had simply added one more gryphon to his roster of duties. Hence, the double breakfast; a lovely fat sheep shared out between them. With the head, which Skan had courteously offered to Aubri, and which Aubri had accepted and had Gesten deftly split, so that each of them could share the dainty.
Aubri had been profuse with his thanks, and Skan had thoughtfully kept his requests to an absolute minimum so that Gesten could concentrate on Aubri. By the time Gesten left, Aubri was cradled in a soft nest of featherbeds that put no pressure on his burns, and the telltale signs of a gryphon in pain were all but gone.
“How was I hurt?” Aubri asked. “Huh. Partly stupidity. We were flying scout for Shaiknam’s grunts; we had one report of fire-throwers coming up from behind the enemy lines, but only one. And you know Shaiknam.”
Skan snorted derision. “Indeed. One report is not enough for him.”
“Especially when it comes from a nonhuman.” Aubri growled. “Needless to say, one report was certainly enough for us, but he ignored it. He didn’t even bother to send out a second scout for a follow-up on the report.”
The broadwing grunted a little and flexed his talons, as if he’d like to set them into the hide of a certain commander. Skan didn’t blame him.
“Anyway,” Aubri continued after a moment, “I was just in from my last flight and officially off-duty, so he couldn’t order me on one of his fool’s errands, and I figured I was fresh enough to go have a look-see for myself. And I found the fire-throwers, all right.”
“With your tail, I see,” Skan said dryly.
Aubri snorted laughter as Tamsin arrived with Cinnabar and two of the Lady’s personal hertasi. “At least Shaiknam believed the evidence of his eyes and nose, when I came in smoking and practically crushed him!” Aubri chuckled. “You should have seen his face! I set fire to his tent when I landed, and I only wish I could have seen how much of it burned.”
“Not as much as you or I would like, Aubri,” Tamsin said. “By the way, flaming hero, we’ve had you reassigned for the duration of this injury, anyway. You’re our patient now, and if Her Royalness Winterhart comes giving you orders, you tell her to report to me first.”
Skan blinked in surprise; it wasn’t often that Tamsin made room in his overcrowded schedule for a patient from another wing and another commander. Winterhart must have truly angered him yesterday!
“Tchah, Shaiknam should be set down to scrub pots a while,” Cinnabar added, wrinkling her elegant nose in distaste. “My family has known his since our grandfathers were children, and it is a pity that anyone ever gave the cream-faced goose any vestige of authority. The only thing he truly has a talent for is losing interest in one project after another.”
“And spending someone else’s money,” Tamsin reminded her.
She shook her head and brushed her hair back over her shoulders. “That was for peacetime,” she corrected him. “Now he simply trades upon his father’s reputation, rather than spending his father’s gold on one incomplete project after another.” She began telling off some of them on graceful fingers, as Skan and Aubri listened with pricked-up ears. “There was the theater company he abandoned, with the play into rehearsals, the scenery half-built, and the costumes half-made. They struggled on to produce the play, no thanks to him, but since it was written by one of his friends with more hair than wit, it did not fare well and the company disbanded quickly. Then he set himself up as a publisher, but once again, when the tasks proved to entail more than an hour or so of work at a time, he lost interest and left half a dozen writers wondering what would ever become of their works. Then there was the pleasure garden he planned—oh, Amberdrake knows the tale of that better than I—but it was the same old story. The garden languishes weed-filled and half-finished, and a number of talented folk who had turned down other offers of employment to take up with him ended up scrabbling after work and taking second and third place to those with less talent but more perception when it came to dealing with Shaiknam and his enthusiasms.”
“His father was Urtho’s first and greatest general,” Tamsin told the two fascinated gryphons, “and with my own ears I have heard the man say that he is certain he is heir to all of his father’s genius. As if wisdom and experience could be inherited!”
Skan laughed aloud at that. “I would say that Shaiknam is living proof that intelligence can skip entire generations.”
Cinnabar’s lips twitched, and her eyes gleamed with amusement. “Well, as proof that the so-observant Skandranon is right, this is the latest of Shaiknam’s orders—that ‘hertasi of convalescing personnel are to be immediately reassigned to tasks of more immediate importance.’ That is why I brought Calla and Rio; right, little friends?”
She looked down fondly on the two hertasi, who gave her toothy grins. “Let some fool from Sixth Wing East come in here and try ordering us about,” said Rio who, like his fellow, was clearly clad in the personal colors of Lady Cinnabar’s retinue. “We’ll send him out of here with boxed ears.”
“You’ll have to share us, though,” added Calla. “The Lady is seeing how many injured there are from Shaiknam’s command, and we’re to tend them all if we can. You don’t mind?”
“Mind?” Aubri replied, clearly surprised, pleased, and a little embarrassed. “How could I mind? I didn’t expect any help! I can only thank you, and know that thanks are inadequate—”
But both Lady Cinnabar and Rio waved away any thanks. “My friends have been itching to do something besides tend to my nonexistent needs,” she replied. “If my family had not insisted that I take a retinue due my rank, they would not be here at all.”
“For which we are grateful,” Rio butted in. “And grateful to be able to do something useful. So we will return when we know how many patients there are and see what it is you will be needing from us. Eh?”
Aubri nodded, speechless for once.
“It isn’t surprising that Shaiknam would have someone like that Winterhart woman as a Trondi’irn,” Tamsin observed, checking Skan’s healing bones, as Cinnabar and her two helpers rebandaged Aubri’s burns with soothing creams and paddings.
Aubri let out his breath in a hiss of pain but replied, “It’s typical of him. She won’t stand up to him at all; that’s why he picked her. Honestly, I don’t think there’s a Trondi’irn in the army that would put up with his sketi, other than her. But she’s just like him; thinks we’re nothing more than self-reproducing field-pieces. We’re like fire-throwers, only better, because we repair ourselves if you leave us alone long enough. Very efficient, is Winterhart.”
“Efficient enough to requisition Jewel as soon as she knew you were down,” Skan observed.
Aubri snorted. “Surprised she left Jewel with me as long as she did. Maybe she just didn’t notice I was gone. She’s been quite efficient about that new order.”
“Who actually issued that particular chunk of offal?” Tamsin demanded in disgust.
“Garber. Shaiknam’s second. In case you don’t know him, he’s by-the-book, and every inch an officer.” Aubri’s tone made it very clear what he thought of officers like Garber.
“So in the meantime, those who have been injured in the front line—where presumably, Shaiknam and Garber never go—are supposed to do without those who might serve as their hands and make their recovery more comfortable,” Lady Cinnabar’s cold voice told Skan that there was a great deal of heat within. The angrier she became, the chillier her voice. “We’ll just see about that.”
Skan quickly bent his head to keep from betraying his glee. Lady Cinnabar rarely used that rank of hers—she was one of Urtho’s most trusted advisors when she chose to give that advice—but when she did, mountains moved, oceans parted, and strong men trembled until she was safely satisfied. If it had only been a case of one-on-one combat, Urtho could have sent the Lady in against Ma’ar and been secure in the knowledge that Cinnabar would return from the combat with not a single hair disarranged and Ma’ar would be on all fours, following at her heels, begging for her mercy.
But she never, ever, forgot courtesy, even when most angry. She bade Aubri and Skan a polite farewell, instructed Calla and Rio to stay with Tamsin to review the rest of the patients from Shaiknam’s command, and only then stalked off.
Tamsin chuckled; Skan joined him. Aubri stared at the two of them in wonder.
“What has gotten into you two?” he asked, finally, eaten up with curiosity.
Skan exchanged a knowing look with Tamsin, a look which sent him into further convulsions of laughter. Skan answered for the both of them.
“Lady Cinnabar has Urtho’s ear in a way that no one else does,” he explained. “I think she’s a combination of younger sister and respected teacher. And when she’s angry—aiee, she can melt glass! She won’t be satisfied with simply talking with Urtho and getting a change in those orders, she’ll insist on seeing Garber and Shaiknam and delivering a choice lecture in person. By the time she is done, you won’t be the only one nursing a scorched tail!”
Since Gesten was obviously not going to be satisfied until after he had done something about the situation with Shaiknam, Amberdrake put off his own breakfast until after he had a chance to schedule a conference with Urtho. He had hoped to simply slip in and have a quiet chat with the Wizard, but that was not in the stars; Urtho was chin-deep in advisors long before Amberdrake arrived at his Tower, and it was evident that there were other matters far more pressing—or disastrous—than the assignment of a handful of hertasi.
The situation would probably be taken care of, at least in the short-term, as soon as senior Healers Lady Cinnabar and Tamsin got wind of it. It could easily be dealt with permanently later, when Urtho had a moment of leisure to spare and Amberdrake could have that quiet word with him. Provided, of course, that Lady Cinnabar herself did not save Amberdrake the effort and broach the subject to her kinsman. That was only reasonable. But Gesten was not noted for taking a reasonable view when it came to things he considered important, so Amberdrake avoided a confrontation by avoiding him. Instead of returning to his tent for a solitary breakfast, he went to the mess tent shared by all the kestra’chern. The food would be exactly the same there as he always had when he was alone; Gesten generally fetched it directly from the mess cooks.
And even though he enjoyed the peace of a meal by himself, it was part of his duty as the highest-ranking kestra’chern to spend as much time in casual company with the others as possible. While the kestra’chern had nothing like a regular organization, it fell upon Amberdrake to see that no one was overburdened, that those who needed help got it, and to keep this corps of “support troops” functioning as smoothly as the rest of the army. They were all Healers, after all, and not just “of a sort.” They had a real impact on the combat troops.
A delicate undertaking, being “leader” of a group with no leaders—and not a position he would have chosen if it had not been forced upon him.
Whatever was going on that had Urtho up to his eyebrows in work hadn’t yet worked its way down to the underlings, it seemed. The tent hadn’t more than half a dozen kestra’chern seated at their makeshift tables of scrap wood, sipping bitteralm and conversing over bread and porridge. That wasn’t unusual; kestra’chern were not early risers, given that they generally worked late into the night. No one seemed overly tense or upset. They all greeted Amberdrake with varying degrees of respect and warmth, then went back to their conversations. Amberdrake got himself another cup of bitteralm and a slice of bread and a hard boiled egg, and took a seat near enough to all of them that he could listen in without being obtrusive.
Two of the women had been having a particularly intense conversation; soon after Amberdrake seated himself, it grew increasingly heated. He knew both of them, and neither was Kaled’a’in; one was a robust redhead called, incongruously enough, Lily. The other, named Jaseen, was a thin, ethereal, fragile-looking blonde who could probably have taken any man in the infantry and broken him in half without working up a sweat.
It was Jaseen who was the angrier, it seemed, and all over a client who had been reassigned to Lily. Amberdrake bent his head over his cup and listened, as her voice rose from a whisper to something a great deal more public.
“I don’t care where he’s been assigned or who did it!” she hissed. “You don’t have the background to handle him, and I do.”
“You don’t have the skill!” Lily interrupted rudely. “And I do! That was why he was reassigned to me.”
“Oh, really?” Jaseen replied, her voice dripping with sweet acidity. “I suppose the ability to drive a man into exhausted collapse is called a skill and counts more than experience!”
Lily sprang to her feet, both hands clenched into fists, and her face flushed. “Superior skill in anything is nothing to be ashamed of!” she cried.
“Tell her, Lily,” urged one of the bystanders, as another rose from his seat and moved to Jaseen’s side.
They’re taking sides. It’s time for me to stop this! Amberdrake got up quickly.
And just in time; Lily pulled her arm back to deliver a slap to Jaseen’s cheek. Amberdrake moved as quickly as a striking snake and grabbed her wrist before she could complete the blow.
“What are the two of you doing?” he not-quite-shouted, bringing the argument to a sudden halt. All parties involved stared at him in shock; they had clearly forgotten that he was there.
He let go of Lily’s wrist; her cheeks were scarlet with shame, and she hid both hands behind her back. He looked from her to Jaseen and back again, making no secret of his disapproval.
“I know that the tension has gotten to everyone, but this is no way to handle it! You two are acting precisely as our critics expect us to act!” he accused.
“Don’t you think that you’re both being utterly childish? Bad enough that the two of you started this—but in public, in a common mess tent! The Healers use this tent, and what would one of them have thought if he had come in here to find you two brawling over a client like a pair of—of—” He shook his head, unable to force himself to say the word.
Now it wasn’t only Lily who was flushing; Jaseen and the two who had taken sides in the argument had turned scarlet with humiliation as well.
Now that he had their attention, he would need to engage in a verbal dance as intricate as anything woven by a priest or a seasoned diplomat. Somehow he must chide both of them without touching on the tragedies that had made them kestra’chern in the first place.
‘Wo one knows hurt and heartache like a kestra’chern,” his teachers had said, “because no one feels more pain than their own. Not so with us.” There were tragic stories behind every pair of doe-soft eyes and tears behind all the comely smiles in this camp, and no one knew that better than Amberdrake.
“Neither of you has ever lacked for clients,” he scolded. “It is not as if you are not well-sought-after! And if you hear anyone rating you like athletes, I want to hear about it! You both have the same rank; you differ only in your strongest characteristics. This client you argued about—he has specific needs. Jaseen, what comes first—your own pride, or the client’s well-being?”
At all costs he must never say the word “poison” around Jaseen—she had spent three years imprisoned for poisoning her lover, only to be freed when his brother confessed that he had done it. By then, the “tender” ministrations of the guards had left her a changed woman.
She hid behind the curtain of her hair, but her blushes were still clearly visible. “The client,” she replied, her voice choked with shame.
“Exactly,” he said sternly. “That is what we are all here for. And what is the second rule, Lily?”
