Kel sat bolt upright with a gasp. In her dream the centaur had come alive again, scaring her out of sleep.
She was in the dark, cased with sun-dried cotton that carried a fishy scent. She was not hot, sweating, dirty, or in pain. Now she remembered: they had lifted her up the hill on a loading platform and brought her to a makeshift hospital. She’d warned them about the griffin before someone else could touch it. A healer had told her she’d broken bones, then given her something vile-tasting that put her to sleep. She was in the hospital now. It was night. A few oil lamps supplied the only light.
She was just wondering how the others had done when the healer brought her another dose of medicine. After that she slept well into daylight until she woke, alert and ravenous. Someone had put a metal cage beside her cot. Inside it was the pouch, the griffin, a dish of water, and a dish of what smelled like fish scraps. If the immortal had eaten, she couldn’t tell.
They must have just stuck the pouch in the cage and let the griffin crawl out, she thought, yawning. She could see the small gate in the side closest to the dishes: whoever had fed the griffin and given it water could just change the dishes that way. If the griffin didn’t mind the cage, perhaps Kel could transport it that way until she found its parents. Her hands throbbed from the mauling they had got from those claws. Kel would rather not let it have any more of her blood, if she could help it.
A woman brought Kel a bowl of clear broth.
‘The bandits?’ Kel asked her, forgetting what she had been told when the others found her.
‘Captured, them that aren’t dead,’ the woman replied with grim satisfaction. ‘They’ll face the Crown’s justice soon enough.’
Kel nodded and finished her broth. Within a few moments of handing the bowl to the woman, she was asleep again.
It was nearly sunset when the baby griffin’s squall roused Kel. She peered at him over the edge of the cot. He was flapping half-opened wings, objecting to the cage. When he saw Kel, he peered up at her through the openings in the metal.
Kel flopped onto her back. I wanted that to be a dream, she thought.
Another woman brought Kel water and a bowl of noodles in broth. Kel was so hungry she nearly inhaled the food, looking around as she ate. She counted twenty beds, most filled with sleeping men. The two beside Kel held female Riders.
She was about to put her bowl on the floor when something small and wet struck her cheek. She wiped it off, then inspected it: a ragged bit of fish skin. With a frown Kel wiped it onto a napkin. She put the bowl next to her cot; when she straightened, something wet struck her eye. Kel removed it. More fish skin.
She looked into the metal cage. ‘Stop it,’ she told the griffin. She was impressed with the little thing’s aim. It must have taken innate skill or lots of practice …
Inspection of her blankets revealed pieces of scaled skin and fish bones in their wrinkles. Kel touched her pillow and the sheets around her head, to find more samples of the griffin’s target practice. She leaned over to glare at the creature.
A large, smelly scrap hit her squarely in the mouth. Kel picked it off with a grimace and dropped it into the cage. The griffin bowed its shoulders, lifted its head, opened its beak, then spread and fluttered its wings. Kel had raised young strays; she knew begging when she saw it.
‘Ridiculous,’ she told the griffin. ‘You’ve been feeding yourself from your dish. Keep on feeding yourself.’ She lay down with a thump. A gobbet of fish entrails landed in her ear. She sat bolt upright with a cry of disgust, wrenched off her blanket, and threw it over the griffin’s cage.
The griffin began to shriek. Even with the blanket to muffle it, the hall echoed. Seeing other patients sit up, Kel snatched the blanket off the cage.
The griffin opened its beak and fluttered its wings.
Kel lifted the cage onto her lap. ‘Little monster,’ she growled. She opened the grate and reached in for the dish. The griffin lunged and clamped its beak on the tip of her index finger. Kel bit her tongue to keep from waking anyone with a scream. She fought the griffin for possession of her finger. The moment she shook it off, the griffin assumed the begging position.
Kel glared at her charge. It was still filthy, shedding feathers, its keelbone stark against the skin of its chest. It was half starved. Keeping a watchful eye on it, she took a fish off the plate. The griffin opened its beak and tilted its head back. Kel let the fish drop. In three bites the prize was gone. Once again the griffin begged. Kel fed it two more fish without problems. When she fumbled getting the next fish out of the cage, the griffin hissed and swiped at her arm, leaving four deep scratches.
‘I guess you’ve had enough,’ Kel said grimly. She closed the cage and put it on the floor. The griffin began to scream again.
Five fish, a bitten finger, and three more scratches later, the griffin stopped begging. It closed its eyes and went to sleep in its cage. This time, when Kel put it on the floor, it didn’t protest.
She was still picking fish remains out of her bed when the nurses came to light the night lamps. With them came the shepherd’s boy, Bernin.
‘You look better,’ he told Kel frankly, parking his behind on a stool beside her cot. ‘You was green when they brung you up.’
‘I’m not surprised,’ Kel replied. ‘I felt green.’ Her ribs and leg were bruised, but the deep aches were gone. The vile liquid must have been a healing potion.
‘The mayor di’n’t even want you here, ’cause o’ that—’ Bernin pointed to the griffin. ‘My lord roared at ’im an’ the mayor changed his mind.’ He grinned so infectiously that Kel had to grin back.
‘I’d do what my lord said if he roared at me,’ she admitted.
