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The griffins boy, p.13
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       The Griffin's Boy, p.13

           Julia Hughes
 
CHAPTER TWELVE: HOW THE GRIFFIN GOT HIS NAME.

  Just as he stood up to fasten his waistband, the door opened. A child entered the hut with careful steps, his eyes fixed on the tray he carried. A tantalising aroma pervaded the hut and Neb's eyes too focused on the tray. The platter loaded with strips of pig-meat, curdled eggs, and thick slices of bread had to be for him. Neither spoke until the tray was carefully deposited onto the table. Then the child looked up, gave a triumphant grin, took a deep breath and said:

  'Mama said you're welcome to breakfast with us, but thought you might be more comfortable eating here, there's a lot of hustle and bustle, and everyone else has fish for breakfast this morning,' his nose wrinkled at this; snatching a quick breath he continued: 'Lillian and Samara have a long journey ahead of them, so they didn't get fish either, I think we'll all be eating lots of fish today and tomorrow and the next day, and pr'bly the day after that, and the day after that. Father's madder than mad at everyone, and he and the Griffin Master are flying up river to gather the clans, and I wanted to go with them, but Mama says "no," and she said "no," when I asked to go with Lillian and Samara to the Conventus too, and wouldn't even let me go with Blain and his men into town. I'm Luke, by the way, and you saved me from drowning, so thank you, and please can I have another ride on your griffin, but this time on his back?'

  Neb tried to process all this information, and failed. So he asked the question that had been uppermost in his mind since Luke had first walked into the hut.

  'Is that for me?' he pointed at the laden tray.

  Luke nodded, then drew another deep breath and words poured out of him again. But Neb wasn't listening. Sinking onto the bed, he shovelled eggs onto bread dripping with fat, and seizing a strip of pig-meat, began tearing into it with his teeth. He paused only to drink from a tankard of milk, which was foamy and creamier than the goat's milk he was used to drinking.

  '… and I'm not a bit sorry Vander is dead, he once shouted at me and my friends when we were playing in his orchard. He said we were stealing, but we weren’t stealing; the apples were windfalls, and no-one minds if someone takes a bite out of a wind-fallen apple – they always have maggots in them anyway, so we told him to keep his maggoty old apples and he said that if he caught us in any of his fields again he would cut our hands off and our tongues…'

  'When did the Griffin Master and your father leave?' Neb broke into the never ending story of Luke and his adventures.

  'They left just after breakfast. They didn't have fish for breakfast, they had pig-meat and eggs, like you, only they didn't eat it so quickly, and father let me have some of his eggy bread, but just before I brunged you your breakfast in, they left, and I asked if I could go with them and the Griffin Master swore a really bad swear word at your griffin and smacked him because …'

  'How soon do you expect them back?'

  'Not until after lunch,' Luke replied, showing no signs of irritation at being interrupted 'there's no schooling or work today, and Mama said we're not to go near the river again, so me and my friends are going up to the big meadow to play kick-ball.' He paused to scratch at his leg, smiled tentatively at Neb and asked 'do you want to come?'

  Neb couldn't help smiling back, but shook his head, 'Thank you, but no. I should say farewell to Samara – and your sister – '

  '– you're too late – they've left, Alfred drove them away. They've taken the two best oxen to pull the cart and Blain's taken the rest into town, Mama's cousin Lord Massant and his men will be here later, and they'll want feeding and not fish either, so that's why there's no work today, well there is still lots of fish to salt and pickle, but Mama's women are doing that, and we're not allowed onto the mud anymore, because – well you know why, so you can come and play,' he eyed Neb up and down 'or just watch if you want' he added, no doubt in deference to Neb's perceived great age.

  A mental picture of Romulus' reaction if he arrived back at the village to find him playing kick-ball caused Neb to shudder, and he repeated, 'thank you, but no.'

 

  A middle aged woman bustled through the open door, 'now then Luke, stop worrying our guest with your chatter – go on – run and play.' It was Helda, carrying a pile of linen. Neb breathed a sigh of relief, and smiled a welcome. 'There's a clean tunic and trews for you to change into,' Helda said, laying the clothes on the foot of Blain's bed. 'Luke, take the plate back to the kitchen, then go and find your friends, unless you'd rather help me salt and pickle fish.'

  Luke's eyes widened with alarm, he snatched the tray up and departed, calling over his shoulder 'if you change your mind, we'll be in the big meadow.'