Lily had trained as a fighter and had served in Urtho’s army. Injured and left for dead, the experience had shattered her nerves and the injuries themselves left her unfit to face combat again. Lily had been treated as a hopeless cripple, destroyed in both nerve and body, until she fought her way back to what she was now. She looked him in the eyes, but her face was so scarlet that it matched her hair. “The client receives what he needs, not what he wants.”
“And you may—if, in your sacred judgment, and not merely your opinion—deliver what he wants after he gets what he needs,” Amberdrake told them both.
Jaseen sniffed a little and looked up at him to see if she’d had any effect on him with that sniffle of self-pity. Amberdrake’s expression must have told her that she wasn’t winning any points, for she slowly raised her head and brushed her hair back although her red face was a match for Lily’s.
“Jaseen. Just now it was my judgment, as it was the judgment of your old client’s Healer that he needed a little less cosseting and a little more spine.” He leveled his gaze right into her eyes so that she could not look away. “You are quite good at sympathy, but your chief failing is that you don’t know when to stop giving it. Sympathy can be addictive and can kill strong men as surely as a diet of nothing but sugar.”
She whispered something inaudible, but he was good enough at lip-reading to know she had said only, “Yes, Amberdrake.” He turned to Lily.
“It was your job to challenge him. I hope that you did—I will only know after his Healer talks to me. And by ‘challenging’ him, I don’t necessarily mean physically. You could even have challenged him by making him earn what he got from you.” The fact that she avoided his gaze told him she hadn’t exactly done that. “We aren’t even primarily bedmates,” he reminded both of them sternly. “That’s what makes us something more than—what our critics claim we are.”
Both these women had mended from their past shatterings; he knew that, every kestra’chern in this encampment knew that. If they hadn’t, they simply wouldn’t be here. They’d been given guidance in reassembling themselves from the splintered pasts fate had left them, and were obligated by that training to help others as much as they had helped themselves. Amberdrake would not permit incompetence—and although he was not officially a “leader,” he had that much power among the kestra’chern without needing the title. In his experience, true leaders seldom had or needed flamboyant titles.
Jaseen and Lily bowed their heads, their blushes fading. “Yes, Amberdrake,” Lily murmured. “You are right, of course. But it’s easy to forget, sometimes, with the way we’re treated.”
“People treat you as what they wish you were, and that is not always what you are,” he said gently, reminding them both of their pasts. “You must always remember what you are. Always. And always believe in each other.”
Jaseen nodded wordlessly.
He raised his voice slightly so the rest of the observers could hear better. “Whatever the kestra’chern have been in the past, we are now something very important to these warriors. The war may turn upon what we do. We are the rest after the battle, and the blanket to warm them when they shiver. We are comfort in the darkness when death has become far too personal; we are the listeners who hear without judgment. We are priest and lover, companion and stranger. We are all the family many of them have, and something so foreign they can say anything to us. They need us, as they need their rations, their weapons, their Healers. Keep that always in mind, no matter how you are treated.”
Both of them stood taller and straighter, and looked him right in the eyes. Several of the others nodded in agreement with his words, he noted with satisfaction.
“Now, let’s get back to the business of living,” he told them. “You are both too sensible to quarrel over this.” He summoned an infectious grin for the two recent quarrelers and the others, and it caught all around. “We could be spending our time complaining about the seasons. Or the weather. Something productive, something useful.”
With that he turned back to his own neglected breakfast, to leave the two of them to patch things up on their own. Or not—but they were both responsible adults, and he was fairly certain they would behave sensibly.
They whispered tensely for a few moments, then took themselves elsewhere. Well, that was fine, and even if they were foolish enough to continue the quarrel, so long as they did so privately, Amberdrake didn’t care. . . .
I’m slipping, he thought as he held out his cup for a hertasi to refill, rewarding the little lizard with a weak smile. I would have cared, a while ago. I would have stayed with those two until I was certain they had reconciled their argument. Now I’m too tired to make all the world happy.
Too tired, or perhaps, just too practical. He used to think that everyone could be friends with everyone else, if only people took the time to talk about their differences. Now it was enough for him if they kept their differences out of the working relationships, and got the job done.
I’m settling for less these days, I suppose. I just pray there isn’t less out there to settle for. Right now he couldn’t have said if this lack of energy was a good thing, or a bad one. It just was, and he harbored his resources for those times when they were really needed. For his clients, for Urtho, for Skan—if he spent every last bit of energy he had, he’d wind up clumsy at the wrong time, or weak when the next emergency arose. That—
“Are you Amberdrake?”
The harsh query snapped him out of his reverie, and he looked up, a little startled. A young man stood over him, a Healer by his green robes, and a new one, by the pristine condition of the fabric. The scowl he wore did nothing to improve his face—a most unlikely Healer, who stood awkwardly, held himself in clumsy tension, whose big, blunt-fingered hands would have been more at home wrapped around the handle of an ax or guiding a plow. His carrot-colored hair was cut to a short fuzz, and his blocky face, well-sprinkled with freckles, was clean-shaven, but sunburned. Not the sort one thought of as a Healer.
Well, then, but neither was I. . . .
“Are you Amberdrake?” the youngster demanded again, those heavy hands clenched into fists. “They said you were.”
Amberdrake didn’t bother to ask who “they” were; he saw no reason to deny his own identity. “I am, sir,” he said instead, with careful courtesy. “What may I do for you? I must warn you my client list is fairly long, and if you had hoped to make an appointment—”
“Make an appointment?” the boy exploded. “Not a chance! I want you to take my patient off that so-called ‘client list’ of yours! What in the name of all that’s holy did you think you were doing, taking a man that’s just out of his bed and—”
The young Healer continued on in the same vein for some time; Amberdrake simply waited for him to run out of breath as his own anger smoldered dangerously. The fool was obviously harboring the usual misconceptions of what a kestra’chern was, and compounding that error by thinking it was Amberdrake who had solicited his patient for some exotic amorous activity.
All without ever asking anyone about Amberdrake, his clients, or how he got them. One word in the Healers’ compound would have gotten him all the right answers, Amberdrake thought, clenching his jaw so hard his teeth hurt. One word, and he’d have known clients come to me, not the other way around . . . and that “his” patient has been sent to me for therapeutic massage by a senior Healer. But no—no, he’d much rather nurse his own homegrown prejudices than go looking for the truth!
When the boy finally stopped shouting, Amberdrake stood. His eyes were on a level with the Healer’s, but the outrage in them made the boy take an involuntary step backward.
Amberdrake only smiled—a smile that Gesten and Tamsin would have recognized. Then they would have gleefully begun taking bets on how few words it would take Amberdrake to verbally flay the poor fool.
“You’re new to Urtho’s camp, aren’t you?” he asked softly, a sentence that had come to represent a subtle insult among Urtho’s troops. It implied every pejorative ever invented to describe someone who was hopelessly ignorant, impossibly inexperienced—dry-seed, greenie, wet-behind-the-ears, clod-hopper, milk-fed, dunce, country-cousin—and was generally used to begin a dressing-down of one kind or another.
The boy had been with the troops long enough to recognize the phrase when he heard it. He flushed and opened his mouth, but Amberdrake cut him off before he could begin.
“I’ll make allowances for a new recruit,” he said acidly. “But I suggest that you never address another kestra’chern in the tones you just used with me—not if you want to avoid getting yourself a lecture from your senior Healer and possibly find yourself beaten well enough your own skills wouldn’t help you. Did you even bother to ask why ‘your’ patient was sent to me? For your information, ‘your’ patient was assigned to me by Senior Healer M’laud for therapeutic massage, and I had to seriously juggle my overcrowded schedule to fit him in. I am doing you a favor; the man needs treatments that you have not been trained to give. If you had tried, you probably would have injured him. If you had bothered to ask your Senior Healer why he had scheduled this patient for other treatments, instead of barging in here to insult and embarrass me, you would have been told exactly that.”
The boy’s mouth hung open, and his ears reddened. His eyes were flat and expressionless, he had been taken so much by surprise.
“Furthermore,” Amberdrake continued, warming to his subject, “If you had taken the time to ask your Senior Healer why anyone would send a patient down the hill here to the kestra’chern for treatment, you would have learned that we are considered by all the Senior Healers to be Healers with skills on a par with their own—and that there are some things that you, with all your training, will never be able to supply that a kestra’chern can. Our preliminary training is identical to yours—with the exception that most kestra’chern don’t have the luxury of Healing Gifts to rely on. We have to do our job with patience, words, and physical effort. Healing means more than mending the body, young man—it means mending the heart, the mind, and the spirit as well, or the body is useless. That doesn’t make us better or worse than you. Just different. Just as there are times when you heal what we cannot, so there are times when we can mend what you cannot. You would do well to learn that, and quickly. Inexperience can be overcome, ignorance be enlightened, but prejudice will destroy you.” He allowed his anger to show now, a little. “This war is not forgiving of fools.”
The Healer took another involuntary step back, his eyes wide and blind with confusion.
Amberdrake nodded, stiffly. “I will see your former patient at the arranged time, and if you wish to overrule it, I will speak with Urtho personally about the matter. The word of Healer M’laud should take precedence over your objections.”
And with that, he turned and left the tent, too angry to wait and see if the boy managed to stammer out an apology, and in no mood to accept it if he did.
He returned to his tent, knowing that it would be empty while Gesten made his own rounds up on Healer’s Hill. That was good; he didn’t really want anyone around at the moment. He needed to cool down; to temper his own reaction with reason.
He shoved the tent flap aside and tied it closed; clear warning to anyone looking for him that he did not want to be disturbed. Once inside, he took several deep breaths, and considered his next action for a moment, letting the faintly-perfumed “twilight” within the tent walls soothe him.
There were things he could do while he thought; plenty of things he normally left to Gesten. Mending, for one. Gesten would be only too pleased to discover that chore no longer waiting his attention.
Fine. He passed into the inner chamber of the tent where no client ever came, to his own bed and the minor chaos that Gesten had not been able to clean up yet. Clothing needing mending is in the sage hamper. He gathered up a number of articles with popped seams and trim that had parted company with the main body of the garment; fetched the supply of needles and thread out from its hiding place. He settled himself on a pile of cushions where the light was good, and began replacing a sleeve with fine, precise stitches.
The chirurgeons that had been his teachers had admired those stitches, once upon a time.
No one knows hurt and heartache like a kestra’chern, because no one has felt it like a kestra’chern. If he had told the boy that, would the young idiot have believed it?
What if I had told him a story—”Once on a time, there was a Kaled’a’in family, living far from the camps of their kin—”
His family, who, with several others, had accepted the burden of living far from the Clans, in the land once named Tantara and a city called Therium. They had accepted the burden of living so far away, so that the Kaled’a’in would have agents there. His family had become accustomed to the ways of cities after living there for several generations, and had adopted many of the habits and thoughts of those dwelling within them. They became a Kaled’a’in family who had taken on so many of those characteristics that it would have been difficult to tell them from the natives except for their coloring—unmistakably Kaled’a’in, with black hair, deep amber skin, and blue, blue eyes.
Once upon a time, this was a family who had seen the potential for great Empathic and Healing power in one of their youngest sons. And rather than sending him back to the Clans to learn the “old-fashioned” ways of the Kaled’a’in Healers, had instead sent him farther away, to the capital of the neighboring country of Predain, to learn “modern medicine.”
He took a sudden sharp breath at the renewed pain of that long-ago separation. It never went away; it simply became duller, a bit easier to endure with passing time.
They thought they were doing the right thing. Everyone told me how important it was to learn the most modern methods.
Everyone told me how important it was to use the Gifts that I had been bom with. I was only thirteen, I had to believe them. The only problem was that the College of Chirurgeons was so “modern” it didn’t believe in Empathy, Healing, or any other Gift. The chirurgeons only believed in what they could see, weigh, and measure; in what anyone with training could do, and “not just those with some so-called mystical Gifts.”
The Predain College of Chirurgeons did provide a good, solid grounding in the kinds of Healing that were performed without any arcane Gifts at all. Amberdrake was taught surgical techniques, the compounding of medicines from herbs and minerals, bone-setting, diagnoses, and more. And if he had been living at home, he might even have come to enjoy it.
But he was not at home. Surrounded by the sick and injured, sent far away from anyone who understood him—in his first year he was the butt of unkind jokes and tricks from his fellow classmates, who called him “barbarian,” and he was constantly falling ill. The Gift of Empathy was no Gift at all when there were too many sick and dying people to shut out. And the chirurgeons that were his teachers only made him sicker, misdiagnosing him and dosing him for illnesses he didn’t even have.
And on top of it all, he was lonely, with no more than a handful of people his own age willing even to be decent to him. Sick at heart and sick in spirit, little wonder he was sick in body as well.
He had been so sick that he didn’t even realize how things had changed outside the College—had no inkling of how a mage named Ma’ar had raised an army of followers and supporters in his quest for mundane, rather than arcane, power. He heard of Ma’ar only in the context of “Ma’ar says” when one of his less-friendly classmates found some way to persecute him and felt the need to justify that persecution.
From those chance-fallen quotes, he knew only that Ma’ar was a would-be warrior and philosopher who had united dozens of warring tribes under his fist, making them part of his “Superior Breed.” Proponents of superior-breed theories had come and gone before, attracted a few fanatics, then faded away after breaking a few windows. All the teachers said so when he asked them.
I saw no reason to disbelieve them. Amberdrake took his tiny, careful stitches, concentrating his will on them, as if by mending up his sleeve he could mend up his past.
He had paid no real attention to things happening outside the College. He didn’t realize that Ma’ar had been made Prime Minister to the King of Predain. He was too sunk in depression to pay much attention when the King died without an heir, leaving Ma’ar the titular ruler of Predain. King Ma’ar, the warrior-king.
But he certainly noticed the changes that followed.
