The gryphons flew Márton and Rezsó down the mountains as they had the day before, and evening farewells were said. The brothers eschewed the trolley and walked in silence. The softening bustle of the city around them sounded off-key and harsh tonight, the twilight full of unresolved fears rather than a comforting end to a fulfilling day. The boys stopped beneath trees and shouted up at the huts hidden in the branches above, the homes of the bird-people. Márton and Rezsó followed the directions they received until they found the massive oak that sheltered Kjermaak's clan. Few of his relatives were home, for a search was on. The golden bird-child had not come home.
"Then..." Rezsó tried to smile at the disheartened expression on Márton's face. "Kjermaak went home with Clement. And..."
Márton pushed past his brother and began to run. Rezsó followed; his half-smile had vanished.
* * *
The dinner plates were still nearly full, the sweets untouched, and the black coffee carried none of its usual punch.
"The King," Rezsó said. "The King must have done it."
Saqr looked up from his coffee and rubbed the sleeves of his white cambric shirt that he had put on after removing his captain's uniform. He thought for a moment by the firm tone of voice that Márton had spoken. Nazirah sat beside Saqr and kept eyeing the open windows as if foolishly expecting to see Clement fly home through one of them. Night had fallen and a breeze lifted the long, gold-fringed red drapes the hung aside the open windows. The pesky raven that had been disturbing dinnertime of late had made no appearance that evening.
"But if it were the King who took Clement," Saqr said, "then why only one of you? Why not take revenge on all three at once?"
"He would have brought along no soldiers with him," Rezsó said, "if we made him as ashamed and angry as our mother feared."
"Yes." Márton hunched his shoulders over his coffee as if falling into himself. "Alone and only on horse, the King could not have taken on three Gryphonwind."
Rezsó caught his breath, looked quickly at Saqr and Nazirah, and shook his head.
Nazirah slapped the table with her right hand. "Your childish games again! The time for boyhood make-believe is over!"
Márton looked up with surprised eyes, only at that moment realizing what he had said.
Saqr chuckled. "The Gryphonwind were a band of thugs and murderers," he said to Márton, "allied with the vicious tempers of wicked beasts. What have they to do with — "
"No, they weren't." Márton's voice was low, as if he wanted to hide his words from the world.
Saqr leaned back in his chair. "And this you know how, my whispering warrior?"
Márton winced at the term Saqr used. "Because...our gryphons told us their truth."
Rezsó slammed his fist on the table. "Márton!"
Nazirah nearly rose from her chair. "Gryphons? You can joke so casually about such monsters at a time like this? With your brother gone who knows where! And the lie, even if it is a joke, right at table to us who raised you!"
Márton raised his eyes. "Lie...?"
"Yes, you lie! To venture too close to a gryphon would only be to encounter a rapid death, though sometimes not rapid enough, from what the old stories say."
Saqr chuckled. "Nazirah, you have always talked like a prophetess when you are mad at the boys."
Márton glanced at his brother.
Rezsó sighed and said to Nazirah, "Márton tells the truth."
Nazirah looked from boy to boy. "Reza, my lamb...what does your brother mean, then?"
Rezsó's lips tightened. "We have...become Gryphonwind."
"It is not possible! The Gryphonwind are evil!"
Saqr said to his wife, "Nazirah..."
"Is this your way of telling me," Nazirah cried, "that it was a gryphon who killed my gentle Clement?"
"We don't know that he's dead," Rezsó said.
"He's not dead," Márton said quietly, as if to convince only himself.
When Saqr had calmed Nazirah, Márton sipped coffee and told them about one sunny afternoon up in the forest where the hills turn to mountains. The three brothers of thirteen summers apiece, hidden behind a fallen tree trunk they used as a castle parapet for their knightly games, spied two magnificent gryphons that landed in a clearing next to the boys' pretend castle. The boys remained in absolute silence, knowing if they were spotted they were but a short moment from death. But the gryphons, talking together in this secluded place outside of their Lairs about all that was wrong back in the Lairs, finally sniffed out and spotted the boys.
"Our hearts froze," Márton said. "We thought that was the end of summer days for us."
"And so you should," Nazirah cried. "Gryphons have no mercy for humans, and no good reason to kill us. They do it anyway, for fun."
"And yet, they didn't." Saqr dragged on his cheroot and said to Márton, "What happened?"
"I remember the sun," Márton said, "and how it fell on the gryphons' fur and feathers, like gold threads swimming in tea. They spread their wings and blocked out the sun, and looked for all the world as if they were going to rush us and eat us. But it turned out...they were as curious about us as we were about them. And then we...one of us...the bravest of us...went out and greeted them."
"Angels be merciful," Nazirah said, and drank a glass of water.