 

  The tunic was too wide in the shoulders, and the trews too big in the waist, but once laces were tied and cuffs rolled back, the outfit fitted well enough, and had barely been worn. 'Fits where it touches' as Helda remarked. Neb didn't feel embarrassed about changing in front of her, she had a no-nonsense practical manner. She gathered his discarded garments, muddy, torn and blood streaked, saying they would wash and mend well enough, and would do in exchange. Because he had nothing else to do, Neb followed Helda's broad backside out of the door, in the hope of finding a task to occupy his mind until the Griffin Master's return.

 

  He shied away from the main barn which made up one side of the village square though, too many women cackled outside. They sat outside the barn's gigantic wooden doors on low stools with their skirts rucked up past their knees as they gutted fish and gossiped loudly. A clutch of large brown hens cackled just as enthusiastically around their feet, squabbling over the discarded gleaming fish innards. Neb wandered away to the village pond, and admired the elaborate mouldings on the iron water pump. On the lee-side of the pond was a hawthorn tree. It was wider than it was tall, more of a haystack in appearance than a tree, and one side of it was still white with May blossom. He walked around the pond to inspect the tree closer. Cylinders of polished wood hung from its branches, they rattled harmoniously. Runes and numbers were carved on the outside, inside the sealed cylinders were ashes. Every hamlet, village and town had a tree similar to this one. After death, bodies were cremated, to allow the soul to depart more freely. But the living still needed some physical reminder of their dead, and so ashes from their loved one's funeral pyre were scooped into a cylinder, and hung from a remembering tree.

  Seasons turned, new generations were born, and children played at the foot of the remembering tree, cocooned in a cave formed by branches garlanded with polished flutes of wood. When the wind stirred the branches, the wooden tubes chimed and rattled together, like the murmur of approving voices from ancestors. On certain anniversaries, certain flutes might sound, even without the faintest of breezes to stir the tree's branches. When this happened, those who believed strongly enough, or were especially gifted, claimed to hear the whispered voices of loved ones among the chimes.

  Neb wondered why there was no funeral pyre for Vander, and then reasoned that Kattin had probably taken his body to be burned elsewhere, to a village or town with pleasanter memories for the siblings. Rather her than me, he thought with a shudder. But Kattin was a harridan herself, and easily a match for any evil spirit that might attempt to possess her brother's corpse.

 

  The skies were overcast, but the clouds were high and lit from above by an unseen sun. The wind blew warm and blustery, a perfect day for kicking a ball around a meadow. Or flying. There was no way for Neb to know the time, but it felt late morning, and Griffin Master Romulus must surely be on his way back. Please let Balkind have behaved, and please let Romulus be in a better mood than yesterday. Neb prayed silently. The wooden cylinders clattered in agreement, but that could have been the breeze moving them. Neb screwed up his eyes and saw again the fantastical colours of the wind: Strands of ribbons shimmered and deepened or lightened in shade, broadening and narrowing as they danced around or through everything in their path. He wondered if these were the ley-lines that griffins could supposedly see; thi
s brought to mind an event that had occurred soon after his arrival at Cherub Conventus: He'd been around twelve years old, and usually slept from sun-set to sunrise, but that morning he woke early. He'd slipped outside to stand on the Manor Hall's lawn to watch the sun rise. In the pre-dawn, a grey cherub flapped towards the Conventus, chirping wearily. Hearing a gasp at his side, Neb had turned. In bare feet, Chantress Anderra stood next to him; instead of scolding him for being out of his dorm, she'd smiled. 'This is always a magical moment, greeting a cherub's first arrival.' Neb had nodded, and together they'd watched as the skies grew pink and gold, turning the cherub into a golden ball. To Neb, it seemed as though the sun had spat a piece of itself towards the earth. Shielding his eyes to scan the sky, he had thought out-loud 'Where are its parents?' He hadn't expected Chantress Anderra to respond, but she had. She spoke as though they were equals, which in a way they were at that moment. 'Now and then an adventurous one strikes out on its own. Lucky for this one, the ley-lines are running strong at this time of year.' She broke off as the cherub's flight stuttered and it tumbled from the skies. They had both sprinted forwards and helped the bewildered beast back to its feet. It hooted and chirped with joy, trying to peck at first Anderra then Neb in gratitude. Anderra had laughed, and her eyes met Neb's. To his astonishment she'd said 'So, what shall we call him?' For once, Neb hadn't hesitated: 'Balkind.' Kindred of the sun.