Kaled’a’in and other “foreigners” throughout Predain were suddenly subject to more and more restrictions: where they could go, what they could do, even what they were permitted to wear. Inside the College or out of it, wherever he went he was the subject of taunts, and once or twice, even physical attacks.
By then, the teachers at the College were apologetic, even fearful of what was going on in the greater world; they protected him in their own way, but the best they could do was to confine him to the College and its grounds. And they were bewildered; they had paid no attention to “Ma’ar and his ruffians” and now it was too late to do anything about them. Intellectual problems they understood, but a problem requiring direct action left them baffled and helpless.
And in that, how unlike Urtho they were!
The restrictions from outside continued, turning him into a prisoner within the walls of the College. He stopped getting letters from his family. He was no longer allowed to send letters to them.
I was only fifteen! How could I know what to do?
Then he heard the rumors from the town, overheard from other students frightened for themselves. Ma’ar’s men were “deporting” the “foreigners” and taking them away, and no one knew where. Ill, terrified, and in a panic, he had done the only thing he could think of when the rumors said Ma’ar’s men were coming to the College to sift through the ranks of students and teachers alike for more “decadent foreigners.”
He ran away that very night with only the clothes on his back, the little money he had with him, and the food he could steal from the College kitchen. In the dead of winter, he fled across country, hiding by day, traveling by night, stealing to eat, all the way back to Therium. He spent almost a week in a fevered delirium, acting more like a crazed animal than the moody but bright young Healer-student he was. He was captured by town police twice, and escaped from them the first time by violence, the second time by trickery.
Before he was halfway home, his shoes, made for town streets, had split apart, leaving his feet frozen and numb while he slogged across the barren countryside. He had stolen new shoes from farmhouse steps, hearing more of the rumors himself as he eavesdropped on conversations in taverns and kitchens. Then, from many of his hiding places, he saw the reality. Ma’ar was eliminating anyone who opposed his rule—and anyone who might oppose war with the neighboring lands. He had mastered the army, and augmented it with officers chosen from the ranks of his followers. Ma’ar intended to strike before his neighbors had any warning of his intentions.
Ma’ar was making himself an emperor.
And at home, indeed, as the students had said—all the “foreigners” were being rounded up and taken away. Sick with fear and guilt, Amberdrake hid in the daylight hours in an abandoned house with a broken-down door. Ma’ar’s troopers had been there first, and when night came, he took whatever food he found there and continued his flight.
Looting the bones of the lost. May they forgive me.
It would have been a difficult journey for an adult with money and some resources, with experience. It was a nightmare for Amberdrake. The bulk of his journey lay across farmlands, forests, grazing lands. Most of the time, he went hungry and slept in ditches and under piles of brush. Small wonder that when he stumbled at last into Therium, he burned with fever again and was weak and nauseous with starvation.
I came home. And I found an empty house, in a city that was in a panic. Ma’ar’s troops were a day behind me.
No one knew what had become of his family. No one cared what became of him.
He found the neighbors preparing to evacuate, piling their wagon high with their possessions. They had no time for him, these folk who had called themselves “friends,” and who had known him all his life.
I begged them to tell me where my family was. I went to my knees and begged with tears pouring down my face. I knelt there in the mud and horse dung and falling snow and pleaded with them. They called me vile names—and when I got to my feet—
Old sorrow, bitter sorrow, choked him again, blinded his eyes until he had to stop taking his tiny stitches and wait for the tears to clear.
I never knew till then what “alone” truly meant. Father, Mother, Firemare, Starsinger, little Zephyr—gone, all gone—Uncle Silverhorn, Star gem, Windsteed, Brightbird—
He had flung himself at the false neighbors, and they had shoved him away, and then raised the horse whip to him. One blow was all it took, and the world and sky disappeared for Amberdrake. He awoke bleeding, at least a candlemark later, with a welt across his chest as thick as his hand. Half-mad with terror and grief, he staggered on into the snow.
He fell against the side of another wagon full of escapees.
The wagon belonging to the kestra’chern Silver Veil, and her household and apprentices.
He forced his hands to remain steady. This is the past. I cannot change it. I did what I could, I tried my best, and how was I to know what Ma’ar would do when older and wiser folk than I did not?
Silver Veil did not send her servants to drive him away; although by now he hardly knew what was happening to him. In pain, freezing and burning by turns, he barely recalled being taken up into the moving wagon, falling into soft darkness.
In that darkness he had remained for a very long time. . . .
His hands shook, and he put the mending down, closed his eyes, and performed a breathing exercise to calm himself—one that Silver Veil herself had taught him, in fact.
He had heard of her, in rude whispers, before he had been sent away. As little boys on the verge of puberty always did, his gang of friends spoke about her and boasted how they would seek her out when they were older and had money. She was as beautiful as a statue carved by a master sculptor, slim as a boy, graceful as a gazelle. She took her name from her hair, a platinum fall of silk that she had never cut, that trailed on the ground behind her when she let it fall loose. He had always thought she was simply a courtesan, more exotic and expensive than most, but only that.
It took living within her household to learn differently.
She tended him through his illness, she and her household. He posed as one of her apprentices as they made their way to some place safer—and then, after a time, it was no longer a pose.
Silver Veil did her best to shelter her own from the horrors of that flight, but there was no way to shelter them from all of it. She had no Gifts, but she had an uncanny sense for finding safe routes. Unfortunately, many of those lay through places Ma’ar’s troops had lately passed.
Ma’ar’s forces were not kind to the defeated; they were even less kind to those who had resisted them. Amberdrake still woke in the night, sometimes, shaking and drenched with sweat, from terrible dreams of seeing whole families impaled on stakes to die. Nearly as terrible was the one time they had been forced to hide while Ma’ar’s picked men—and his makaar—force marched a seemingly endless column of captives past them. Amberdrake had watched in shock from fear and dread, searching each haggard face for signs of his own kin.
Was it a blessing he had not seen anyone he knew, or a curse?
Silver Veil plied her trade as they fled—sometimes for a fee but just as often for nothing, for the sake of those who needed her. And sometimes, as a bribe, to get her household through one of Ma’ar’s checkpoints. The apprentices, Amberdrake among them, tried, to spare her that as much as possible, offering themselves in her place. Often as not, the offer was accepted, for there was something about Silver Veil that intimidated many of Ma’ar’s officers. She was too serene, too intelligent, too sophisticated for them. It was by no means unusual to find that the man they needed to bribe preferred something less—refined—than anything Silver Veil offered.
And finally, as spring crept cautiously out of hiding, they came out into lands that were in friendly hands. But when Silver Veil reviewed her options, she learned that they were fewer than she had hoped. Soon she knew that she must seek a road that would take her away from the likeliest direction his family had taken—back to Ka’venusho, the land of the Kaled’a’in.
And once again, she provided for young Amberdrake, she found another kestra’chern to take him as an apprentice and be his protector, one who would be willing to go with him to Ka’venusho. This time, the kestra’chern was old, mostly retired—and unlike Silver Veil, Lorshallen shared with Amberdrake the Gifts of Healing and Empathy. Silver Veil took a tear-filled leave of him and his new mentor, and she and her household fled on into the south. One of the apprentices claimed that she had a place waiting for her in the train of one of the Shaman-Kings there, in a land where winter never came. Amberdrake hoped so; he had never heard anything more of her.
The war encroached, as Silver Veil had known it would, and Amberdrake and his new mentor Lorshallen fled before it.
Lorshallen taught him everything he knew about his ancient art; Amberdrake learned it all with a fierce desire to master each and every discipline. All the things that the chirurgeons had not believed in, he mastered under Lorshallen’s hands. And he, in his turn, taught Lorshallen the things that they had known. Silver Veil had completed his erotic education and had done her best to heal his body; Lorshallen completed his education as a Healer and had done his best to heal Amberdrake’s mind and heart.
Eventually, they came to the Clans, and Amberdrake briefly took his place among his own people, an honored place, for the Kaled’a’in knew the value of a kestra’chern, particularly one as highly trained as Amberdrake, and they respected the pain he had gone through. The Kaled’a’in had a deep belief that no pain was meaningless; something always came of it. He knew that tales of what he had gone through were whispered around cook-fires, although such a thing was never even hinted at to him. Those in pain could look for strength to someone who had suffered more than they.
Always, he searched for word of his family. His people understood, for to a Kaled’a’in, the Clan is all. The Clan he settled among, k’Leshya, did their best, sending out messages to all the rest, looking into every rumor of refugees, searching always for word of Kestra’chern Amberdrake’s lost family.
And they never found it. In a nation of close-knit families, I remain alone, always alone. . . . There will be no brother to share man-talk with, no sister to comfort for her first broken heart. No father to nod . with pride at my accomplishment, no mother to come to for advice. No cousins to ask me to stand as kin-next at a naming ceremony for a child. And when I die, it will be to go alone into that last great darkness—
I have lost so much that sometimes I think I am nothing inside but one hollow husk, an emptiness that nothing will ever fill. Still, I try to bail in more and more hope, in hope that the sorrow will seep out.
When the call came for volunteers from the Mage of Silence, Amberdrake answered at once. At least he would no longer be surrounded by Clans and families to which he would never belong, but by others torn from their homes and roots. And he would fight Ma’ar, in his own way, with his own skills.
Eventually, all of the Clans came to settle at the base of Urtho’s Tower, but by then, he had already carved his place among the kestra’chern.
He shook his head and bit his lip. Gesten might think he was blind to the workings of his own mind, but he knew why he felt the way he did about Skan. The Black Gryphon and Gesten had become the closest thing he had to a family, now.
And the closest thing I am ever likely to have.
When—best say, if—a kestra’chern ever found a mate, it was nearly always someone from within the ranks of the kestra’chern. No one else would understand; no one else would ever be able to tolerate sharing a mate with others. But for such a pairing to work, it had to be between equals. The altercation between Jaseen and Lily had only shown how easily quarrels could spring up over a client. And if one kestra’chern in a pairing was of a higher rank than another, such quarrels and, even deadlier, jealousy were more than likely, they were inevitable. Beneath the surface of every kestra’chern Amberdrake had ever met was a lurking fear of inadequacy. So unless both in a pairing were equal—
The lesser would eventually come to envy and fear the greater. And fear that his or her own skills would not be enough to hold the partner.
Amberdrake was the equal of no kestra’chern here; that was an established fact. And it meant even temporary liaisons must be approached with great caution.
Which left him even more alone.
Even more alone—no. This is ridiculous. If I were a client, I’d be told to stop feeling sorry for myself and concentrate on something that would make me feel good. Or at least stop me from being engulfed by the past.
The sleeve was done; he picked up a second garment and began sewing a fringe of tiny beads back in place. Thousands of tiny beads had been strung into a heavy, glittering fall of color, in luxurious imitation of a Kaled’a’in dancing costume where the fringe would be made of dyed leather. It was a task exacting enough to require quite a bit of concentration, and with gratitude, he lost himself in it.
Until someone scratched at the tied flap of the tent door, and he looked up in startlement. The silhouetted shadow on the beige of the canvas was human, not that of a hertasi.
Now what? he wondered, but put his mending down and rose to answer it.
He was a little disconcerted to find yet another young Healer—another stranger, and another newcomer—waiting uneasily for him to answer the summons. “Are you—ah—Amberdrake?” the youngster asked, blushing furiously. “The—ah—kes-kes-kes—”
“Yes, I am Kestra’chern Amberdrake,” he replied, with a sigh. “How may I help you?”
The youngster—barely out of a scrawny, gawky adolescence, and not yet grown into the slender and graceful adult Amberdrake saw signs he would become—stared down at his shoes. “I—ah—have a patient, and my Senior Healer said my patient needs to see you and if I wanted to know why—I, ah, should ask you myself.”
“And who is your Senior Healer?” Amberdrake asked, a little more sharply than he had intended.
“M’laud,” came the barely audible reply.
At that, Amberdrake came very near to destroying the poor lad with a bray of laughter. After having sent one of M’laud’s juniors up the hill with his tail on fire, the Senior Healer had evidently decided to teach his juniors about kestra’chern directly.
But he kept control of himself, and when the lad looked up, it was to see a very serene countenance, a mask that would have done Silver Veil herself proud.
“Come in, please,” Amberdrake said, calmly. “I think you are probably laboring under a great many misconceptions, and I would be most happy to dispel those for you.”
When he held the tent flap wide and gestured, the boy had no choice but to come inside. Amberdrake noted with amusement how the youngster stared around him, while trying not to look as if he was doing so.
What does he expect to see? Never mind, I think I can guess.
“Take a seat, please,” he said, gesturing to a hassock at a comfortable distance from the cushion he took for himself. “I take it that you are afraid that I am going to hurt your patient, is that true?” At the boy’s stiff nod, he smiled. “I take it also that you have never had the services of a kestra’chern yourself?”
“Of course not!” the young Healer blurted with indignation, then realized how rude that was and winced. But Amberdrake only chuckled.
“Young man—what is your name, anyway?”
“Lanz,” came the gurgled reply.
“Well, Lanz—by now, I should think that M’laud has made you aware that the preliminary training for Healers and kestra’chern is practically identical. And I know. I began my training as a Healer.” Amberdrake raised his eyebrow at the boy, who gaped at him.
“But why didn’t you—I mean—why a kestra’chern?” Lanz blurted again.
“You sound as if you were saying, ‘why a chunk of dung?’ Do you realize that?” Amberdrake countered. “When you consider that the Kaled’a’in rank the kestra’chern with shaman, that’s not only rude, that’s likely to get you attacked, at least by anyone in the Clans!”
Lanz hung his head and said something too smothered to hear, but his ears and neck turned as scarlet as Amberdrake’s favorite robe.
