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The griffins boy, p.15
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       The Griffin's Boy, p.15

           Julia Hughes

  The oxen were young yet placid, content to put one foot in front of the other and lean into their yoke, despite the heavy load they pulled.

  Samara watched the cart's lights grow ever more feeble as the sun rose in the sky. I should tell Alfred to snuff the gas lamps out, she thought drowsily. Samara was bored rather than tired and she didn't want to wake Lillian, whose head lolled against her shoulder. The younger girl had worn out Samara's ears with excited chatter about their new adventure. Samara sighed. The Fosse Way stretched before them endlessly; even when she strained to look at the horizon, there was nothing to break up its dreariness. It ran directly West, one of the few roads carved through Britain by the Romans, before they'd been expelled by Boudica. She sighed again, and wishing she was Boudica, closed her eyes.

  Yesterday's events began playing again in her mind. Her lips twitched, remembering Neb's shocked expression when she and Lillian had dropped from the tree. He clutched at his griffin as though frightened I'd steal it or something. Then she frowned, remembering the mass of scars over his right shoulder and his refusal to speak of them. He's strange, different, and that white blond hair and weird blue eyes don't help either. Her nose wrinkled as she struggled to decide what really disturbed her about Neb. There was something about his manner, his polite disinterest – he showed more concern for his flea bitten griffin than anything else – that's it! Samara told herself fiercely. He doesn't just look down on everyone because of his height – he actually thinks he's superior!

  She recalled her last image of Neb and the unspoken question in his eyes. Her hands curled into fists, and she clenched them against her sides.

  I don't care what anyone thinks, and I certainly don't care what he thinks. Vander's dead, and I'm not sorry. I'm only sorry I'm being sent to this … Conventus. Samara thought grimly. But I will play this game and meantime, I'll soak up learning at this Cherub Conventus because knowledge is power, and I never want to be this powerless again.

  The wagon jolted, her eyes sprung open and she sat up with a start. The sun no longer warmed her back; they were bumping along a mud track under a canopy of tall trees.

  'Alfred – why have we turned off the road?' She asked. Beside her, Lillian stretched and yawned and muttered 'are we there yet?' before slumping against Samara's shoulder again.

  Samara shook her off and repeated 'Alfred – why –'

  'The oxen need water,' he replied without looking at her.

  Samara frowned. If these woods were familiar she would have welcomed a break – but they weren't – there was something sinister about the twisted trees and their dark misshapen branches. Anyone could be crouching, hidden from sight, ready to spring an ambush. She glanced at Alfred's grim face and her protest died on her lips. He doesn't want to be here either, she realised, and her skin crept. Very carefully, she nudged Lillian awake. When Lillian grumbled, Samara widened her eyes and pouted her lips into a silent hush. Lillian's head twisted as she looked about her, then she clutched at Samara's hand, her own eyes wide and black with fear. What's going on? she mouthed. Samara shook her head: I don't know. She glanced at Alfred again, then nudged Lillian and nodded towards the ground, indicating they should make a break for freedom. The wagon's wheels churned slowly in the mud, but Lillian clutched Samara's hand tighter and shook her head: No!

  Samara tore her hand away and shoved at Lillian, who clung onto the wagon's seat as though for dear life. Samara almost screamed with frustration, her blood pounded inside her head: run away, get out now while you've still got a chance! This was bad – but something far worse waited up ahead – and any moment now, it would be too late. The mud track sloped downwards, the wagon tilted forwards and the oxen increased their pace. Instead of applying the brake to the wheel and steadying the oxen, Alfred snapped the reins over their haunches. The oxen broke into a stilted canter. Lillian screamed and clutched at Samara. Samara wedged her feet against the wagon's buckboard and her free arm against the side-gate board.

  'Alfred – stop!' but even as she shouted, the oxen bolted. Trees flashed past them, Samara ducked to avoid a branch that threatened to gouge out her eyes. With a cry of despair, she grabbed Lillian and slipped off the seat to huddle in the foot well. The wagon bounced and they were flung upwards, banging their heads on the underside of the bench. Samara snatched at Alfred's leg and clung to it with one arm, the other clasped around Lillian's waist. Samara held her breath and waited for the next bounce, any moment now, the wagon would overturn and they'd either be catapulted out or crushed inside; they were all going to die. Instead there was a series of jolts; Lillian's elbow jabbed into her ribs, but the wagon creaked to a halt. Pushing aside a tearful Lillian, Samara began struggling to right herself. Alfred stood, wrenched his leg from her grasp, then jumped from the wagon.

  'Quick! Hurry!' Samara whispered – but she already knew it was too late. Poor little Lillian was doomed. Alfred had betrayed his chieftain and delivered his daughter to a band of kidnappers. Alfred reached out for her, Samara screamed in pain as his hand grabbed a handful of her hair. She trembled and cursed her own stupidity – he has no need for me – he's going to cut my throat – I'm dead!

  From far away she heard Lillian screaming. There was a sharp crack and a woman said 'Stop that! Behave, and nobody will get hurt.'

  A part of Samara relaxed. A woman's voice – they were safe! She raised her head to look around her. Two teams of oxen were knee deep in a muddy pond. She recognised the white pair of oxen as theirs; but the other pair – she squinted at them, trying to recall where she'd seen them before. She continued to scan the area, her eyes fell on the black and white oxen's owner, and she stumbled back. Her mouth opened and shut, and she writhed, trying desperately to get away from Alfred. Standing barely three arms' length away, Kattin smirked at her.

  Releasing Lillian from an arm lock, Kattin lunged at Samara and wrenched her from Alfred's grasp. She ignored Samara's struggles and jerking her chin at Alfred ordered: 'Unhitch your oxen, tie them behind my wagon.'

