Zeppelin pilots that flew into Port Cedryssene from New York City, Philadelphia, or Potomac City made sure to give their passengers a good look at the mountain castle Greifspitze, the centuries-old gryphon fortress that now housed the throne of Port Cedryssene. In the setting sun, the dark grey castle towers shone like gold maces raised to the heavens, topped with the silver charms of the King's own zeppelin fleet.
King András stood at the window of his bedchamber, high atop one of Greifspitze's towers. Above the flickering lights of the city, the King watched the storm advance over the northern mountains like an army firing weapons of crackling jagged light. The King's own zeppelins remained moored to the castle towers, as it was clear this storm would stay east of the castle and pass out to sea.
András saw lightning jab like a sword into the woods far distant, at the foothills of the northern mountains. Thunder echoed inside the shaking tower like an enormous drum roll.
"Wonder those woods don't burn," said the King to no one.
András stood alone. His wife had fled his presence hours before, in tears again at his stubborn and distant silence. King András was tall and muscular, with black hair and blue eyes, and the secret he held stilled his desire for his wife years before, the pale brown wisp Bakarne. Alchemists and wizards had tried cures on both King and Queen, with endless potions, enchantments, spells, alchemical shocks, and uncomfortable cold metal instruments. But András knew the truth, knew that his professors and potion-makers wasted their time on his wife, and eventually realized they wasted their time on him as well. It was his curse, it had to be; for wasn't he at one time so relieved to have never produced a bastard heir from his youthful dalliances? His one-time rage made him hate his Queen, and in that anger he had taken a lover, the only one since he and Bakarne had wed; one of the castle's servants, this lover had been. András no longer remembered her name; Palaski something-or-other. But he remembered her warm body and the love they had shared; yet still his stomach clenched from his shame over betraying his barren Queen. András had kept an eye on the servant girl, and she never showed signs of being with child. This was proof, he knew, and he crawled back to the Queen filled with contriteness, and tried to make amends. But Bakarne's anger ran hot then, though she also kept her cold sliver of fear hidden, and having failed to meet András in that emotional dark path in the woods, their love never recovered.
András had given up on Bakarne for so long that he failed to note she was trying again to restore their love. Instead he watched the storms roll over his kingdom, his city, and listened to the tigers in his walled garden below roar at the effrontery of the heavens. The storms were his only entertainment apart from books, as the King in his depression refused to host balls and musicians and actors. One of his ministers had been exiled to Boston Town for noting to the King that even Hamlet had enjoyed an occasional evening at the theatre. King András was feared above all kings in Northern Amer; he held his city with an iron fist, and once made Boston Town pay dearly for their efforts to dethrone him. András had even faced down the terrifying Gryphon King Torrynsegh, who had sought to regain control of the ancient gryphon fortress András called home.
But the city saw only András's fierce eyes staring down the Gryphon King, and knew not that András had won the argument only by agreeing to give Torrynsegh a certain amount of gold each year, which the Gryphon King took but first spat on, seeing the gold as only the mighty gryphons' due.
András watched sheets of rain streak across the sky over his city. "I would give all my gold now," he whispered, "for just one unfortunate bastard son."
Paliki Veres, seventeen summers ago, had realized her time with child had come, and charmed the King's eyes not to see her changing body, and she fled Greifspitze before she would have to charm every eye in the castle. The feared and fierce King András bore no hatred for Márton, Rezsó, and Clement, for truly the King knew not that they even existed.
* * *
Márton leaned his solid left shoulder against the hard wall that was the right shoulder of his gryphon Devvskai, while Devvskai drew deep breaths of the pleasant summer air and watched the world around their hilltop clearing. Rezsó brushed out the chocolate-gold mane of his mount Rakhnyall, and Rakhnyall grumbled contentedly. Clement stood beside Ffinzgyor with the fingers of his right hand wrapped in a handful of his gryphon's mane. Clement looked out from under the wind-tossed trees across the mountain ridge at the sun-washed distant city, while Ffinzgyor cleaned his forepaws. The boys were dressed alike, in slacks and white shirts and vests that were sturdy enough to stand up to their endeavors. Overhead, white clouds reposed peacefully in the clear blue sky. The gryphons lay down now, but towered over the boys when they stood, with their heads a good ten feet or so above the ground, and that not even counting the tips of their long, raised ears. Each gryphon wing was over twenty feet long when extended. The gryphons' eyes were as gold as pirates' doubloons, and each gryphon beak blazed with the hot yellow shine of fire.