I seem to be making a great many people blush today. Another Gift? “Lanz, most of the reasons I became a kestra’chern are too complicated to go into for the most part, but I can tell you the only simple one. I am also Empathic, too strong an Empath to be of any use as a conventional Healer.” Amberdrake nodded as Lanz looked up cautiously from beneath a fringe of dark hair. “That doesn’t mean I became this because I am afflicted by some horrible mental curse—but as a kestra’chern—well, I never see those who are so badly injured that their physical pain overwhelms everything else. But I can use my Gifts and my training to Heal the deeper, and more subtle pains, injuries of mind, body, and heart they may not even be aware they have.”
“But not all kestra’chern are Healers,” Lanz said doubtfully. “Or Empaths.”
Amberdrake smiled. “That is true. Most of them are not. And those who have no Gifts must work the harder to learn how to read the languages of body and tone; to see the subtle signals of things that the Gifted can read directly.” As Lanz’s blushes faded, he allowed himself a chuckle. “My friend, there is one thing that the kestra’chern have learned over the centuries; people who believe they are coming to someone only for an hour or two of pleasure are far more likely to unburden themselves than people who are confronted with a Healer or other figure of authority. If we honey-coat the Healing with a bit of enjoyment, of physical pleasure, where’s the harm? Now—is your patient the last one on my roster tonight?”
“I think so.” Lanz sat up a little straighter now, and he had lost some of the tension in his body that had told Amberdrake that the boy was afraid of him.
“M’laud sent me a briefing on her. The reason she is coming to me is that she is under some kind of great inner tension that M’laud has been unable to release, as well as some severe battlefield trauma, and that is making it impossible for her damaged body to heal.” Lanz’s face lit up, and Amberdrake decided that he must have thought her failure to heal was his fault. “M’laud suspects that she suffered some kind of abuse in her childhood, which is the real root of her problems. Essentially, she is unconsciously punishing herself for being such a bad person that she deserved abuse.” He sighed and shook his head. “I know that this makes no sense, but this is something that kestra’chern in particular see and hear all the time. And it is not something you have any chance of dealing with, for I greatly doubt you would ever get her to trust you enough. Not because you are not trustworthy, but simply because of her own problems. You have other responsibilities to take your time, and you are less experienced with this kind of problem than I. I am a stranger, and it is often easier to say terrible things to a stranger than it is to someone who has known you, for the stranger will not prejudge. I will not be anywhere near the front lines, ever, and thus she will know that I have no chance of being cut down by the enemy. I become safe to think of as a friend because she knows she will not lose me.”
Lanz shifted a little in his seat, looking rather doubtful, and Amberdrake decided to overwhelm him, just a little. “Here—I’ll prove it to you,” he said, in an authoritative voice.
And he recited the litany of all the formal training he’d had, first with the chirurgeons, then Silver Veil, and finally Lorshallen. It took rather a long time, and before he was finished, Lanz’s eyes had glazed over and it looked to Amberdrake as if the poor boy’s head was in quite a spin.
“You see?” he finished. “If you’ve had half that training, I’d call you a good Healer.”
“I never knew,” the youngster said in a daze, “and when Karly came up the Hill from talking to you—”
“Karly? The redhead?” Amberdrake threw back his head and laughed.
Shyly, Lanz joined in the laughter. “I heard that one of the other Senior Healers said, ‘I hope he has a regular bedmate, because after talking to Amberdrake the way he did, there isn’t a kestra’chern in all of the camp who’ll take him for any price!’ I suppose he was awfully rude to you.”
“Rude?” Amberdrake replied. “That doesn’t begin to describe him! Still, Karly needn’t worry. We’re obligated to take those in need, and I can’t imagine anyone more in need of—our services—than he is!”
Lanz smiled shyly. “And Karly’s rather thick,” he offered. “After talking to you—you being so kind and all—well, if you take any of my patients, I think I’m going to be awfully grateful, and kind of flattered.”
This time Amberdrake’s smile was as much full of surprise as pleasure. “Thank you, Lanz. I will take that as a very high compliment. Can I offer you anything?”
The boy blinked shyly. “I don’t suppose a cup of bitteralm would delay me much—and could you tell me a little more about some of the others down here?”
Amberdrake rose, and Lanz rose with him. “Why not come with me to the mess tent and see for yourself?” he asked.
“I think—I will!” Lanz replied, as if he was surprised by his own response.
By such little victories are wars and hearts won, Amberdrake thought with a wry pleasure, as he led the way.
Zhaneel flexed her talons, digging them into the wood of her enormous block-perch. She checked over her harness again—wire-scissors, bolts, spikes, rope-knife, preknotted ties, all sized for her large, stubby “hands”—and stared out over the obstacle course she herself had set up. The course covered several acres by now, built mainly in erosion trenches and brook-cut hollows that were of little value to anyone in Urtho’s camp, dotted with fallen trees and sandstone boulders. To get from here to the end of it, she would have to fly, dodge, crawl, and even swim. There were water hazards, fire hazards, missiles lobbed by catapult—
And now, magic.
She had already gotten the help of Amberdrake’s hertasi, Gesten, in this endeavor. He’d been there from the very beginning; somehow he had known, perhaps through Amberdrake, what she was going to attempt. He had never asked her why. He simply showed up unasked, acted as her hands, then found three others to aid him in setting up the course and in triggering the hazards. At first, no one had paid any attention to what she was doing, but gradually her runs attracted a small audience. At first, this had bothered her, until the day when, after several unsuccessful tries at passing a hazard of simulated crossbow bolts, she made it through untouched and the tiny group applauded wildly.
That was when she realized that they were not there to make fun of her, but to cheer her on.
She had honestly not known what to make of that; it bewildered her. Why should anyone take an interest in her?
Then again, she had never been able to effectively figure out why hertasi and humans did most things. . . .
But today, she had a larger audience than ever before, and she knew precisely why this time. Word had spread that her obstacle course included magic.
She hadn’t planned on including magical traps; those took effort and much energy, and she had never for a moment believed that there was any mage in the entire camp willing to devote so much as a candlemark of practice time to helping her. Or so she had thought, until a few days ago.
A young mage, a Journeyman named Vikteren, approached her for help. He needed spell-components. Still-living spell-components, which were not at all interested in becoming components of anything.
Zhaneel’s speed and agility were what caught his attention; speed and agility were precisely what he lacked in going after starlings, rabbits, and other small, swift creatures. So they struck a bargain; she would hunt for him, and he would provide her with magical obstacles.
He had been doing so for several days now, and he had told her yesterday, grinning, that he was very impressed. Actually, what he had said was, “You’re good, gryphon! Very damned good!”
So, much to her shock and amazement, had the gryphons’ trainer, Taran Shire. The day after Vikteren began helping her, Taran showed up on the sidelines. Now, along with the young Journeyman, the seasoned trainer joined her every day, working with her on his own time.
She tried to put her audience out of her mind, although that was far from easy: her own kind were out there, other gryphons, those from other wings as well as her own. And what was more, some of those same gryphons had taken to training on the course, and leaving her tokens of appreciation.
Every time she made a pass on the course, people cheered her efforts, from hertasi to humans, from gryphons to a lone kyree who seemed to find her fascinating. Now, they waited for her to start yet again.
A white and red striped flag midway down the course went up and waved twice, and she launched from the block. This was a rescue mission to free a captured gryphon. The details had been kept secret, at her request, so she had only a general idea what to expect. One thing she knew for certain—Vikteren and the hertasi planned to make her work harder than ever before.
The first danger came only twelve wingstrokes after starting—a sudden gust of wind from her right. It hit her hard and pushed her toward a downed tree’s spidery limbs, an easy place to lose feathers and find lacerations. She reacted by rolling in midair and grounding, folding her wings in tightly while she clutched at stones and brush. The wind gusts ceased, and Zhaneel leapt over a ravine, to the cheers of the audience.
She crept into the next erosion channel, popping her head up every few seconds to look for danger. A quick bolt of fire shot toward the ravine from behind a boulder and was followed by a huge fireball that roared like a sustained lightning strike. It burned slowly through the ravine, catching the underbrush afire. She heard the audience gasp even over the roar, as Zhaneel scrambled out of their line of sight, disappearing from their view. She knew what was in their minds. Had the game gone too far?
But she couldn’t worry about them. They’d see her soon enough—
She popped up again at the far end of the adjoining erosion cut. She leapt to the sandstone boulder with a growl, and drew her rope-knife on the surprised mage hiding behind it. Hah! Hello Vikteren.
“You die!” she sang out, and Vikteren grinned and fell backward.
“I’m dead here,” he reminded her as he stood up and brushed off his robes. “See you further on, maybe.”
“You might not see me at all, dead body!” she laughed, then sheathed the knife. There was a mission to accomplish, a gryphon to rescue, and the adventure had barely begun.
Amberdrake felt like a proud and anxious father as he watched the young gryphon waiting on her block-perch. Every line and quivering muscle betrayed her tension and her concentration. He had arrived after she took her position, but still managed to commandeer a place in the front beside Skan. The Black Gryphon had recovered nicely from his injuries although, on the orders of Lady Cinnabar, he was still officially convalescing. He was keeping an uncharacteristically low profile, however—as if he were afraid his presence would distract the young female at some crucial moment.
Well, it might. The youngster had been patently overawed by the Black Gryphon; if she knew he was watching, she might well lose her concentration.
Skan’s tail twitched impatiently, but as Amberdrake put a comradely hand on his shoulder he gave Amberdrake a sideways gryph--grin before riveting his attention on the distant gray and buff figure of Zhaneel.
At the end of the course, a flag dropped. Zhaneel left the block with a leap, followed by an audible snap of wings opening.
Amberdrake had never seen a gryphon run an obstacle course before, though he’d heard from Gesten that Skan had been out here to watch for the past three days in a row. He hadn’t been able to imagine what kinds of obstacles could be put in front of a gryphon, whose aerial nature made ordinary obstacles ridiculous. He was impressed, both with Zhaneel’s ability to create the course, and her ability to run it.
More to the point, so was Skan.
He gasped with the others, when it appeared, briefly, that a rolling fireball had accidentally engulfed her; he hadn’t realized that there would be some hazards on this course that were real, and not just illusions. He sighed with relief when she reappeared, and cheered when she “killed” someone, a Journeyman mage by his clothing.
Skan remained absolutely motionless, except for the very end of his tail, which flopped and twitched like a fish on land. Like a cat, the end of his tail betrayed his mental state.
Well, every other gryphon in the audience was watching her closely, too; gryphons were by nature impressed with any kind of fancy flying. It was part of courtship and mating, after all. But none of the others had quite the same rapt intensity in their gaze as Skan did.
In point of fact, he looked as much stunned as enraptured, rather as if he’d been hit in the back of the head with a club.
Amberdrake smothered a chuckle when he realized that Skan’s eyes had glazed over. Poor Black Gryphon! He was used to impressing, not being impressed!
Zhaneel neatly dodged a set of ambushes; crossbow bolts, dropping nets, and an illusion of fighters. “She’s good, isn’t she,” he said, feeling incredibly proud of her. She wasn’t just good, she was smooth. She integrated her movements, flowing from flight to ground and back again seamlessly.
“She’s beautiful,” Skan rumbled absently. “Just—beautiful. . . .”
His beak gaped a little, and Amberdrake had to choke back another laugh. So the great Black Gryphon was a little bit more than simply impressed, was he? Well, fancy flying was the gryphon equivalent of erotic dance.
“Skan,” he muttered under his breath, “you’re going to embarrass both of us. That tongue looks really stupid sticking out of the corner of your beak.”
Skandranon hadn’t realized that he was making his interest in Zhaneel quite so obvious.
“Pull it in, Skan,” Amberdrake muttered insistently. And annoyingly, but that was the privilege of an old friend. Better him than anyone else, though. There were plenty of other folk who enjoyed a chance to get a jab in; why give them more fuel for their fires?
More to the point, such teasing might be turned against Zhaneel, and he already knew that her fragile self-esteem would not survive it. He wasn’t even certain she’d recognize teasing if she encountered it.
One of the Second Wing West gryphons, a female named Lyosha, sidled up beside him, and preened his neck-ruff briefly. It was a common enough sort of greeting between gryphons, one which could lead to further intimacies or simply be accepted as a greeting and nothing more. He and Lyosha had flown spirals together before, and she was obviously hoping the greeting would lead to the former, but he was not interested this time. Not with Zhaneel dancing her pattern “with danger before his eyes.
“Lyosha,” he said simply, acknowledging her presence in a friendly manner, but offering nothing more. “This is fascinating.”
Lyosha gave his feathers one last nibble, then subsided with a sigh. “True enough,” she replied with resignation. “I’m tempted to start running this course myself. It’s enough to set a gryphon’s tail afire!”
He ignored the hint and coughed politely. “Well,” he said, his eyes never leaving Zhaneel, “if she’s not careful, the tail that’s afire may be hers.”
And let Lyosha make of that what she will. . . .
Zhaneel slunk over a decaying tree trunk toward four upright sacks of hay. The sacks had been clustered around a burning campfire and wore discarded uniforms. A sign next to them read, “Off duty. Talking. Eating.” Next to them was a midsized tent and pickets for four horses, but no horses were there.
Tent is big enough to hold ten. Four here, four horses gone, may mean eight. Four still out or on mission. Ma’ar’s squads are eight and one officer, but officers get separate tents. Where is the officer, then, and the others?
Zhaneel drew her hand-crossbow. A tug with her beak, and it was cocked for a bolt to be laid in the track. She pulled one from her harness and laid it in, ready to fire.
Use the cover you have available. Steady with solid object.
