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The griffins boy, p.7
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       The Griffin's Boy, p.7

           Julia Hughes
 
CHAPTER SIX: THE BOY'S FALL.

  The daydream was an ambitious one and involved Romulus smiling at him (unlikely) and inviting him to become a sanctuary lad. (Even more unlikely now that he'd hi-jacked a griffin.)

  The fantasy continued until, just as a beaming Romulus promoted Neb to head sanctuary lad, a sudden tingling sensation prickled behind the skin of Neb's forehead.

  He snapped out of his daydream just as Balkind squawked and lunged to the left. Neb shot forwards and sideways, barely managing to stay in the saddle. A wave of nausea threatened to engulf him, and he fought it down. His hands tightened around Balkind's sensitive flight veins, and the griffin squawked in pain.

  'Balkind!' he shouted, when he'd recovered his breath. Balkind's neck was arched and his foreleg muscles rippled beneath Neb's calves. Neb still felt too unsteady to look down, but he guessed what had happened. Balkind had taken advantage of his rider's inattention to snatch at an unlucky pigeon. Neb slapped at Balkind's neck and kicked at his griffin's lower flank. 'Bad griffin, bad. Drop.' Balkind's ears went back, an early warning signal. Neb kicked harder. 'I said drop!' It didn't matter that the pigeon was probably dead. And of course, Balkind was hungry – it was growing close to dinner time. But for a griffin to snatch at passing prey with a rider on its back was forbidden. I almost fell - crazy griffin could have killed me.

  He still felt sick and dizzy, and the tendons in his hands throbbed from clutching at Balkind's flight veins so tightly. Knowing he was in the wrong didn't help Neb's mood. He kicked at Balkind again and repeated, 'bad griffin.' Balkind laid his ears back flat against his neck and snorted, but appeared to accept his scolding. Neb regained full control of his mount and finally managed to swallow down the bile in his chest. But his heart continued to thump so rapidly, it took a few seconds before a new danger registered.

 

  Balkind's hearts no longer beat against his palms.

 

  A second after that, Balkind's wing feathers, previously held so closely against his rider's thighs, began to retract and slide over each other. Immediately a wind began to ruffle at Neb's trousers. With frantic motions, Neb clenched and unclenched his hands against the griffin's main veins, in an effort to persuade Balkind to spread his wings again. If he shifted his weight even by a fraction, he would be thrown. With jerky movements, Neb slanted his head to the left, and his own heart almost stopped. Balkind's wings were at half mast. He twisted his hands against Balkind's main vein, now limp and flexible. The griffin was deliberately deflating its wings. Neb pushed against Balkind's main veins again and again, they squished ineffectively under his hands. Balkind was a stone dropping from the sky. Neb wanted to close his eyes, but couldn't.

  'Please Balkind, please, fly!' his voice sounded distorted; guttural. In response, the griffin lowered its head. Neb moaned with terror as a wind sandpapered his face and rushed at his shoulders and torso with a force that threatened to tear him from Balkind's back. 'Balkind, fly!'

  But Balkind didn't.

  The ground hurtled towards them – any moment now Balkind would crash land. Images flashed through Neb's mind: Balkind nose diving into a field and ploughing a new furrow with his snout. Even if I somehow manage to hang on, Balkind will roll on me – maybe I'll be thrown clear … The internal horror show continued – his body hurtled from Balkind's back – only to smash against a tree – it would be painful – with luck he would break an arm rather than a leg. But now Neb's inner eye watched as the griffin's momentum propelled the giant beast directly towards his twisted and mangled body, trapped against a tree.

  Neb broke out in a cold sweat at this last image. Death would be preferable. Abandoning all efforts to persuade Balkind to open his wings and fly, Neb grasped at neck feathers, tucked his face against his hands, and flattened his upper body against the griffin's back. He found himself gazing at Balkind's flank. The wind continued to howl; he no longer needed to make an effort to breath, and it took a moment or two for him to realise the griffin's forelegs – his undercarriage – was still tucked up against his pearly grey stomach.

  'Balkind!' Neb screeched. But the wind snatched his cry away and the animal didn't respond.