  When Alfred hesitated she screeched 'Go!'

  Samara gazed at Lillian, still sprawled on grass.

  'Get up – else you'll be trampled on,' Kattin advised, and without waiting to see if Lillian obeyed, twisted Samara's arm behind her back and marched her to the side of the clearing.

  'What are you playing at? What do you want?' Samara gasped. Kattin hurled her against a fallen tree. She stooped closely, Samara could see the broken veins on her nose and cheeks. 'My brother – your bridegroom – messed everything up. And when that brat's mother' she pointed to Lillian, now crouched at Samara's feet, 'refused to sanction the wedding until you were eighteen – she thought she was being clever.' Kattin cackled, spit ran down her chin. 'But not as clever as me. You will marry my brother. Then you'll be my ward,' Kattin smiled and widened her eyes. Samara and Lillian shrunk from her ghastly mask.

  'Have you lost your mind? Your brother's dead,' and I didn't kill him, Samara added silently. Then with a thrill of horror, she realised who had murdered Vander. Her teeth began to chatter and she twisted away from Kattin's foul breath. Absently she realised that the clearing wasn't wide enough to pull the wagons around in a circle. Both pairs of oxen were unhitched and Alfred struggled to manoeuvre the wagons. He puffed and panted and strained at Kattin's wagon. Samara's eyes flickered over the wagon's bed: Blankets covered a heap; a body shaped heap. Samara's eyes widened, then she looked away, hanging her head to gaze at her toes.

  Lillian regained her senses first. 'Are you crazed? Who is going to marry a dead man?'

  Comically, Kattin pouted and pointed at Samara 'she is.'

  Lillian scoffed. 'I meant – who is going to say the wedding rite? Who in their right minds will act as an official?'

  Kattin flushed dark red and she struck Lillian's face with the back of her hand.

  'How dare you sneer at me! You're a silly little girl who knows nothing of this world!' Flinging an
arm out she pointed in a south west direction. 'Over there – the Black Robe Cloister – Father Thomas has already agreed to conduct the ceremony. It will be recognised – everyone knows they were all ready promised to each other.'

  Rubbing at her cheek, Lillian stood, dragging Samara with her.

  'You are a mad, bitter, old spinster. No-one sane will recognise this – sham marriage –' she lowered her head as she spoke, clutching Samara's hand tighter. 'Now get out of my way!' Lillian sprung forwards, butting Kattin in the stomach and without pausing shoved the winded woman to one side. She hurtled towards the black and white oxen, still dragging Samara, who almost stumbled when Lillian released her hand suddenly. Samara spun around to look behind her: Bent double, Kattin clutched at her stomach while Alfred desperately tried to stop the momentum of the wagon he'd finally managed to roll across the clearing.

  'Hurry – come on!' Samara screamed at Lillian, wondering why she'd stopped to free the oxen's reins from a tree stump. 'Come – we don't have time for this!' she shouted. With a look of determination on her pudgy face, Lillian gave the reins one last yank, pulled at the oxen's halters, then slapped at their skinny haunches. 'Yah! Yah! Go! Go!' she shouted. The bewildered beasts lowed as they stumbled away from Lillian, blocking the path between them and Kattin.

  Lillian spun around to Samara with a triumphant grin, hitched up her skirts and raced away. Samara sucked in a long deep breath and sprinted after her friend. Lillian's fair head bobbed in and out of undergrowth. Clutching her side, Samara veered off the track, onto a deer-trail, hoping Lillian knew where she was going. Disastrously, her foot snagged against a root and Samara hurtled full length to the ground. She tried to push herself up, but an unforgiving bramble thicket ensnared her. Up ahead, Lillian paused and turned.

  'Go, run!' Samara whispered fiercely. Nearby bushes rustled as Alfred beat the undergrowth with his sword. Certain her harsh breathing would give her away, on her hands and knees, Samara crept backwards. One by one the thorns unhooked themselves from her skin. Had Lillian managed to escape? The thwack of metal against undergrowth ceased as Alfred paused in beating the bushes.

  'Lillian! Samara! Don't make me find you!' he yelled. His voice sounded like a god's – it seemed to be everywhere. With her heart thumping, Samara tilted her head upwards and slowly stretched her neck, straining to see over a blanket of leaves and bracken. Against a background of trees, Alfred stood knee deep in a thicket with his back to her. Another thwack sounded as his sword swiped at brambles and he turned in her direction with a curse. Samara ducked – had he seen her? She swung her head towards Lillian's escape route: It looked inviting, but cover was sparse. If she went in that direction, Alfred would spot her before she could put a safe distance between them. And as soon as Alfred discovered his mistake and realised Samara was on her own, the hunt would be on in earnest for Lillian.

  Muffling a sob, Samara made up her mind. Tucking her chin into her neck, she began crawling. When she judged she was far enough away, yet still close enough to capture Alfred's attention, she rustled the underside of a bush; then slithered away.

  Crawling around decaying undergrowth with brambles constantly snaring her hair and her knees crying for relief was unpleasant and mentally exhausting. Several times her nerve almost broke and she was tempted to make a dash for freedom. But she forced herself to continue. Alfred continued to shout for both her and Lillian to stop this nonsense and show themselves. So Samara endured the mud and rotting leaves and goodness knows what else scrunching beneath her hands and knees because every second spent playing cat and mouse meant Lillian was one step closer to freedom. But she couldn't keep this up for much longer, especially now Kattin had joined in the hunt. She prayed fervently: Please let Lillian make it back to the village, please let her raise the alarm in time … Because her stomach went into spasms and her mind gibbered at the thought of marrying Vander's corpse.



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