She lowered herself behind the trunk, braced the hand-crossbow on the crumbling bark—and fired. The shaft hit the sack on the far left, and she hastily drew a second bolt while reading the weapon with her beak. The second shot hit the next sack dead center and pitched it forward into the fire. She then snapped the hand-crossbow onto its tension-buckle and leapt over the tree trunk to maul the remaining two sacks of hay.
That was when the barrage began.
The tree-line to her left erupted with slung stones as the hidden miniature siege engines on the right shredded their foliage. Zhaneel power-stroked high into the air and avoided major damage, although some of the stones’ stung her on the feet and flank. That put her in the open for the fan of firebolts from the hillside, where she saw her objective—a gryphon. A real gryphon, under a wire net, staked out in a very unflattering position.
Oh, no! I hadn’t asked for that!
So Vikteren’s promised surprise was that she wouldn’t be rescuing a bundle of cloth called a “gryphon”—she would have to deal with an actual one! But if Vikteren had gotten the cooperation of a gryphon as a prisoner, then what else could he have—
A whistling flash from the sky was her only warning. Two broadwings—from Fourth Wing West, by their wingtip markings—stooped down on her. They trailed white ribbons from their hind legs—sparring markers. Simulated makaar!
So be it!
Amberdrake’s hand tightened on Skan’s shoulder, and he felt Skan’s muscles tense up underneath his fingers. The two “makaar” swooped down on Zhaneel from above, and he could not see any way that she could escape them.
He couldn’t, but she most clearly did!
She ducked—and rolled, so that the “makaar” missed her by a scant talon-length; as they shot past her, she leapt up into the air behind them. By luck or incredible timing, she snagged the trailing white streamer of one, and ripped it off.
The “dead makaar” spat out a good-natured curse and a laugh, then obligingly kited out of the way of combat. It was a good thing he did so because Zhaneel had shot skyward, gaining altitude and speed, and was just about to turn to make a second attack run. The second broadwing had tried to pursue her, but his heavy body was just not capable of keeping up with her. If her objective had simply been to survive this course, she would already have won.
But it wasn’t, of course. She still had to “free the trapped gryphon,” and get both of them off the course “alive.” The trapped one was Skan’s old tent-mate Aubri, whose injuries still had him on the “recovering” list, and who would not be able to move very quickly. Again, that was a reflection of reality; any gryphon held captive would be injured, perhaps seriously, and his speed and movement would be severely limited.
Aubri had volunteered for the ignominious position he was currently in partly out of boredom, partly out of a wish to help Zhaneel, and partly because it pleased him to irk their commander in every way possible. And Zhaneel’s success in these special training bouts must be irking the very devil out of their commander, who could hardly encompass the notion that a gryphon might have a mind of her own, and must be in knots over one who had ideas of her own.
Zhaneel wheeled and started her dive. The “makaar,” who had been trying vainly to pursue her, suddenly realized that although he would be more than a match for her in a straight-on combat, he was never going to be able to take her on in strike-and-run tactics.
And she was not going to let him close.
He turned, heading for a place that Amberdrake suspected held that young mage—would Zhaneel see it, too?
Or would she be so involved in the immediate enemy that she would forget there were others on this course?
Like a falcon stooping on her prey, her wings folded tightly along her back, and she held her talons up against her body—but unlike the broad-wings, who held their talons ready to strike and bind, hers were fisted. She had learned how to knock her foes out of the sky once, and now it was second nature to her—was she so caught up in the euphoria of combat that the “kill” was all she saw?
Skan held his breath as Zhaneel dropped down out of the sky. He was certain she had forgotten the Journeyman mage, but he certainly had not forgotten her—and the best place for him was somewhere near the staked-out “prisoner.” She might get her immediate foe, but Vikteren would certainly get her—
But as the broadwing pumped frantically to evade her, she shot past him completely, ignoring him!
Instead, she stooped on an insignificant-looking mound of shrubbery, leveled out into a shallow curve, and buffeted it with fists and wings until the illusion of brush dissolved and Vikteren tumbled out of the way, laughing.
“All right!” he called, scrubbing dust out of his eyes with his fists. “Holy Kreeshta, you’ve got me already! Give me a moment, will you?”
“You die twice, Mage!” she cried, as she leapt skyward again. She looked around for the second “makaar,” but the broadwing had followed the example of most makaar left to face a gryphon alone, and had fled the scene, his ribbon and his “life” intact. Of course, unlike a real makaar, he would remain unpunished for such desertion.
Skan rumbled approval deep in his chest, as she landed as close to the staked-out and netted “prisoner” as possible—which in her case, was practically on top of him. There were probably traps all around her, but she avoided setting any of them off, simply by dint of remaining within the narrow margins that humans would have used while restraining the prisoner. A broadwing couldn’t have pulled this off; nor could a broadwing have used foreclaws as cleverly as she did, snipping the wire net free with special scissors, then cutting the ropes holding Aubri down with a heavy knife she had already used once to good effect.
Oh, clever, clever, little gryphon! he applauded mentally. Now, how do you guard the back of the injured one? That will be the real test.
Zhaneel’s gaze darted all over Aubri. “Can you fly?” she asked impatiently.
“No. Can’t move any faster than a broken-legged horse, either. And my wounds are real, hey?”
Zhaneel spat a curse away from Aubri and looked around for anything she could use. Within a few winglengths there were tree limbs, and she had the lengths of rope she’d just cut, as well as the remains of the wire net. She grasped the lengths of rope readily available, coiled them up and held them to her keel.
“Two questions,” she said. “How far can you jump, and can you hold a pole steady?”
Aubri narrowed his eyes, obviously trying to second-guess what this odd rescuer had in mind. He also, just as obviously, gave up. “Could leap . . . maybe twice my length, if I had to. But I wouldn’t enjoy it. And I can hold a pole steady. I still feel strong enough to chew makaar.”
“Good. Stay here.” She parted her beak in what was meant to be a reassuring smile, then bunched her legs up and concentrated. She leapt high into the air with her burden of cord. At the zenith of her jump, she power-stroked out of Aubri’s immediate area toward the tree limbs nearby.
Conventional gryphon-traps were usually built to fire sideways across a broad area, the kind she had been stung by at the fake-soldiers’ camp. Magical ones were often designed to detect a low flyer approaching, shoot high up, blossom, and spread while falling. They could kill or maim at any point after they deployed. Since Vikteren—a mage—was involved, she had every reason to assume she would be facing both types.
So, the best way to sweep for traps is . . . to not be near them at all!
Within a few minutes, she had what she needed. A long branch, snapped off with her beak and trimmed of snags, for Aubri to hold. At its narrowest end, it forked for two clawlengths, and she had carved indentations for the two branches that were now tied across it. They were firmly in place.
Now to deliver my little nesting-gift.
A few minutes’ more work, and the long pieces of rope were one very long length of rope—inelegant, but effective. Zhaneel used four of her pre-knotted ties to bind up the foliage and small branches she had trimmed scant minutes earlier to one end of the rope. She bobbed her head, measuring the range to Aubri and the “safe” ceiling she had flown at already without triggering traps, then took wing, the loose end of the rope clutched tightly in her hind claws.
Magical gryphon-traps are triggered by something living flying over their kill range, but not always. Can sometimes be triggered by anything—have to go high!
Zhaneel circled up, straining only for altitude—and it was work, hard work because the higher she went, the heavier the burden of the rope became. Finally there was a shudder as the bundles of foliage lifted. She angled away from the still-perplexed Aubri, carrying the rope higher and higher until the bundles below were above what she had determined to be safe. Then, she turned her struggle for altitude into an exhausting dive from the far side of the clearing, toward the tied branches. She judged, hoped—and let go.
The bunches of foliage sailed down, heading directly for the hapless Aubri. Behind them, the rope coiled and twisted wildly, gaining on the clusters of branches that had more wind resistance than the rope. While Zhaneel surged back up into the sky, the green leaves and twigs struck Aubri’s wings and back. It was surely uncomfortable, but easily less painful than anything a makaar would have done to a captive gryphon. Amid indignant curses from the “captive,” the rope fell in a snaky line across the clearing. As hoped, no traps triggered immediately from the rope’s impact.
She landed and collected her thoughts, taking deep breaths. Aubri glared at her indignantly, but voiced no ill thoughts toward his “rescuer” for the moment. She waved a reassurance to him, looped the rope around the fork of the branch-affair she’d made earlier, and tied it off.
Several heartbeats later, she was in the air again, with two stripped branches clipped to the back of her harness. She followed the air path she knew was safe and dropped straight down to land next to Aubri.
“I assume you have a good reason for pelting me with salad?” he rumbled.
“I’m sorry. But I have a plan to get you out safely. Hold this . . .” she muttered while unclipping the branches from her back. “They scratch—! There. Now. Lie sideways and curl up. Hold these sticks up, one in hindclaws, one in foreclaws. So both are that way.” She indicated the direction the rope lay. “Be patient.”
Aubri sighed. “Where would I go? My life is yours.”
Zhaneel pulled the wire mesh until it faced as Aubri did, and used two more ties to anchor it to the two sticks. Then understanding dawned in Aubri’s eyes as she fastened the foliage bundles to the net.
“Yes. Not a big one, but could help us.” She smiled and nibbled his crest reassuringly. “Now, let me down there in the hollow of your belly, where the rope goes under the net.”
Aubri complied, fascinated. After settling herself in, Zhaneel reeled the rope in claw-over-claw until the heavy branches tied to the other end ground their way toward the two gryphons.
“Searching for ground traps,” Zhaneel muttered. “If one goes, hold tight to the sticks! Let me protect your belly.” Only makes sense—he can’t fly, so I am as good as ground-bound. If I can shield him from a fatal injury by taking an injury myself, we will still both be alive to return home.
A deep thudding sounded, like a massive crossbow cord releasing, and a hail of stones showered much of the clearing. Both gryphons squinted their eyes while pebbles struck the greenery protecting them, then resumed pulling. Two ground panels lurched open and drove stakes into the ground nearby. A few minutes later, Zhaneel could reach out and grasp the quarry herself.
She patiently explained to Aubri what she was doing as she worked and allowed herself a moment of satisfaction when she was done. The crowd watching had approved of the way she’d triggered the ground traps. They waited, enraptured, wondering what she would do next. Zhaneel knew they saw her raise the canopy she had just finished, made of wire net, foliage and branches, above Aubri.
“You must hold this steady, understand? Must!”
Aubri nodded. “Y’got me this far, skydancer.”
Zhaneel’s nares blushed red and she leapt straight up, gaining altitude madly. When she had reached twice the height she counted as “safe,” she rolled over on her back, straightened, and folded her wings in tight, hurtling faster than any crossbow bolt. Her shadow streaked across the ground below as she flattened the dive. She felt the wind cut across her body and saw the landscape become a blur as she shot across the clearing, scant wing-lengths above the ground, following the same path in the air that her sweep earlier had done on the surface.
Behind her, she could hear fireballs erupting, and saw flashes of yellow light. Moments later, she traded speed for altitude and pulled up, to see sparks raining down on the entire clearing—and Aubri’s shield.
The improvised shield held and protected him from harm.
With the first victory cry she had ever uttered, she closed on him to lead him from his captivity.
Winterhart grimaced as the audience began cheering. Someone jostled her, jarring her back and sending a jab of pain down her right leg, further souring her mood.
Garber had ordered her to come here, orders she hadn’t much liked and wasn’t sure she agreed with. Right now, though, she wasn’t very fond of gryphons; it was a gryphon that had injured her back.
Be fair. It wasn’t her fault. She’d been having backaches and ignoring them—after all, who didn’t have a headache or a backache by day’s end around here? She had been restraining an hysterical and delirious broadwing with severe lacerations who had lashed out with both hind feet and sent Winterhart twisting and tumbling sideways. She hadn’t broken anything, but her back spasmed as soon as she got up, and it had been getting worse, not better, with time.
She was a Healer; she knew she should be seeing another Healer, or should at least stay in bed, flat, for a while. She was even fairly certain that she knew what was wrong. But there were no Healers and no time to spare, so she simply hadn’t mentioned it to anyone. She moved as little as possible, said she had “sprained” her back, and used that as an excuse not to do things that made it hurt worse. But she was in constant pain; there were only two positions she could take that allowed the pain to stop, and neither of them were appropriate for getting any work done. It was embarrassing. A Healer should be able to keep herself in one piece. This was altogether too much like a display of incompetence.
The pain wasn’t doing much for her temper, and getting jostled and making it worse didn’t help.
Damn Garber. He’s right, but for all the wrong reasons.
She’d been watching Zhaneel herself for several days, since she’d gotten wind of this “obstacle course” business, and long before dimwitted Garber had any notion tnat it was going on. Even before today she’d found herself torn between two violently conflicting opinions.
On the one hand she had to admire the little gryphon; obviously unsuited for combat, she had found ways to make herself suited to it. She had been pushing herself, finding her absolute limits, turning handicaps into benefits. The number of things she’d had to work out for herself to overcome her own deficiencies was incredible, and the ingenious ways she had done so were amazing. It was difficult to believe that this was the little runt Garber saw no use at all for.
But on the other hand, Zhaneel was exhausting herself completely with these so-called “training sessions”; no one had ever authorized her to do what she was doing, which made them quasi-legal at best. But that could be ignored. What could not be ignored was the fact that she had led other gryphons into trying her unorthodox tactics, with very mixed results.
Zhaneel herself had come out of these sessions with pulled muscles; she hadn’t come to Winterhart for any help, but that made no difference. The gryphon had been hurt, and she was the one who had invented the course and the training. Winterhart was afraid that one of the others was very likely to be seriously injured trying some of her nonsense.