Márton continued, telling how the three brothers began to meet regularly with Rakhnyall and Ffinzgyor, the two gryphons they had seen. They asked each other questions and talked of their histories, and began to share laughter and games. One day the two gryphons brought along a third, their mighty friend Devvskai.
"We were drawn together like magnets," Márton said, "Devvskai and me. And soon...the gryphons let us ride them. It was terrifying, that first time up in the sky with nothing beneath your feet and no gas-bags above to hold you up. It was like watching a priceless dinner plate slip from your fingers and grow smaller and smaller..."
"Something you know too well, little boy," Nazirah said.
Márton managed a slight smile, his first since that afternoon. "Soon...it is the gryphons that choose who gets to be a Gryphonwind. Devvskai chose me, and I was as excited as any boy in love whose girl smiles upon him. Rakhnyall chose Rezsó, and sweet Ffinzgyor...selected Clement. And we rode, and flew, and they taught us to fight like proper warriors; knights of the skies, as the Gryphonwind were called in the oldest days. We learned from them, our gryphons, the truth about the Gryphonwind. And it's not what everyone says it is."
"I'm sure," Saqr said, "young gryphons' heads are filled with as many myths and heroic retellings of times past as are the heads of little boys."
"No, Father," Márton said. "Think about it. You should meet them, Devvskai and Rakhnyall and...and Ffinzgyor. Especially him. You would see. They wouldn't let thugs and bandits and murderers ride them. It was...love. Between humans and gryphons, long ago, in the time of the first Gryphonwind. Love and trust and honor and bravery. Until one side...our side...we forgot love...what it meant. We forgot love, and made war..." Márton lowered his eyes and hid them behind the steam from a fresh cup of coffee.
"Made war what?" Saqr said.
Rezsó finished his brother's thought. "Made war more important. As the King has made his hate and shame more important than the lives of his sons."
Nazirah nodded. "I know naught about these...wicked gryphons. But I do know that Márton will make a better King than András Katona."
Márton did not look up.
Saqr drained his coffee mug and stood. "I will go fly, and keep my eyes open. A boy on a gryphon with a gold friend flying close by...even in the dark, I should see that. I will tell some dragons I know, too."
Rezsó said, "Father, the secret — "
"Hush, son. Dragons know when to keep secrets. It is why they grow so rich from our stock market! If what you boys say is true...well, dragons have honor too, despite their old grievances with the gryphons. They may well welcome the return of the Gryphonwind."
The walls rumbled faintly, and Nazirah said to Saqr, "You had better hurry. I hear a storm coming on."
* * *
Kjermaak knelt on the dirt floor of the cage with his back to the nearly lightless laboratory chamber behind him. The room smelled of trees, like the huts where the bird-people dwelled, but inside the twisted tree-tower the wood and leaves had begin to rot, and whatever fresh forest scent remained fought a losing battle with the stench of mold and decay.
Kjermaak heard the rattling of metal instruments and the clanking of glass containers, and the thup-thup-thup of fast footsteps. The black-cloaked man who held Kjermaak captive worked fast around his consoles and tables, and the man chortled when the first rumble of thunder made the knots of his tree-lair tremble like a frightened horse.
The worst was over, Kjermaak said to himself; it had to be over; please let it be over. Persistent memories of the events from that day played over and over in the boy's head. Kjermaak, following Clement, screamed breathily at the sight of the small black raven that had suddenly exploded into the size of an eagle. The huge bird, possessed of some terrifying magic, swept down and snatched Clement off the back of his startled gryphon. Then the magic-raven slashed sharp talons at Ffinzgyor's face and wings. The gentle gryphon bled and fell from the sky. When Kjermaak dived in to help, the daylight disappeared, and Kjermaak awoke inside the dark cage in this smelly room, and somewhere close by someone was screaming...
Kjermaak wept, his eyes already sore from tears. Behind him the wizard rattled at his pots and dials. Thankfully the magic-raven was nowhere to be seen. The bird-boy felt something wet roll across the floor, around his bare knees. Tree sap, maybe, or a spilled potion? Kjermaak couldn't see the liquid on the dark floor, so he wetted his fingertips in the liquid and raised his hand close to his face. He sniffed his fingers. Then Kjermaak screamed and flapped his wings, and flew up to grip the bars of his cage several feet off the ground. He would hang there forever as long as it kept him away from the blood, Clement's blood spilling from his now-still body on the floor outside the cage, beside the wizard.
Another rumble of thunder sent creaks and shivers through the trees limbs, and Kauldi Azarola laughed.
* * *
The Morning Star slowed down and hovered over the lower part of the mountains north of Port Cedryssene. Saqr saw the lightning and heard the thunder, and as the dragons bade him farewell (for the search party was nearing the Gryphon Lairs, and the dragons wanted to avoid conflict), they reported that they had seen nothing. Saqr ordered his zeppelin to turn around and head for the harbor and the sea beyond, to ride out the storm there. Through his binoculars he saw nothing except flocks of bird-people scouring the vast city airspace for little lost Kjermaak, and they too began to scatter in the stiffening winds of the approaching storm.