‘Well, you got to, bein’ his squire, an’ all,’ he pointed out. ‘That little ’un you saved? The girl?’
‘Jump saved her,’ Kel said firmly. ‘I just distracted the centaur.’ Jump, asleep on the opposite side of her cot from the griffin, thumped the floor with his tail.
Bernin rolled his eyes at this city girl nitpicking. ‘Anyways, her folks is charcoal burners, caught in the woods by them bandits. They took a bunch of lone folk, them that on’y come into the walls for winter. Cowardly pukes.’ He spat on the floor, winning a disapproving glare from a healer. ‘But the little’s fam’ly wants to show you gratitude. They wanna know what they could do.’
Kel winced. She’d done nothing to be thanked for. Jump had saved the child. She’d simply killed a centaur and almost got killed herself, because she had forgotten he was part horse. Any thanks would only grind it in that it was a miracle any of them had survived.
‘If they want to give Jump a bone, or thank Captain Flyndan, who put me there, that’s fine,’ she told the boy, smothering a yawn. ‘I just did what I was told.’
‘Don’t you want to be thanked?’ Bernin asked, baffled. ‘I’n’t that what you go heroing for?’
‘No,’ replied Kel. Remembering her manners, she added, ‘Say I thank them for thinking of me.’
Bernin wandered off, shaking his head. He passed Raoul on his way out. Kel watched her knight-master walk along the rows of beds, talking with those who were awake. Hers was the last cot he reached.
For a moment he looked down at her, hands in his breeches pockets, shaking his head. ‘Young idiot,’ he said, amusement in his sloe-black eyes. ‘You forgot the forelegs, didn’t you?’
Kel smiled wryly. ‘Yes, sir.’
‘You’ll remember next time.’ He spotted Bernin’s stool and lowered himself onto it. It was so short that his knees were at the level of his chest. He straightened his legs with a sigh. ‘A pretty trap, though. The rope was a nice touch.’
‘I got lucky,’ Kel said, shamefaced. ‘If he’d fallen wrong, that child could’ve died. Or my friend, here.’ She nodded at the griffin’s cage.
‘You can “if” yourself to death, squire,’ he said, patting her shoulder. ‘I advise against it. You’re better off getting extra sleep. Once you and the others are up and about, we have to take these charmers to the magistrates for trial.’
He grinned as Kel made a face. ‘When people say a knight’s job is all glory, I laugh, and laugh, and laugh,’ he said. ‘Often I can stop laughing before they edge away and talk about soothing drinks. As for the griffin …’ He looked down at the cage and sighed. ‘I’m surprised he’s still in there. Griffins usually don’t put up with cages for long. We heard testimony from the robbers we captured. They knew about the griffin, of course – the centaur killed the pedlar who stole it from the parents. Did they teach you about griffin parents killing anyone who’s handled their young?’
‘Until we find them, I’m sure the Own can protect you long enough that we can explain things. And I’ve sent for Daine. She can search for this one’s family.’
Kel sighed with relief. She had thought she might have to leave Lord Raoul’s service and work in the palace until the griffin’s parents were found. ‘Then I can go on tending it, I suppose,’ she said, not looking forward to that beak and those claws.
Raoul grinned. ‘Think of it as a learning experience, Kel,’ he advised, eyes dancing with mischief. ‘I’d suggest you get a pair of heavy gloves like the falconers use.’ He got to his feet. ‘Now sleep. I expect you to be walking around in the morning.’
In her dream, Kel faced Joren of Stone Mountain, Vinson of Genlith, and Garvey of Runnerspring, the senior pages who were her greatest enemies in the palace. They had made her first two years as a page into a running battle with first Kel, who could not stand by while others were bullied, then with Kel and her friends. Vinson had even attacked Kel’s maid, Lalasa. Once they became squires, with knight-masters to answer to, Garvey and Vinson seemed to lose interest. Joren changed, too. He claimed to have seen the error of his ways and wanted to be friends.
Although she rarely saw them, Kel still dreamed of them, and they were still her foes. In this dream Joren – white-blond, blue-eyed, fair-skinned, the loveliest man Kel had ever seen – grabbed Kel’s left ear between his thumb and forefinger. Smiling, he pinched Kel’s ear hard, fingernails biting through cartilage to meet. Kel sat up with a yell. Her dream vision of the older squires vanished. The red-hot pain in her ear went on. She grabbed for it and caught a mass of feathers and claws that scored her hands. The griffin had got out of its cage, climbed onto Kel’s bed, and buried its beak in her ear.
She tugged at him, making the pain worse. She stopped, gasping, and fought to clear her mind. It was hard to do: the monster growled in its throat, distracting her, as did the complaints from the other patients.
Breathing slowly, trying to forget the pain and distractions, she found the hinges of its beak and pressed them. Her fingers slipped in her own blood. It took several tries until she could apply enough pressure to make the griffin let go. The moment it did, Kel wrapped both hands around it and stuffed it under her blankets, rolling it up in them briskly. She then grabbed the cage.
It fell apart in her fingers. Only a handful of metal strips, badly rusted, and a pile of rust flakes remained. The dishes that had held the griffin’s water and fish were whole – they were hard-fired clay.