Even if the other gryphons didn’t manage to hurt themselves on this course, the fact still remained that they burned off energy and resources they might need later, where it counted. Out on the front lines. The war escalated, resources diminished. Although it was not common knowledge, Urtho’s forces had lost ground, a little more every day. There was a new breed of makaar in the air now, and they took a toll on the gryphons. If the gryphons wasted their energy or strained themselves on this obstacle course of Zhaneel’s, they might not have that little extra they needed to survive an encounter with these new makaar. . Garber, of course, only knew that the gryphon cull was doing things he hadn’t ordered, not so much flouting his authority as ignoring it. No gryphon in Sixth Wing was allowed to think for itself; the very idea was preposterous. He was already aching with humiliation at the lecture the Lady Cinnabar had delivered—on Urtho’s behalf—concerning the reassignment of injured gryphons’ hertasi. Winterhart had not been present, but several who had overheard the Lady had indicated she had been less than flattering concerning Garber’s intelligence and ability to make a sound decision. Then came news of Zhaneel creating some unorthodox training program, encouraging others to join her in it, completely bypassing Garber’s authority. This could not be permitted, so he had sent the gryphon’s Trondi’irn—the lowest ranking officer in the wing, she acidly reminded herself—to dress her down for it. Never mind that it was a successful program so far. That was hardly the point.
Winterhart threaded through the crowd, more uneasy with every passing moment. She did not like confrontations. She particularly disliked them when there was a possible audience involved.
But she had direct orders. She also had an exact speech, delivered to her by Garber’s aide-de-camp, and duly memorized. Presumably the commander did not trust her to deliver a proper dressing-down . . . or perhaps he was as contemptuous of her intelligence as he was of the gryphons’.
Abruptly, she found herself in a clear space, and practically nose-to-beak with the runt.
Zhaneel blinked in surprise, and backed up a pace or so. “Winterrrharrt,” she said blankly. “What do you herrrre?”
That was all the opening that Winterhart required. “It is more to the point to ask you what you are doing here, gryphon,” she said coldly. “You are here without orders, you have commandeered equipment and personnel that you have no right to, and you have subverted other gryphons inside and outside of your wing into not only aiding you, but following in your ill-conceived plans. Your commander is highly displeased. What have you to say for yourself?”
She expected Zhaneel to behave as she always had; to cower a little, stammer an apology, and creep off to her aerie, forgetting and abandoning her ridiculous “training program.” She had readied a magnanimous acceptance of that apology before she was halfway through her speech. Something that would make her look a little less like Garber’s mouthpiece. . . .
“I?” the cull replied, and every hair and feather on her body bristled. She drew herself up to her full, if substandard, height, and looked down her beak at the Trondi’irn with eyes full of rage. “I?” she repeated, raising her voice. “How isss it that I am to blame becaussse the commanderrr of Sssixth Wing hasss no morrre imagination than a mud-turr-rtle? How isss it that it isss my fault that therrre isss only one trrraining progrrram for all, no matter the cirrrcumssstancesss, norrr if they change? What isss it that I am doing wrrrong! What isss it that I am doing that I ssshould be accusssed of doing wrrrong?” Her voice rose to full volume, and the audience, which had begun to disperse, regrouped in anticipation of another sort of spectacle. It was clear in an instant that they would not be siding with Winterhart.
“I do nothing wrrrong!” Zhaneel shouted. “I do what ssshould have been done, that no one carrred to do! And you, my Trrrondi’irrrn, you ssshould have ssseen that it needed doing!”
By now the audience had surrounded the two of them, leaving Winterhart no route of escape. She couldn’t help herself, she flushed with profound embarrassment.
“You had no orders and no permission—” she began.
“Orrrderrrsss?” the gryphon interrupted with shrill incredulity. “I am on leave time! Thessse who help me arrre off-duty! What need have we of orrderrrsss, of perrrmissssionsss? Arrre we to requessst leave to pisssss now?”
Growls from behind her, a little laughter on all sides, and nods and angry looks on the faces she could see. Winterhart’s face burned painfully.
“We arrre off-duty,” the gryphon repeated. “When hasss Garrrberrr the might to decrrree what we do off-duty?”
“He doesn’t,” Winterhart admitted reluctantly. “But he gave me the orders. . . .”
Before she could say anything more, a huge, black-dyed gryphon with no regimental marks pushed through the crowd and faced her with challenge in every line of him. “Then why,” rumbled the infamous Skandranon, the Black Gryphon, “don’t you tell that overbearing half-fledged idiot that his orders are a pile of steaming mutes? You’re a Trondi’im, you have that right and duty for your gryphons.”
She stared at him. She had never heard the Black Gryphon speak before—at least, not more than a word or two. When he had shared a tent on Healer’s Hill with her gryphon Aubri, he had not spoken more than a word or two in her presence at most. He was either asleep or ignoring her. She had no idea he was so articulate, with so little gryphonic accent. Hearing that clear, clipped voice coming from that beak—it was such a shock, she addressed him as she would have another human.
“I couldn’t do that!” she exclaimed automatically. “He’s my superior!”
But the Black Gryphon only shrugged. “In what way? I don’t see why you shouldn’t tell him he’s being hopelessly thick,” he replied. “I tell my superiors when they’re idiots often enough. I generally tell them they couldn’t tell their crest from their tailfeathers on a daily basis. And that includes Urtho.”
Urtho? This—this creation, this construct, talked back to Urtho? She was aghast, appalled, and tried to put some of that into words, but all that came out was, “B-but that’s n-not the way things are done!” She’d stammered, which made it sound all the stupider.
Skandranon only snorted his contempt as equally contemptuous laughter erupted around the circle. “That’s not the way you do things, maybe,” the Black Gryphon replied. “It seems to me that the main problem we have is that there are too many officers thinking that books and noble birth give you all the answers you need—and too many order-takers who believe them without question.” He took a step or two closer to her, looming over her, and staring down his beak at her. “Amuse me. Bring me up on charges. You didn’t even think for yourself when Garber handed you that scoop of manure to deliver here. Didn’t it ever occur to you that the real reason you were told to lecture this young lady was not that she was doing anything wrong, but because she was doing something Garber and Shaiknam didn’t think of—or steal—first? It must gall them both that what they would call a ‘mere beast’ has been more clever than they were. Without asking for permission. Without being told, Trondi’irn.”
Winterhart opened her mouth to say something—and could not think of anything to say. Certainly, she could not refute what the gryphon had just said. Hadn’t she been thinking it herself? And she could not bring herself to defend Garber, not when his aide had been condescending to the point of insulting when he had delivered those orders. All she could do was to stand there with her mouth hanging open, looking stupid and shamed.
It was Zhaneel who salvaged what little was left of the situation. “Trrrondi’irrn,” she said crisply, “I will have worrrdsss with you. In prrivate. Now.”
Winterhart took the escape, narrow as it was, and nodded.
After all, there was nothing else she could do but follow.
But then, wasn’t she used to that by now?
Amberdrake managed to get Skan out of earshot of most of the camp before the Black Gryphon exploded, pulling him deeply into the heart of the obstacle course and into a little sheltered area with a tree or two for shade and a rock to sit on. He counted himself lucky, at that; this obstacle course of Zhaneel’s was large enough for privacy even at the level of shouting Skan was capable of. Large gryphons had large lungs.
The course should be safe enough with all the traps sprung, and now that the “show” was over, anyone who might happen to overhear Skan’s outburst was likely to be sympathetic anyway. Up until today there hadn’t been anyone unfriendly among the spectators.
Zhaneel’s first “show” had been utterly eclipsed by her second; standing up for her rights to that officious Trondi’irn, Winterhart. It was nothing anyone had expected, given Zhaneel’s diffident manner up until this moment.
She must just have been pushed too far. Not surprising. That woman would have pushed me over the edge.
Even the Sixth Wing trainer had been disgusted with the woman, and even more disgusted with Garber. If everyone who said they would actually did lodge a protest with Urtho—bypassing Shaiknam altogether—Garber would go down on record as the commander most disliked, ever. Even the humans had been appalled by the precedent that would be set if this action was not met with immediate protest, a precedent that permitted a commanding officer to decree what could and could not be done during off-duty hours.
Well, the woman had at least enough conscience left that she was embarrassed by those orders she was supposed to deliver. That’s about all I can say in her behalf. If first impressions are important, I can’t say she’s made a very good one on me. A Trondi’irn should have enough fortitude to stand up for her charges, not roll over and show her belly every time the commander issues some stupid order. And wasn’t she the one Gesten told me about, that ordered the hertasi to be reassigned? Can’t she do anything but parrot whatever Garber wants?
Amberdrake took a seat on the sun-warmed rock, and let Skan wear himself out, venting his anger. He was annoyed with the woman, and very put out with her commander. But Skandranon was enraged enough to have chewed up swords and then spit out tacks. It was better for him to show that anger to Amberdrake than sweep into camp and get himself in trouble. It wouldn’t have been the first time that his beak had dug him a hole big enough to fall into.
“This is what I mean!” Skan fumed, striding back and forth, wings flipping impatiently. His talons tore up the ground with every step he took, leaving long furrows in the crumbling earth. “This is exactly what I’ve been trying to tell you! Now you see it for yourself—this whole sorry business! We gryphons are constantly being ordered about by humans who know and care nothing about us! We get chewed up trying to keep them alive, and they won’t let us figure out ways to keep ourselves alive! Damned idiots can’t tell their helms from the privy, and they’re trying to tell us what to do! And now they’re ordering us around when we’re off-duty, and the dungheads think it’s their right and privilege!”
There was more, much more, in the same vein. Amberdrake simply remained where he was on his rock, nodded, looked somber, and made appropriately soothing noises from time to time. He wished there was something else he could do, but right now, all he could provide Skan with was a sympathetic ear. He was, himself, too angry to do Skan any good. If he tried to calm the gryphon through logic games, he’d only let his own anger out. Besides, Skan didn’t want to be calmed; he wanted a target.
The trouble was, Skan was right on all counts; Amberdrake had seen it time and time again. And it wasn’t as if the gryphons had any choice. They couldn’t simply pack up and leave their creator, no matter now onerous conditions got. They were, in a sense, enslaved to their creator, for only Urtho held the secret of their fertility. Without that, they could not reproduce. Without that, if they left, they would be the last of their kind.
Skan knew that, better than anyone else, since every time he returned from a mission, intact or otherwise, someone asked him when he was going to pick a mate and father a brood. It was a constant irritant to him; he never forgot it, no matter how cavalier he might seem about it. And yet, he had never once brought it up to Urtho directly.
Why? I don’t know. Maybe he’s afraid to, for all his boasting that he speaks to Urtho as an equal. Maybe he keeps thinking that Urtho will realize on his own what an injustice has been done.
Amberdrake wished there was some legitimate way that he could calm his friend down; by now Skan had worked himself up into a full gryphonic rage-display—crest up, hackles up, wings mantling, tearing the thin sod to shreds with his talons. He agreed with the Black Gryphon more with every moment. How could he calm Skan down when he himself wanted to carefully and clinically take Garber and Shaiknam apart on Skan and Zhaneel’s behalf?
Not just their behalf, either. How long before they try that sketi on the other troops? Or before they try to command the exclusive services of one or more Healers, or even kestra’chern? If they’re willing to break the rules once, how many more times will they break them? And then, when they make the rules, who can oppose them?
He’d thought that Skan’s display had cleared the area. No one really wanted to get too near a gryphon in that state, especially not when the gryphon was Skandranon. He’d never actually hurt anyone, but when he was this angry, he got malicious enjoyment out of coming within a feather’s width of doing so. But after listening to Skan for a quarter candlemark, Amberdrake spotted someone else storming up over the rough ground toward them, short Journeyman’s robes marking him as a mage, and carrot-colored hair identifying him as Vikteren.
He’s heading straight for us. Good gods, what now? Another disaster?
“Gods!” the young mage shouted as Skan paused for breath. “I would have the hide off that fatuous, fat-brained idiot, if only I knew how to make it hurt enough!”
“Garber?” Amberdrake asked mildly.
“Gods! And Shaiknam!” Vikteren said bitterly, dropping his voice below a shout. The young mage snatched up a fallen branch as he reached them, and began methodically breaking it into smaller and smaller pieces. “Anthills and honey spring to mind—and harp-strings, delicate organs, and rocks! I thought this bigoted business with poor Zhaneel was bad enough—but now—!”
He struggled with the press of his emotions; clearly his rage was hot enough to choke him, and even Skan lowered his hackles and cocked his head to one side, distracted from his own state of rage by seeing Vikteren’s. The youngster was one of the coolest heads in the mage-corps; he prided himself on his control under all circumstances. Whatever had happened to break that control must have been dreadful indeed.
“What happened?” Amberdrake asked anxiously, projecting calm now, as he had not with Skan. Not much, but enough to keep the young mage from exploding with temper.
Vikteren took several long, calculated breaths, closing his eyes, as his flush faded to something less apoplectic. “I heard Skan just now, and I have to tell you both that it isn’t just his nonhuman troops that Shaiknam’s been using up. He’s been decimating everyone with the same abandon. I just talked to the mages from Sixth Command. We almost lost all of Sixth Crimson this morning, the mage included, because Shaiknam led them into an ambush that he’d been told was an ambush by his scouts. Ividian covered their retreat; he died covering that retreat, and it was all that saved them. Ividian died! And Shaiknam reprimanded the entire company for ‘unauthorized maneuvers’! And I’m not just livid because Ividian was my friend. Shaiknam killed three more mages today—and he has the brass to claim it was by accident.”
Amberdrake let out his breath in a hiss, his gut clenched and his skin suddenly became cold. The loss of any portion of Sixth Crimson was terrible—and the loss of their mage dreadful. And all through prideful stupidity, like all of Shaiknam’s losses.
