‘Griffins don’t like cages,’ she muttered. ‘That’s not how I would put it.’
One of the nurses hurried in with a plate of fish. She thrust it at Kel; the moment Kel took it, the woman fled.
Kel got to her feet. Someone had laid fresh clothes on the stool next to her cot. Using her nightshirt as a protective tent, Kel dressed under it, muttering curses on griffins as she tried to keep blood off her clothes. When she shed her nightshirt, she found a healer standing there. The woman bore a tray that held swabs, a bowl of water, cloths, and a bottle of dark green fluid.
Kel peeled away enough blankets to free the griffin’s head while the rest of it stayed under wraps. As she fed it, the healer worked on Kel’s ear.
When the griffin lost interest in fish and closed its beak, Kel put the plate aside and glared at her charge. What was she supposed to do without a cage? She certainly couldn’t leave it wrapped in sheets.
As if to prove Kel’s point, the griffin wavered, blinked, and vomited half-digested fish onto Kel’s bedding. Mutely the healer gave Kel a washcloth and left. Kel used it to gather up the worst of the vomit. The griffin wrestled a paw free and swiped four sharp claws over Kel’s hand. She was trying to think of a merciful way to kill it when a muffled blatting sound issued from inside the blankets. A billow of appalling stench rose from the cot.
Knowing what she would find, Kel pulled the bedding apart. The griffin clambered out of a puddle of half-liquid dung and threw itself at Kel. When she raised her hands in self-defence, it seized one arm, clutching it with its forepaws and shredding her sleeve as it clawed the underside of her arm. Kel gritted her teeth, shook her pillow free of its case, and shoved the kicking immortal inside.
The healer had returned. ‘I’d better leave this with you.’ She placed a fresh bottle of green liquid on the stool beside Kel’s cot. ‘It will clean your wounds and stop the bleeding.’
Kel yanked her captive arm free and closed her hand around the neck of the pillowcase. The thin cloth would hold her monster only a short time. ‘If I might have swabs and light oil and warm water, I would be in your debt,’ she said politely, one-handedly folding her bedding around the griffin’s spectacular mess. ‘I need to clean my friend.’
‘Might I recommend the horse trough outside?’ the healer suggested, as polite as Kel. ‘I will bring everything to you there.’
The glove idea failed. Kel tried falconers’ gloves, riding gloves, and even linen bandages on her hands. The griffin would not take food from a gloved hand, and now that Kel was better, it took food from no one else, either. With regular practice, Kel’s skill at incurring only small wounds improved. She hoped that, with more practice, combining her duties as squire with multiple feedings for her charge would leave her less exhausted at day’s end. Most of all, she hoped the griffin’s parents came soon. There were two of them to care for their offspring. Surely they never felt overwhelmed.
Five days after she left her cot, Third Company and the two Rider Groups took the road with the griffin and thirty-odd bandit prisoners. Their destination was the magistrates’ court in Irontown. The journey was tense. Everyone knew that death sentences awaited most of the bandits, who made almost daily escape attempts. Twice the company was attacked by families and friends of the captives, trying to free them.
The Haresfield renegade Macorm was the first to see Irontown’s magistrates. In his case the Crown asked for clemency, since Macorm’s information had led to the band’s capture. His friend Gavan, who faced the noose, testified that Macorm was a reluctant thief who had killed no one. The magistrates gave Macorm a choice, ten years in the army or the granite quarries of the north. He chose the army.
Kel attended the trials as Raoul’s squire, watching as the bandits’ victims and the soldiers, including her knight-master, gave testimony. She heard the griffin’s history for herself. The centaur she killed, Windteeth, had murdered a human pedlar who offered griffin feathers for sale when he saw the man had a real griffin in his cart. Windteeth knew the risk he took, keeping a young griffin, but the prospect of future wealth had meant more to him.
‘Nobody went near him after that,’ Windteeth’s brother told the court. ‘Nobody wants to tangle with griffins, and that little monster has sharp claws, to boot.’
Not to mention a beak, Kel thought, looking at her hands. Her right little finger was in a splint, awaiting a healer’s attention. The griffin had broken it that morning. Why couldn’t she have left that cursed pouch alone?
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