  Neb rammed his knees and calves against Balkind's sides, buried his face deeper into the griffin's neck feathers, and screwed his eyes up tightly. Balkind smelled of his sanctuary: sun ripened hay and fermented dough.

 

  Then a mighty swoosh filled Neb's ears. The wind torrent stopped. They weren't falling any more!

  Neb raised his face from Balkind's neck and looked up, cautiously. His stomach churned again, this time with relief. He sat up and took a more conventional position in the saddle.

  Beneath him, Balkind spread his wings and swooped skywards again. A heaviness lurched into Neb's chest as his stomach contents caught up with the sudden change in altitude. Weak with relief, he shuffled upwards. As soon as his hands were back in position, he would turn his head to one side and throw up – or so his still recovering mind told him. His hands were back in position – but Balkind's main flight veins were still deflated and no drums beat under his palms. Nor were the griffin's wings cradling his thighs. Even more alarmingly, they were climbing higher and higher into the sky.

  Neb's teeth chattered. Why had he ever thought he could be a griffin rider? Why had he ever climbed onto Balkind's back? The griffin was simply "playing up", paying his rider back for denying him a tasty snack on the wing. At any other time, Neb would have admired the griffin's aerobatic skill; swooping so low to the ground, only to soar upwards at the last second. Except this might be Neb's last second – although that would come just after he hit the ground. Soon, Balkind will be free to catch as many pigeons as he likes, he thought. Then Balkind's wings folded once more, and the griffin slanted to the left.

  They were still furlongs and furlongs above the ground!

  Neb had no chance. The horizon tilted and he tumbled from Balkind's back. In desperation, he snatched at a fold of wing. It slipped through his fingers, and with a horrid inevitability, Neb plummeted earthwards. For a second, he froze. The ground rushed towards him, and he prayed that death would be instantaneous. Time slowed, a grey mass gambolled into view. Balkind! Doing a victory dance, and crowing with delight at his "trick". Neb's stomach seemed to have disappeared; his mind gibbered with terror, yet somehow managed to form two words. He pushed them through the tightness of his windpipe, formed them on his tongue and shouted them out loud:

  'Balkind! Catch!'

  He flung his arms out from his body, holding them outstretched from his sides and shouted again 'Balkind – CATCH!'

  Then he closed his eyes to shut out the sight of the green undergrowth zooming up to meet him, and tried to think of nothing at all.

  Razor sharp bands of steel cut into his upper arms and a scream of agony ripped from his chest, burning his vocal cords. He screamed again when his shoulders jolted, almost tearing free from his body. Any moment he expected an iron hammer to slam into him. Instead a breeze swept against his skin. His mind scrambled for an explanation.

  Am I dead? Is this – ouch, oh gods, the pain – my afterlife? Although he hadn't lost consciousness, and he doubted pain existed afterlife. Before he could peruse this thought, the steel bands around his arms tightened. Tears choked him - he could barely catch his breath. He sobbed wordlessly, sickened by the searing pain.

  At the same time, an unbearable lightness flooded him. Balkind did catch! I'm not dead. I'm not dead! Balkind caught me. 'I'm alive!' He snorted the three syllables. Hawked, spat, and tried again: 'I'm alive!' From Balkind's belly came a happy clucking sound; the breeze increased as the griffin prepared to soar into the sky again – with his rider still dangling from his talons. Recovering himself quickly Neb shouted 'No – Balkind – Balkind – drop!'

  The pain around his arms lessened – they still throbbed, but the iron bands vanished. Neb just had time to snatch a long deep breath before he hit the ground with a bone jarring wallop
that knocked every molecule of air from his lungs.

  A second lighter thump sounded as Balkind landed, with rather more grace than his rider. Still clucking, with his neck arched, he pranced over to Neb. His eyes gleamed, his equine head filled Neb's vision and then his beak nuzzled Neb's tunic. If Balkind could talk he would be saying, 'get up, and let's do that again! Fun, fun, fun!'

  Groaning, Neb managed to pat Balkind's neck. 'Good boy, good griffin, clever, clever griffin.'

 

  Then, from somewhere behind them, a thin clear voice cut through Neb's grogginess. He whirled round, but saw nothing.

  'It didn't look that clever to me,' the voice said.

  ********

 

 

 
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