But what Vikteren had just implied was more than stupidity, he had very nearly said that Shaiknam had murdered the other three mages. “How,” he asked carefully, “do you kill a mage by accident?”
Vikteren’s face flushed crimson again. “He forced them—ordered them—to exhaust themselves to unconsciousness. Then he left them there, where they fell. Ignored them. Got them no aid at all, not even a blanket to cover them. They died of power-drain shock where they lay. He said that there was so much going on at the time that he ‘just forgot’ they were there, but I heard someone say that he ordered them to be left alone, said if they were such powerful and mighty mages they could fix themselves. Called them weaklings. Said they needed to be taught a lesson.”
Amberdrake and Skan both growled. That was more like murder-by-neglect. A mage worked to unconsciousness needed to be treated immediately, or he would die. Every commander knew that. Even Shaiknam.
There was no excuse. None.
“Shaiknam’s a petty man, a stupid man—the trouble is he gives petty orders that do a lot of damage,” Vikteren finished, his scarlet flush of anger slowly fading. “He has no compassion, no sense of anything outside of his own importance, no perspective at all. He used those three up just so he could recoup the losses he took on the retreat—just so that he wouldn’t look bad! That was the only reason he ordered them to attack; they fought there against ordinary troops, there was no need for mage-weaponry!”
Vikteren took another deep breath and dropped the splinters still clenched in his hands. “I came to tell you two that there’s going to be a meeting of all the mages tonight. We’re going to tell Urtho that none of us are going to serve under Shaiknam or any other abusive commander, ever again. We’re tired of being treated like arbalests and catapults. I’m going to have a few things to say at that meeting, and before I’m done, you’d better believe they’re going to follow my vote!”
“But you won’t have a vote,” Amberdrake protested. “You’re just an apprentice—well, a Journeyman, but—”
But Vikteren snorted. “Hah! I’m not a Journeyman, I’m a full Master mage at the least, but my master never passed me up. He saw who was in charge and snarled the status on purpose so I’d work back here, and not get sent out on the lines to get killed by a fool. He saved my life today, that’s how I feel. I could be a Master if I wanted to get slaughtered, and every mage in the army knows it.”
Amberdrake glanced over at Skan, who nodded slightly. One Master mage could always pick out another. Well, that was certainly interesting, but not particularly relevant to their situation.
But Vikteren wasn’t finished. “Dammit, Skandranon! We’re not makaar, we’re not slaves, and we’re not replaced with a snap of the fingers! We’re going to demand autonomy, and a say in how we’re deployed, and I came to tell you that all the mages I’ve talked to think you gryphons ought to do the same! Maybe if both parties gang up on Urtho at once, he’ll be more inclined to take us seriously!”
Skan’s hackles went up again, and his claws contracted in the turf with a tearing noise. “We are not going to gang up on Urtho! He is my friend. Still—we might as well be stinking makaar,” he rumbled. “While Urtho is the only one who can make our matings fertile, he holds all of us bound to him.” Then in a hiss, “Much as I care for him, I could hate him for that.”
Vikteren started. “What are you talking about?” he asked, obviously taken aback. “I’ve never heard of anything of the sort.”
“Let me—” Amberdrake said hastily, before Skan could rouse back to his full rage. “Vikteren, it’s because they’re constructs. Urtho alone knows the controls, what triggers fertility, and what doesn’t. Gryphons that survive a certain number of missions are the only ones permitted to raise a brood. There’re some things only Urtho knows that trigger fertility, and they are different for male and female gryphons; both have to have something secret and specific done to them before their mating results in offspring—plus they have to make an aerial courtship display. Only if all three of those things happen do you have a fertile coupling.”
“We can go through the motions of breeding as much as we like,” Skan said tonelessly. “But without that knowledge, or that component that Urtho keeps to himself, it’s strictly recreational.” He shook his massive head. “Not only is it slavery, or worse than slavery, it’s dangerous. There are never more than a tenth of us fertile at any one time. All it would take is one spell from Ma’ar—or for Urtho to die—and our race would die! You can’t have a viable breeding population with only a tenth of the adults fertile! Even the breeders of hounds know that.”
“But why?” Vikteren said, bewildered. “Why does he hold that over you?”
Skan sighed gustily. “I have no idea. None. We don’t need to be controlled. Do you know how much we revere him? We’d continue to serve him the way the kyree do. We’d do it because he is right, and because we respect and care for him, not because he controls our destiny. We’d probably serve him better if he didn’t control us like that. Damn! If he doesn’t give it to us, maybe we ought to steal it.”
“So—steal it? The spell, or whatever it is?” Vikteren said slowly. “That’s not a bad idea.” Amberdrake stared at him, not believing the mage had said anything so audacious even though the words had come out of his mouth.
“What good would that do?” Amberdrake asked. “If you need a mage to make it work—”
Skan closed his eyes for a moment, as if Vikteren’s words had caused a series of thoughts to cascade. “About half of the gryphons are apprentice-level mages or better,” he rumbled. “We are magical by nature. We wouldn’t need a mage to cooperate with us. I’m a full Master, for instance.”
“Even if you lacked for mages among yourselves, you’d find plenty of volunteers with the human mages,” Vikteren insisted. “Do it, Skan! You’re right! If he won’t give it to you, steal the damn spell! And if you’re a Master, then make the change permanent! Don’t put up with being manipulated like this!”
Much to his own surprise, Amberdrake found himself agreeing.
Think of the families sundered by Ma’ar. They, who did not deserve such horrors, and now these gryphons you know and love cannot have families at all unless their lord wills it.
“Take your freedom, Skan,” Amberdrake whispered. “Steal the spell, and teach it to everyone you trust.”
Skandranon backwinged in place, then pulled himself up to his full, magnificent height.
The brisk wind from the Black Gryphon’s wings sent Vikteren’s hair into his face and kicked up a bit of dust that made Amberdrake squint for a moment.
“Stealing a spell from Urtho, though . . .” Vikteren’s eyes lit up with a manic glee. “You know, that’d be nearly impossible? Not working the spell itself, that would be pretty simple, fertility spells nearly always are. No, it’s the stealing part that would be hard. Getting into Urtho’s Tower, getting past all the protections . . .”
From the look on Vikteren’s face, he relished that very challenge and impossibility.
“It would not be impossible for me,” Skan replied, his crest-feathers rising arrogantly.
But Amberdrake shook his head. “Be realistic, Skan. You’ve always flown directly to Urtho’s balcony when you went to see him. You have no idea what safeguards are in that Tower, many of them built only for human hands. It would be impossible for you. But not for us.”
“Us?” Skan asked, eyeing them both. Vikteren nodded gleefully, seconding Amberdrake.
“Exactly,” the kestra’chern said with immense satisfaction, feeling as if the weight of a hundred gryphons was lifted off him. “Us.”
In the end, the “us” also included Tamsin and Cinnabar. After a brief discussion, the means of bypassing all those special protections turned out I to be absurdly easy.
Cinnabar crafted a message to be sent to Urtho just before Urtho was to meet with the leader of the mages’ delegation. She claimed that there were some problems she and Tamsin were encountering with gryphon anatomy—not even a lie!—and that she and he needed to consult the records on the gryphons’ development so that they could tell what Urtho used for a “model.”
She did not specify who she would have with her, only that she needed some “help.”
“Urtho keeps records on everything he’s ever done,” she said, as they waited in her tent for the reply. She sat as calmly and quietly as if they were all her guests for an evening of quiet social chat and not gathered to perform what could, by some standards, be considered a major theft. Her hands were folded in her lap, and she leaned into Tarnsin’s shoulder, wearing an enigmatic little smile. Her pale green robes were as smooth and cool as tinted porcelain; beside her lover, she looked like an expensive doll propped next to a peasant-child’s rag-toy. “I know he has extensive records on how he put your race together, and what he modeled you on. I specified ‘internal problems,’ which could be anything in the gut, and that’s difficult stuff to muck about with when you don’t know what you’re doing. It isn’t enough to be a Healer familiar with raptors in order to be successful with gryphons, even though that is how I became a default Healer to your people, Skan. You aren’t all, or even mostly, raptoral. I’m counting on his being preoccupied with this mages’ meeting; he should simply give us access to the Tower rather than taking the time to explain things to us in person.”
“A pity about the timing on that,” Skan observed dispassionately. “Vikteren did want to be here, and he has some—ah—unusual talents for a mage. He could have been very useful. Still, he will surely keep Urtho’s attention at the meeting.” The Black Gryphon lay along one side of the tent on Cinnabar’s expensive carpet of crimson and gold, where the furniture had been cleared away for him. Until he moved or spoke, he looked like an expensive piece of sculpture, brought in to match the carpet. Or, perhaps, like a very expensive and odd couch.
Amberdrake chuckled. “Well, he’ll be here in spirit, anyway,” he said, patting his pocket where the bespelled lock-breaker Vikteren had loaned him resided. “It’s just as well, given that we’ve been huddled together like conspirators for the whole afternoon. This way, if anyone has seen us all together, they can assume we won’t do anything without him, and won’t be watching us.”
Tamsin laughed and reached across Cinnabar for a cup of hot tea. “You’ve heard too many adventure tales, kestra’chern,” he mocked. “Who would be watching us? And why? Even if Urtho catches us, the worst he’ll do is dress us down. It’s not as if we were trying to take over his Power Stone or something. We are not even particularly important Personages in this camp.”
Skan raised his hackles at that. “Speak for yourself, Tamsin!” he responded sharply. Tamsin only laughed, and Cinnabar smiled a little wider.
Before a verbal sparring match could begin, one of Cinnabar’s hertasi scratched at the tent flap, then let herself in, handing the Lady a sealed envelope. Cinnabar opened it, read the contents, and nodded with satisfaction.
“As I thought,” she said, to no one in particular. “Urtho is so caught up with the mages that he didn’t even ask me what the complaint is. He’s leaving orders to pass us into the Tower. We have relatively free access to the gryphon records; he warned me that some things have some magical protections on them, and that if I want to see them, I’ll have to ask him.”
“Which, of course, we will not,” Amberdrake said. “Since we have other means of getting at them.”
“So, you see, we didn’t need all that skulking and going in through windows that you three wanted to do,” Cinnabar replied, with just a hint of reproach in her voice.
“Lady, don’t include me in that!” Amberdrake protested. “It was Tamsin, Skan, and Vikteren that wanted to go breaking into the Tower! I knew better!”
“Of course you did,” Tamsin muttered under his breath, as they all rose to go. “And you never collected ropes and equipment for securing prisoners. I don’t even want to know why you conveniently had all that stuff on hand!”
Amberdrake raised an eyebrow and pretended not to hear him, and simply rose with all of the dignity that years of practice could grant.
They all walked very calmly into the Tower, a massive and yet curiously graceful structure of smooth, sculpted stone. They gave a friendly nod to the guard on duty, and received one in return; very clearly he was expecting them. They didn’t even need to make up some excuse for Amberdrake and Skan being with them. The guard didn’t bother to ask why they were there.
There were no fences; the Tower didn’t need them. It probably didn’t need a human guard, either, but such things made mere mortals feel a little more comfortable around a mage like Urtho. The entrance was recessed into the Tower wall, and the door opened for them at the guard’s touch. They passed out of the darkness and into a lighted antechamber, bare of all furnishings, with a mosaic of stone inlaid on the floor. Three doors led out of it; Cinnabar had been here before and she led the way.
Ah, bless the mages, Amberdrake thought yet again. II it hadn’t been for them—
Then again, perhaps Lady Cinnabar would have found another excuse. She was a woman of remarkable resources, the Lady was.
The area where Urtho kept his records on the gryphons was several floors up, but all of them were fit enough that they didn’t much mind the climb. The circular staircase was wide enough for Skan and, other than the fact that it was lit by mage-lights, seemed completely ordinary. It was constructed entirely of the native stone of the area, planed smooth, and fitted together so closely that the joins looked hardly wider than the blade of a knife.
However, as they reached the floor they wanted, a gently-curved door opened itself as they approached. All the other doors they had passed remained securely closed, with no visible means of opening them. They passed through that open door into an area of halls and cubicles, all lined floor-to-ceiling with books.
It certainly looked as if they’d found the right place. Amberdrake wondered how Urtho kept the air moving and fresh in a place like this; there was no more than a hint of dust in the air, no mold, and no moisture. If he stood very still, there was a gentle, steady current of air running past him, but where it came from and where it went he simply couldn’t tell.
This place, too, glowed with mage-lights; a wise precaution with so many flammable books around.
Interesting that Cinnabar herself said we ought to simply take the secret without confronting Urtho. She knows him better than any of us. I wish I knew why she’d come to that conclusion, but she must have some reason to think he would have refused to give away his hold over the gryphons.
As a kestra’chern, Amberdrake’s curiosity had been aroused by that. He could think of many possible motivations, but he would have liked to know which of them was the most likely.
So while Tamsin and Cinnabar perused the index to the record room to find the books on the gryphons’ reproductive system, he browsed through the notations written on the spines of the books in search of clues.
Unfortunately, he didn’t find any. The notations were all strictly impersonal, mostly dates or specific keywords to the contents. Eggs, raptor, failure rate, said one. Breeding records, Kaled’a’in bondbirds.
So he had a hand in that as well? Or did he just study what my people did?
Next to it, Breeding records, Kaled’a’in horses. Amberdrake had to chuckle at that. Just one book? Then Urtho had no real idea of what the Kaled’a’in were up to with their horse herds. Unless, of course, this was a very limited study of what they did with the warhorse breed.
That might be his only interest, but even so, Amberdrake doubted that the Kaled’a’in horsemasters had parted with their inmost secrets even for the mighty Urtho, Mage of Silence and their titular liege lord. Kaled’a’in Healers and Mages together worked on both the warhorses and the bondbirds—and while the results with the raptors might be more obvious, the ones with the horses were far more spectacular, though never to the naked eye.