  A deep bovine lowing and the creaking of wooden wheels sounded. Neb opened his eyes to see a couple of oxen drawn carts approaching, together with six men, and preceding them all, the most ridiculous looking dog he'd ever seen. It was like a procession, except all the men looked as though they'd slept in their clothes. The brown and white dog trotted along on stumpy little legs, in danger of tripping over the rabbit's carcass it carried in its mouth. The men shouted out a song as they marched alongside the carts, the oxen lowed loudly, and the dog's tail kinked up and over its back in a perfect circle. Blain spotted Neb, and peeled off from the procession.

  'Afternoon, slug-a-bed, I have something for you,' he shouted, although three ground eating strides had brought them face to face.

  'You have?' Neb said warily, hoping Blain exaggerated about the time.

  Blain's teeth showed startling white against his black beard, 'Samara gave me this to give you,' he dangled a string of beads in front of Neb.

  'Me?'

  'Well, you're the only griffin riding fool around, and that's who she told me to give it to. She also claims its charmed, and will bind you to Ballin.'

  'Balkind, the griffin's name is Balkind.' Neb corrected absently, examining the string of wooden beads. They were varying shades of blue, with grooves cut into five of the larger ones. Neb ran a finger over the opal coloured chips inserted and fastened into the grooves. They looked like pearls, but were almost certainly off-cuts from Balkind's talons.

  He winced as Blain's hand descended on his shoulder. 'Why so serious, did you two have a lover's tiff or something?'

  Neb scowled, and then scowled deeper when Blain ducked his big hairy face under Neb's brow to laugh at him. I'd rather Romulus' oaths than Blain's teasing, he decided, taking a step backwards from Blain's ale coated breath.

  'Did you kiss her?' Blain puckered up his own lips, Neb wondered how much drinking had accompanied his trip into town.

  'No I didn't!' he replied, shrugging Blain's hand away.

  'Aha – then she kissed you!' Blain declared, with the certainty of a drunk.

  'Did you kiss her back?' he jeered, puckering up his lips again.

  Neb shook his head and fastened Samara's bracelet around his wrist, unable to prevent a smile at Blain's irrepressible high spirits,.

  Blain sobered suddenly. 'There's your trouble, always kiss a pretty girl back.'

  Draping an arm around his shoulder, Blain staggered around the village pond, and Neb concentrated on steering the giant around the cow pats that mined their path.

 

  He spent the next hours in the company of Eric, a dreamy eyed village lad close to Neb's own age. They un-harnessed the oxen, then led them to the meadow, and turned them loose to graze on the lower slopes. Eric was Alfred's son and had his father's height, but was less muscular. He seemed somehow feminine, but he was definitely male, and he puzzled Neb.

  Eric wasn't much of a conversationalist either. Although Neb learned that Romulus and Chief Wulfstan had flown upriver to demand an audience with Luthan. Luthan was the chief of the neighbouring village. His land was upriver from Darking, and it was a mystery how a dam had come to be built on his territory without anyone's prior knowledge.

  'Maybe it was constructed in pieces and then put into place overnight?' Neb suggested.

  Eric shrugged and mumbled, 'maybe, who knows?' He seemed strangely disinterested in the village's affairs. It wasn't his business; Chief Wulfstan and the Griffin Master would settle things now. They leaned over a wooden gate, watching the younger children kick a ball around the meadow's upper slopes. Eric's fingers tapped a rhythm against the top bar; Neb suspected that Eric heard the beat of a different drum to others. He seemed even lonelier than Neb. When Neb suggested they should return to the village, he had to repeat himself twice before Eric gave an absent-minded smile and nodded agreement.

  What would it be like to spend your days toiling the fields, kicking a ball around after work was finished, and snatching the occasional kiss from a pretty girl? Neb wondered, although he couldn't imagine Eric doing any of those things. They'd reached the village's outskirts, when the thunderous beating of griffin wings pounding the air announced the return of Romulus and Chief Wulfstan.

  Oh my heavens, have I got some explaining to do; I wonder what the punishment is for stealing a griffin?

  Neb gulped, then squared his shoulders, and lifted his chin, and went to meet his fate.

  ********

 

 
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