From the city came the distant rumble of zeppelin rotors while the silvery craft purred to and fro over the buildings, the rumble underscored by the clatter and hoot of railway cars rolling through town, and the pipe of ships' whistles in Cedryssene Harbor saluting the trains crossing the mighty railway bridge that spanned the harbor over Ghost Island. The rainbow of different-colored dragons painted the sky, clustered over the finance center or the University, or banking in snake-loops toward their homes in the dizzying Dragon Trees. Sometimes young dragons swarmed laughing around a zeppelin, trying to scare the passengers. Older dragons hissed the children away, and cried to the young hoolidragons, "What do you think you are, humans?" In a valley below Clement's gaze, between the Gryphonwind and the city, lay a portion of land that extended southwest like an arm from the main body of the secretive Gryphon Lairs. Once in a while the boys' gryphons twitched their tall ears while they listened to the cries of young gryphons playing back home.
A bird-child was with the Gryphonwind that day, and hearing a particularly loud cry from the lairs, the boy said, "Won't they see us if they fly up high?"
"No." Devvskai's voice was curt. "Gryphon parents do not allow their young to fly over the treetops in sight of the city."
Rezsó said, "They don't fear humans that much, do they?"
Devvskai said nothing, and went back to watching.
The child who spoke was twelve summers old, with gold skin and lines of snow-white feathers that traced the outline of his limbs and spine. His hair was dark blond, his eyes as gold as those of the gryphons, but the wings on his back were a blinding white brilliance in the late morning sun. Kjermaak was the boy's name, one of the city's many bird-people, gentle creatures who were worshipped as gods in ancient times and now wept like angels for the animosities between gryphons, dragons, and people.
Kjermaak rested on his haunches in the soft grass amidst the gathering of Gryphonwind; but the boy sat a bit closer, Rezsó noticed, to the likewise gentle Clement. The bird-boy, who wore nothing more modest than a white silk cloth tied about his waist, swallowed a bite of the apple he ate and said, "Why do the gryphons hate humans anyway?"
"Centuries ago," Devvskai said, " 'twas not yet so. Gryphons and humans honored each other, no more so than in the bond of gryphon and rider, the most feared warrior pairing in all the lands. In troubled places when all hope was gone, sometimes the sky darkened with many divisions of Gryphonwind, and your reaction to the terrifying sight depended on the good or evil quality of your heart."
"What he means," Rezsó said to Kjermaak, "is that the Gryphonwind were a pretty tough bunch to go up against."
"The Gryphonwind," Devvskai said while almost snarling, "were envied among all humans. There were none so brave as those who dared friendship with gryphons."
Márton's back was straight and his shoulders were broad, and he said, "Not everyone can find it in themselves to come close to a gryphon, to touch one and to ride one."
Clement ran his fingers through Ffinzgyor's mane and recalled with a smile a certain sunny day three summers ago. He said to Márton, "Even when the gryphons are friendly?"
Márton chuckled. "Especially then, squirt. Don't pick foolish times to show bravery, eh?"
Devvskai growled. "Only once will a human make the mistake of thinking a stranger gryphon his friend."
Rezsó said, "Oh, yeah?"
Devvskai didn't even look at Rezsó. "Yes."
Rezsó laughed, and said to Kjermaak, "Gryphons are proud creatures, very aloof and alone. They think the messes of humans are beneath them, sort of like brother Márton here."
"But gryphons," Kjermaak said, "didn't always think this, correct?"
"Once upon a time," Ffinzgyor said, his voice rumbling in Clement's ears, "gryphons and humans united. It wasn't always as frightful as Devv pretends. Gryphons and their riders protected human settlements and cities from barbarians, the werewolf packs and bandit hordes and drunken, renegade fauns. But then humans, the very brethren of our beloved Gryphonwind, began to war with each other, city versus city over gold or gods or pathways through water. The bloodlust even infected the Northern Amer natives, the ones who attacked the gryphons in Greifspitze looking for non-existent hoards of gold. And the Gryphonwind rode us into battle, senseless battles, and many of us died. One day in central Europe occurred another of the many clashes between the Northern Europa armies and the Ottoman-Dragon Empire, a battle that grew so big the armies covered miles, over hills and valleys and waterways. The warriors' bodies darkened the land and sky, and blood from the fighting showered to the earth like rain. The killing went on and on, and finally...it was enough. The gryphons turned on their riders and killed them. And then we...slaughtered those who slaughtered us. We left behind nothing but blood and death. The Ottoman-Dragons eventually pushed forward into Europa...but that is another tale. As for gryphons, they found their own places to live, and have hated humans ever since."
"And humans in Europa and the Amers," Devvskai said with a little sneer at the corner of his beaked mouth, "turned to dragons for help."