Beneath the turning zeppelin was a dense canopy of trees below which, on the forest floor, lay the carcass of a gryphon that had fallen from the sky that afternoon. A score of wolves tore deeply into the flesh of the dead creature, and snapped their long, toothy muzzles at each other over the choice morsels.
Shadows aloft in the lightning-riddled northwest sky would have chilled the heart of any human that saw them, though none did: several gryphons flew south from the Lairs, daring the city limits they were sworn to avoid, in search of the missing Ffinzgyor. In clicked whispers of gryphon-tongue, the eagle-lions swore to each other to extract revenge should they find that Ffinzgyor fell to a human hand.
* * *
The sunlight bathed and healed the land, and fell like a balm through the green fingers of leaves into the same clearing where Clement last stood with Ffinzgyor. The dirt patches where the gryphon's deep departing pugmarks had been pressed were slowly baked back to smoothness after the rain of the night before. The sunlight made no impression on Márton, who stood and stared up at the lonely angle of space where Clement had flown the day before, and vanished. Devvskai scanned the woods and the horizon, anywhere but at the place where his rider looked. Rezsó sat on a fallen log and watched the same empty space with his brother before losing himself in thought. Rakhnyall gazed on Márton with concern fretting his large gold eyes.
"He has to come back," Márton said.
"To the very same spot?" Rezsó said.
"It's where we last saw him. He knows we'll wait."
"The King must have them in the dungeons of Greifspitze," Rezsó said. "Clement, Ffinzgyor, and Kjermaak. Funny, to hold a gryphon in an old gryphon fortress."
Devvskai snarled. "It is not funny at all."
"Funny in an unusual way," Rezsó said. "Peculiar. An odd juxtaposition. I only fear the King may act rashly and...well..."
"He'll come back," Márton said, but his voice lacked the conviction of his words.
"There's only one way to be sure," Rezsó said. "Attack Greifspitze."
"We have no weapons." Márton said.
Devvskai snorted, and flapped his wings irritably. "You, to be the king? Crying that we don't have weapons? You should be looking around for ways to make weapons."
"Be quiet, Devv," Rakhnyall said.
"Anyway, we have weapons," Devvskai said. "Your weapons. The lances and swords and arrows once carried into battle by the Gryphonwind, centuries ago. And armor. For us and for you."
"Rusted over, no doubt?" Rezsó said.
"No. Gryphons admire works of art, especially metal-smithing. The craftwork of the old blades and shields is...breathtaking."
Rezsó said to Márton, "We might give it a try."
Márton shook his head; his eyes never left the sky. "Just the two of us?"
"The four of us," Devvskai said. "Perhaps you've forgotten the tales we told you. The old battles. The way gryphons fought together with humans. We were not simply glorified horses. Knights had horses, smelly and earthbound and galumphing about like beetles in the dirt. The Gryphonwind had us."
"Márton?" Rezsó stood up. "What say you? Father...I mean, Saqr...will help from his zeppelin, I'm sure."
Márton tore his eyes from the hole in the sky he had been watching, and looked at his brother. "Is fighting the best course?"
"It won't be easy," Rezsó said. "But we'll have surprise to our advantage. Two mounted gryphons hurtling out of the sky will go a long way toward discouraging the King's men."
Márton's brow was furrowed, not in anger but in skepticism. "Is fighting the only course?"
Devvskai stepped back and hurled an ear-splitting squawk-roar at his rider. "You have become a coward!"
"Really?" Márton said. "Clement was bold enough to question my desire for battle, and I ran him off with much the same words you use."
"He was not up to the task of being a prince of Port Cedryssene," Devvskai said.
"He was good enough to be my brother."
"And you," Devvskai said, "are not up to the role of King."
Rakhnyall hissed at Devvskai. "That's enough."
"He's not your rider," Devvskai said.
"He is worthy enough to become a Gryphonwind."
" 'Was,' " Devvskai said.
"Huh," Rakhnyall said. "After centuries only in the memory, with no one to tell us what makes a true Gryphonwind but the old legends, you know just what it takes to become one?"
"It takes courage."
"Blind 'courage' was what caused gryphons to be slaughtered, and destroyed the Gryphonwind."
"As it may be, Rakh, but I still want courage in my rider."
"Then is Márton no longer worthy of you, oh mighty Devvskai?"
Devvskai flourished a wing to point at Rezsó. "He wants to go to war, Rakh. Are you up to that?"
Rakhnyall stepped quickly toward Devvskai and said, "If we were in the Lairs, I would kill you for that."
Devvskai gave Rakhnyall a small mouth-corner grin, whipped his wings back, and thrust his chest forward. "Then do it."