The raptors had been given increased intelligence and curiosity, the ability to speak mind-to-mind with humans, and the ability to flock-bond to each other and to the humans who raised them. To compensate for the increased mass of brain tissue, and to make them more effective as fighting partners, they were larger than their wild counterparts.
But the horses had been changed in far more subtle ways. Bone density had been increased, hoof strength increased, in some cases extra muscles had been created that simply didn’t exist in a “normal” horse. The digestion had been changed; the war-horses could forage where few other horses could feed, taking nourishment from such unlikely sources as thistle and dead or dried plants, like a goat or a wild sheep. As with the raptors, the intelligence had been increased, but one thing had been utterly changed.
The warhorses were no longer herd beasts. They were pack animals. Their behavior was no longer that of a horse, but like a dog. Properly trained, there was nothing they would not do for their riders—and unlike a horse, the rider could count on his mount to continue a command after the rider was out of sight. “Guard,” for instance. Or “Go home.”
Very few people knew this, or the amount of work it took to change a behavior set rather than a simple physical characteristic. Did Urtho?
He was reaching for the book when Cinnabar called him. Regretfully, he pulled his hand back. Another mystery that would remain unsolved, at least for now.
“We’ve found the book we want,” Tamsin said, as he followed Cinnabar’s voice into yet another book-lined cubicle. “Very nicely annotated in the index, with the fact that it contains the fertility formula. He refers to it as that, by the way, rather than an actual ‘spell,’ so Cinnabar and I are assuming that only a small part of it actually requires magic.”
“That’s good news for the gryphons, then,” Skan said with interest, padding in from the opposite direction to Amberdrake. “If it only requires a little magic, most should be able to do it for themselves.”
“As we expected, however, the book is mage-locked,” Cinnabar interrupted, gesturing to a large leather-bound volume securely fastened with leather and metal straps. There were no visible locks, but then, there wouldn’t be, not with a volume that was mage-locked.
But, thanks to Vikteren, that was not going to be a problem.
The “lock picks” didn’t look like anything of the sort; rather, they looked like a set of inscribed beads of various sorts. “Urtho only uses about a dozen different spells to hold his ordinary magic books,” Vikteren had said. “There aren’t more than a hundred common spells of that sort in existence. Of course, there’s always a chance he used something entirely new, but why? Most people don’t know more than two or three mage-lock spells, even at the Master level. The chances that he’d use something esoteric for a relatively common book that he’s going to want to consult easily are pretty remote.”
Amberdrake had looked over the string of beads curiously. “So how many counterspells are there here?” he’d asked.
“Seventy-six,” Vikteren had replied with a grin. “My Master is a Lock-master among his other talents. I paid attention. You never know when you may need to get into something.”
“Or out of it,” Amberdrake had remarked sardonically. But he’d taken the “picks.”
Now it was just a matter of trying the beads against the place where all the straps met, one at a time. Vikteren had strung them in order—from the most common to the least, and that was how Amberdrake would use them. All it would take would be patience.
He didn’t need to try more than a dozen, however; as he took the bead away and fingered up the next, the straps suddenly parted company, unfolding neatly down onto the stand, and leaving the book ready for perusal.
Cinnabar exclaimed with satisfaction, and flipped the cover open. “Ah, Urtho,” she said with a chuckle. “Just as methodical as always. Indexed as neatly as a scribe’s copy, and here’s what we want on page five hundred and two.”
She and Tamsin leafed rapidly through the pages and soon located the relevant formula. They planned to make two copies, just in case they were discovered; they would turn over one, but not the second, unless Urtho somehow knew that they’d made it.
Suddenly, Skan’s head snapped up, alarm in his eyes, his crest-feathers erect and quivering.
“What is it?” Amberdrake whispered, afraid to make a sound. Was there a guard coming?
“There’s—another gryphon up here!” Skan muttered, his head weaving back and forth a little, his eyes slightly glazed with concentration. “It’s in the next room, but there’s something wrong, something odd—”
Before Amberdrake could stop him, the Black Gryphon had snatched the lock-pick beads out of his hand. He turned and trotted down the hall to a doorway barely visible at the end of it.
Tamsin and Cinnabar became so engrossed in their copying that they didn’t even notice Skan’s abrupt departure. It was left to Amberdrake to chase after him and snatch the beads out of his talons as he shoved them in a bundle against the door lock.
“What are you trying to do?” he hissed, as the gryphon turned to look at him with reproach. “Do you want us to be discovered?”
“I—” Skan shook his head. “I just felt as if there was—something I should do about that other gryphon. It felt important. It felt as if I needed to get in there quickly.”
Amberdrake did not make the scathing retort he wanted to, “And what if that was the point?” he asked, instead. “What if there is some kind of trap in there and this feeling of yours is the bait? We both know how tricky Urtho is! That’s exactly the kind of thing he’d do!”
“He wouldn’t be mad, at least not for long,” Skan replied weakly. “I could talk him down.”
“Until he figured out that we had taken his precious fertility formula!” Amberdrake retorted. “Now will you be sensible? Did you actually unlock that door?”
“I thought I heard a click,” the Black Gryphon told him, with uncharacteristic meekness. “But I don’t know, I could have heard the beads clicking together.”
These were meant to unlock books, not doors—maybe nothing happened. “Look, Skan, whatever it is behind that door, it can wait until you have a chance to ask Urtho yourself. If he wants you to know, he’ll tell you. You were supposed to be here, after all, and you can say you sensed another gryphon—then you can ask him what was going on. He’ll probably tell you.”
“Just like he’s told me the fertility formula?” the gryphon replied scornfully, sounding much more like his usual serf. He walked beside Amberdrake with his usual unnerving lack of sound. “Oh, please—”
“We’re done!” Tamsin grinned. “We copied legitimate information to cover the notes on the fertility formula, if we meet Urtho on the way out and he asks. Let’s get out of here. I’d rather not try and bluff him.”
“Right.” Amberdrake said. “Come on, Skan. You can solve mysteries later.”
He stuffed the “picks” into a deep pocket, one full of other miscellaneous junk of the kind a kestra’chern often collected; bits of trim, loose beads, a heavy neck chain, the odd token or two. He hoped that among all that junk the beads would appear insignificant. And hopefully, Urtho, if they met him, would not check him over for magic.
He hurried down the hall to join the others, assuming Skan followed. The mage-lights extinguished in his wake, leaving darkness and silence behind him.
Skan pushed the unlocked door open the tiniest bit. Stupid gryphon. Stupid, stupid gryphon. Going to get yourself into trouble again. This time with your own side! Skan shoved the door open a little more, carefully, listening, watching for moving shadows as he opened the portal, taking a huge breath of air and testing it for scents other than dust. His bump of curiosity was eating him alive. His weaker bump of caution was screaming at him to turn around and join the others on the staircase. As always, his bump of curiosity won.
Metal doors, and I wonder why? Never mind, Urtho’s not going to like this, stupid gryphon. He puts locks on things for a reason.
Yes, but what could that reason be? Why would paternal, kindly Urtho hide something that called to him like a gryphon—only not quite? What if it was something important, something out of keeping with Urtho’s kindhearted image? What if Urtho was as bad as Ma’ar beneath that absentminded and gentle exterior? After all, hadn’t the Mage of Silence been withholding the fertility secret all this time? What if he was hiding something sinister?
Stupid and paranoid, gryphon. Maybe you addled your brains when you struck the too-hard earth. It’s been known to happen.
Still. Just because you were paranoid, that did not mean your fears had no foundation. What if Urtho had no intention of giving the gryphons their fertility and their autonomy because he already had their replacement waiting in the wings, so to speak?
Some kind of super-gryphon, but one that wouldn’t do such an inconvenient thing as begin to think for itself and hold its own opinions. A prettier sort of makaar?
Stupid, stupid gryphon. And if you find out that’s really the case, what then? Take the chance that Urtho won’t know and stay to tell the others, or fly away before he can catch you? If so, to where?
The door moved, slowly, a talon-width at a time. Then, suddenly, it swung open very quickly indeed, all at once, as if he had triggered something.
For a moment, he looked into darkness, overwhelmed by a wash of gryphon “presence,” so strong that surely, surely it must be from many gryphons.
Then the lights came up, albeit dim ones that left the far walls in shadow-shrouded obscurity, and he found himself staring at—
That was his first thought; they hung in midair, floated, and he could see right through them. They were the source of most of the light in the room. Wasn’t that the way ghosts were supposed to look? Surely they must be the source of the “presence” that had hit him so strongly!
But then he saw that they didn’t move at all, they didn’t even breathe; they stared into nothingness, with a peculiar lack of expression. Not dead . . . but lifeless, he thought. As if they never lived in the first place.
And as he continued to stare, it occurred to him that it wasn’t only their surface that he saw, it was their insides, too! Every detail of their anatomy, in fact. If he concentrated on stomach when he stared at one, there would be the stomach, eerily see-through, suspended inside the transparent gryphon.
Fascinated now, if a trifle revolted, he stepped inside, and the door closed softly behind him.
They hung at about knee-height to a human above the floor, so that one could, if he chose, crawl under them to view the detail from below. Each one differed from the one next to it, some in trivial ways, some very drastically. Here was a rufous broadwing, like Aubri; there a dark gray gos-type, with the goshawk’s mad red eyes, blazingly lifelike even in the lifeless face. There was the compact-bodied suntail that was best at flying cover—
They’re all types. I’m looking at types of gryphons! All of them, every kind I’ve ever seen! We aren’t just one race, we’re many races! Why did I never see that before? Is that why Urtho keeps the fertility secret to himself? Is he trying to keep the types pure?
Dazed with the revelation, he wandered past another three of the transparent models, to find himself beak-to-beak with—
Only it wasn’t Zhaneel at all, it was a creature with no personality. But there was her general build, her coloration and configuration.
He looked back along the line of gryphons, following them up to where he stood, and the Zhaneel-type. Back and forth he looked, a thought slowly forming in his mind. There was something about this line of gryphons, something that had struck an unconscious chord. What was it? Of course. The types that were closest to the door represented more numerous populations than the ones nearest him, and as far as he knew of the Zhaneel-type there was only Zhaneel—
Because she is the first?
That was it! This was a visual record of Urtho’s entire breeding program! Zhaneel wasn’t a freak, she wasn’t malformed, she was the very first of an entirely new gryphon type!
Now—all those questions Urtho asked her, about her parents, her siblings, her training, they begin to make sense! Surely her parents knew that she was a new type—and if they had lived, they would have seen to it that she got special training for her special skills! But with them gone, she was left to flounder, and Urtho cannot remember everything—
As Urtho himself had reminded Skan. He could not remember everything, and evidently he had forgotten that one, solitary gryphon of a new falcon type—
Amberdrake called her a gryfalcon!
—who survived, was alone, and needed an eye kept on her. Skan had been angry with Urtho, and now he was furious. How could he have done that to her? Surely he knew what lay ahead of her when she didn’t look anything like the others! Surely he knew how the gryphons felt about runts, sports, the “misborn.”
But there was the war. How could he remember? He could only trust to his trainers to be clever and see that she was not some misborn freak, but something entirely new. It is as much their fault as his, if not more. His anger faded, he sighed and rounded the image of the gryfalcon.
And he looked upon his own feet, his own chest, his face. His own beak, eyes, and crest, lifeless, mutely staring through the living Skandranon.
The shock was a little less, this time. He was quicker to see that it was no more him than the other was Zhaneel. Still, the shock was of an entirely different sort; he was perfectly well able to think of the other gryphons as the end result of a breeding program, and even think of Zhaneel that way—but it was profoundly harder to think of himself in those terms.
It was, in fact, uncomfortable enough that he had to remind himself to resume breathing.
But as he studied the model, he took some comfort in noting that his proportions were rather better than its were. Especially in some specific areas.
And I’m definitely handsomer. Better-feathered. Smoother-muscled. Longer—
The emotion hit him like a boulder shot from a catapult, and before he could even get his mental “feet” underneath him, something physical hit him from behind. It hurtled from a place he had subconsciously noted was a doorframe, but had dismissed because there were no lights on the other side.
The strike sent his feet slipping out from under him, causing him to fall sideways through the image of himself. He tumbled into a wall, and his dancer’s grace was not helping him in the least at the moment. Whatever wanted his hide was only about half his size, and it smelled like gryphon—only not quite like gryphon. It was muskier, earthier—
But this was no time to start contemplating scents! Whatever this was, it jumped him again and kicked his beak sideways into the wall. Only reflexes kept him from being blinded by the next slash—and then the assault began again.
This thing is like a wildcat! Too small to take me, and too crazy to know better. It just might hurt me bad. I don’t like being hurt bad!
And if this is something of Urtho’s—oh, damn and blast, I have to stop it without hurting it!
A scratch across his cere carried up over his eyes and sent blood down into them. He was momentarily blinded, but he blinked the haze away and rolled. He gathered his hindlegs under him, ignored the pain of the bites and claw-marks for a moment, then tucked both of his feet under its belly and heaved.
It tumbled into the other wall, without any sign of control, as if parts of it got tangled up with the rest of it. But it was game, that much was for certain; as soon as it stopped rolling, it sprang to its feet again and faced him, claws up and hissing.
It was a gryphon.
It was what Zhaneel had misnamed herself, something that the gryphons referred to as a “mis-born.” It was actually about a quarter of Skan’s size, not half. Its head was small in proportion to its size, and very narrow, more like a true raptor’s head than a gryphon or gryfalcon’s broader cranium. The wings were far too long for its body, and they dragged the floor so badly that the ends of the primaries had been rubbed off by the constant friction.