"Yes," Márton said, "but the funny thing is that dragons will not protect humans for humans' own sake. Or let humans ride them."
"The Ottoman dragons did," Rezsó said.
"And in Dragondanz, they do," Kjermaak said. He tossed his apple core into the brush, and stood up. "Will you gryphons really get in trouble if word gets back to the Lairs that you bonded with humans?"
Rakhnyall shook his head to fluff out his newly-combed mane, and Rezsó stood back, still awed by the vigorous and muscular power gryphons brought to even such small gestures, creatures in whom every eye blink and nostril flare carried meaning.
"We would be ostracized," Rakhnyall said, "or worse. Our culture is unforgiving and suspects those who are different, and as such we select unforgiving and retributive kings. Torrynsegh himself would likely rip out our guts if he learned our secret." The gryphon gave a gentle but cryptic back-of-the-beak mouth corner smile to Kjermaak. "Not a place for you, little one. It is more Devvskai's world."
"Yes," Devvskai said, "and it's too quiet, with too many rules. That is why I came along when you and Ffinzgyor told me about the three humans you had met."
"Your old friend Barttylln disagrees," Ffinzgyor said.
"He'll stay quiet," Devvskai said. "Gryphons detest a spy, perhaps even more than we...than they detest humans."
Kjermaak sidled up to Ffinzgyor and stroked the gryphon's mane, and said to Clement, "Is it true, what you learned last night?"
"I don't know," Clement said. "I thought about it all night long. It...makes some sense..."
"It makes no sense," Devvskai said. "Humans, always playing games and lying to each other, cowering in fear of what other humans might do. A gryphon female would slash out the throat of any gryphon who threatened her litter."
"What I wish I knew," Clement said, "is where our mother went."
Márton laughed. "Silly Clement. Last night father told us we're princes, and all our fool over here wants is his mommy."
Clement's face turned red, but he said nothing.
"But Saqr is not really your father," Kjermaak noted, but he was overspoken by Ffinzgyor, who said to Márton, "Don't speak so ill of your brother."
"Ill he was when he was born," Márton said, "and when he's been weak I've watched out for him. But there's no excuse for weakness when he's healthy. You should let your gryphon influence you more, Clement. Let into your heart the warrior that will fight to avenge our mother."
"I do let my gryphon influence me," Clement said, "and he's not as vicious as yours."
Devvskai snorted and eyed the sky.
Márton shook his head. "I should trade gryphons with you, Clem. You need all the help you can get."
Both Devvskai and Ffinzgyor jerked their heads back in reply. Devvskai whirled to face Márton, and nearly deafened his rider with an outraged squawk-roar.
"The Gryphonwind bond is for life," Devvskai snarled at Márton. "Don't ever suggest breaking it."
Márton blinked at his gryphon. "It was...just a joke."
"Clement is the clown," Devvskai said. "You are the king."
"Oh, lord." Rezsó rolled his eyes. "Prince Márton of the Cedryssene Mountains." He patted Clement's back; Clement had hidden his face in Ffinzgyor's mane.
"Look," Márton chuckled. "The clown weeps."
For a moment, black fire entered Rezsó's eyes. "Even for you," he said to Márton, "that was mean."
Márton's green eyes glowered like arrowshots from under his brow. "Why don't we go and ask the King where our mother is? This is our city, you know."
"And shall we take his place in the castle as well?" Rezsó said.
"Why not? It's ours, too."
"Not from atop our backs," Rakhnyall said, "will you engage in such stuff and silliness. 'Twas the endless murder of kings that drove humans and gryphons apart."
"Speak for yourself," said Devvskai.
Clement wiped his eyes as he turned to face Márton. "Saqr, our father, tells us our truth, and you only think of conquest."
"I am the oldest," said Márton. "Our fate and the fate of our city lie with me."
"Be sure to have the crown sized larger for your swollen head," Clement said.
Márton bumped shoulders with Devvskai. "Fancy that, Devv. I already have a jester for my court."
Clement turned away and clicked his tongue. Ffinzgyor rose to his feet and then lowered his forelegs and shoulders to let his rider climb aboard. Once Clement was secure on the gryphon's shoulders, Ffinzgyor stood tall again.
Clement tried not to let tears roll from his eyes as he spoke to Rezsó. "You see what Márton thinks of us, now that his dream to rule all our world has come true."
"He has ever been an arrogant brother," Ffinzgyor said.