"Don't be a fool," Rakhnyall said. "We bonded with these humans precisely to break free from the blood battles and suffocating rules of our kind. Ffinzgyor and I confided in you, Devv. You're smarter than most other gryphons, or so we thought."
"Smarts do not outweigh courage."
"Nor should courage override common sense."
Devvskai lowered his head for a few moments, thinking. Then he looked at Rakhnyall, and turned away from him to face Rezsó. Devvskai raised his beak, then dipped his head down quickly, three times. The point of his beak came dangerously close to Rezsó's face. The words Devvskai then spoke were centuries old.
"Rezsó al-Dhi'b," Devvskai said, "upon the glory of this day and in the eyes of these witnesses, I would be honored if you would assent to the honor and challenge of joining with me by taking up the sword and the wings of a Gryphonwind."
Rakhnyall's beaked mouth fell open; he was too stunned to speak.
Márton, who had gone back to staring at the sky, now turned wounded eyes on Devvskai and said, "The bond, as you so recently reminded me...is for life."
Devvskai did not turn his face from Rezsó while he said to Márton, "A mistake of former times. The sort of rule from which we want to break free."
"It was not a mistake," Rakhnyall said. "Some old rules have their reasons."
"So have I," Devvskai said.
Rezsó looked from his brother to the gryphon towering over him, and then back again. "I'm sorry, Márton," he said. Then he faced Devvskai and made a low bow.
"My honor," Rezsó said, "obtains from the honor of your request, Gryphon Devvskai. With you, I accept the name and calling of Gryphonwind." He stepped forward and bowed his head while Devvskai bowed his, and they touched the sides of their faces together three times. Then both gryphon and rider took a step back, and faced each other at attention.
Rakhnyall leaned forward on his paws and shrieked at Devvskai. Then he lowered his head and ducked behind Rezsó to reach Márton.
"Márton al-Dhi'b," Rakhnyall said in a voice that caught in his throat like phlegm, "I come to you in this time of grief to renew the offer of honor...to assent to take up with me... the sword and the wings...of a Gryphonwind."
"That," Devvskai said, "is the vow spoken after the death of a rider's gryphon."
"So it is," Rakhnyall said.
Márton looked up at Rakhnyall. "I ran my brother off," he said, "and offended my gryphon. I don't deserve this."
"That's not the reply," Rakhnyall said.
"My..." Márton coughed, and cleared his throat. "My honor...obtains from the honor of your offer...that assures I have done...no wrong...to my...brother..."
" 'My late bond-gryphon,' " Rakhnyall said.
"To my late bond-gryphon," Márton said. "With you, Gryphon Rakhnyall...I rejoin the name and calling...of the Gryphonwind."
They touched faces, then Márton wept.
Both gryphons and Gryphonwind were silent all the way home.
* * *
At their home the brothers found a surprise, for their real mother waited for them. Paliki's long blonde hair had softened over time with streaks of silver, and her pale blue eyes filled with tears on the reunion with her sons. Though she had been living in Scotland for sixteen summers, she had recently journeyed to Boston Town, compelled to seek out her growing sons but finding it hard to work up the courage to venture into King András's city. But Paliki knew dragons, and one had brought her the news of Clement's disappearance, and she came quickly by rail to help fight her old nemesis, the King. Rezsó filled her in on all that had happened, and when Saqr came home the plans to attack Greifspitze were discussed around the dinner table. Over the smoke of his cigar, Saqr eyed the two princes.
"It seems you boys have changed skins," Saqr said. "Rezsó is chomping at the bit for battle, while Márton ponders like an old professor."
"Márton blames himself for Clement," Rezsó said. "We even...switched gryphons today."
Paliki gasped; she knew gryphons in Scotland and had learned the ways of the Gryphonwind. "But...that is never done."
"It's better this way," Márton said. "Devvskai...no longer...no longer..."
"There is no shame," Saqr said, "in saying he loved you."
Nazirah pointed at Márton. "I hear surrender in your voice; you, the son who broke his leg at seven summers age fighting pretend sword-battles with his brothers in the marble stairwell. Surrender will not do, not against a king."
"Not for this day you are planning," Paliki said to Márton, "when you will kill a king and announce to the Cedryssenians that they are to be ruled by the feared Gryphonwind."
"The people," Rezsó said, "must be stripped of their shopworn superstitions."
" 'The hardest task to accomplish,' " Saqr said, " 'rolls off the tongue like nectar.' "
Márton picked up a knife from his plate and held it so the blade shone in the candlelight. "You bring me this king," he said, "and I will repay him, drop for drop, for every distress he has brought upon my brother."
"There," Nazirah said to Paliki with a smile. "That is our son."
Part Three of Four
Article © Cody Stanford. All rights reserved.
Published on 2010-05-03