"Me?" Márton stepped toward Clement and Ffinzgyor. "Who protected you from the bullies all through school, Clement-clown? Who took the punishment on his backside from Nazirah when your funny antics broke one of her vases, or angered the stall-keepers in the market? Because you made me laugh, I took it. And who sat with you when you had measles and flu? It wasn't Rezsó; Rezsó was off wandering through his books and alchemical tables!"
Clement cleared his throat. "Who turns my shoulders purple with punches, or spills ink on my homework, or hides my clothes when we're at the swimming hole? Who now calls me names, and laughs because I'd rather find our mother than kill our father?"
"You're a prince," Márton said. "Think like one!"
"I thought I was only your jester." Clement tugged back on Ffinzgyor's mane. The gryphon spread his wings and beat them twice, flinging a hurricane through the dancing canopy of leaves. Then Ffinzgyor lifted into the air, banked through a blue gap in the overhanging branches, and vanished. The wind-curls made by the gryphon disturbed a raven from its perch on one of the branches. The black bird squawked, circled the clearing, and flew off.
Márton watched the gap between the trees where Clement had flown away. Only the sound of songbirds filled the air for several moments, until Kjermaak spoke.
"My people," the bird-boy said, "vote our rulers in. We avoid the poison that comes with your bloodline kings and princes."
"Yes," Márton spat, "but you still follow our King's orders."
"While we live in Port Cedryssene, yes."
Márton stalked away to stand next to Devvskai, his back to the others. Devvskai nuzzled his rider's face.
"Sixteen summers," Rezsó said, "and we've never been apart."
"We're growing up," Márton said. "It's time we went our own ways."
"From our city, Márton?"
"Be quiet, Rez."
Kjermaak's voice trembled. "Clement will come back, won't he?"
Márton blinked at the sky and laughed. "It's a clock-face shy of noon. He'll be back for lunch. Nazirah packed our baskets with those soft rolls she makes, and the slices of meat, and the cheese..." He hunched his shoulders and stamped away into the woods, followed by a crouching Devvskai.
Kjermaak looked up at Rezsó, who merely shook his head. The bird-boy stepped back, spread his wings, and flew through the gap in the trees to find Clement.
The raven in the sky heard the rustle of leaves and looked back to see the golden boy, and thought of magic blood and lightning, and of living forever, and it was all so very, very good.
* * *
Hours later, Márton and Rezsó rode their gryphons down into the same clearing amidst a rustle of green leaves as hollow-sounding as confetti at a funeral. The gryphons touched the earth with a thump of heavy paws, and the two brothers dismounted.
"Night is coming on." Márton looked west, where the orange ball of the sun had just settled into a perch right along a plum-dyed mountain ridge.
"It's not like Clement to pout," Rakhnyall said.
Márton knelt and examined the paw prints pressed into the dirt by Ffinzgyor when he took off, carrying Clement. "Yes, it is," Márton said, his voice bitter and sharp like dead pine needles.
"Not by himself," Rezsó said. "Never by himself."
"You three brothers are never alone," Devvskai said. "That's a weakness. Learn to be like gryphons, alone and independent."
"Be quiet, Devv," Márton said.
Devvskai blinked in surprise at his rider, and remained silent.
"Kjermaak has not returned, either," Rezsó said.
"He probably went home," Rakhnyall said, "to avoid the choking smoke of tension here."
Márton stood and looked at the sky. "He flew off that way." Márton pointed east briefly, then merely watched the slice of sky between the treetops, where Clement had flown. Rezsó stood beside his brother, and watched with him. The blue sky was growing pale with the faint orange light of the setting sun.
"He might be in trouble," Márton said. "We should go look for him."
"We must get home soon," Rezsó said, "or Nazirah will worry. Besides, Clement is probably already there."
"With his gryphon? Some sight that would make."
"I'm sure Ffinzgyor returned by himself to the Lairs."
"Are we still children," Márton said, "that we fear Nazirah's wrath if we're late?"
"It's called 'respect,' " Rezsó said, "and we have a secret to keep."
"Our kind needs to overcome their fear of the Gryphonwind," Márton said. "The humans with their weak-willed cowardice in the face of bravery."
"You speak so well of your own bravery, prince," Rakhnyall said.
"I wasn't...thinking of myself."
"Huh," Rakhnyall said. "That's a first."
"We are the first Gryphonwind in centuries," Rezsó said to Márton. "Are you brave enough to tackle that, the panic and the fear that will occur when we reveal what we have done?"
"When I am King..." Márton grew silent, and swallowed hard, and turned his eyes again toward the slowly darkening western dome of the sky.
Part Two of Four
Article © Cody Stanford. All rights reserved.
Published on 2010-04-26