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The griffins boy, p.9
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       The Griffin's Boy, p.9

           Julia Hughes
 
CHAPTER EIGHT: DARKLING.

  He'd seen enough. He pressed against Balkind's right shoulder, upwards and outwards. Balkind shot forwards like a cannon ball and carved a semi circle upwards in the air. Taken by surprise, the villagers, who were now standing perilously close to the chasm's edge, jumped backwards as one. Their mouths, big wide 'O's in their faces, turned to follow the griffin's flight. When Balkind landed twenty paces away, they scampered over, herd-like, to greet them. It seemed everybody wanted to speak at once, and every child wanted to pet the griffin. Adding to the pandemonium, Balkind, who adored being the centre of attention, began to crow, a deep two-toned hoot of happiness.

  'Quiet, all of you!' Neb shouted, surprising himself as much as the jubilant crowd. They fell silent for a second, and then the noise increased twofold as greetings, observations and questions were shouted out. Giving up, Neb patted Samara's knee as a signal for her to dismount. She half slid, half fell from Balkind's back, only to be caught by a burly man who had pushed his way to the front of the crowd. The man's eyes were almost on a level with Neb's. He supported Samara with one arm, and held out the other to grasp Neb's arm.

  'I'm Blain of Darkling,' he said, and turning his head roared at the villagers 'Quiet – the lot of you – and back off – give the Griffin Rider room to dismount!'

 

  Neb wondered if this was the Chief, and then wondered if Blain would catch him too: he was a man-mountain, capable of scooping Neb under one arm and Samara under another. His bicep muscles bulged from under a sleeveless vest, and were equal to Neb's waist. A shock of thick black hair swept back from his brow to his shoulders, an equally thick black beard covered the lower part of his face, apart from his mouth of course. It stretched wide open now, as Blain yelled again, 'Back off the lot of you – give the rider some room.'

  Now he no longer needed to concentrate on directing Balkind along the river's course, Neb's aches and pains returned, as did the dizziness. He looked down at the ground, and decided to wait for it to stop moving before dismounting.

  Black Blain of Darking, he thought; if he isn't Chief, he should be.

  'Not quite lad,' Blain said, giving him a strange look, and Neb realised he had spoken out loud. 'I'm one of Chief Wulfstan's counsel.' He jerked his head towards the other villagers. 'Someone had to remain behind to keep this rabble in line.'

  The villagers had retreated to a respectful distance, but kept their eyes on Neb; they smiled in his direction as they muttered to their neighbours.

  'Thank heavens, help is here at last.' –

  'The griffin rider will save the child now.' –

  'The rider and his griffin – did you see the way they swooped overhead.' –

  'Our prayers have been answered!'

  Blain's eyes were also gleaming with excitement.

  Neb felt sick. Stomach sick, head sick and heart sick. In a moment he would have to open his mouth and explain he could do nothing to save the child. Taking a deep breath and squaring his shoulders, he swung a leg over Balkind's withers and slid to the ground. Balkind allowed him to slump against his side for a second or two, and then just as the ground stopped moving under his feet, the griffin ambled off to be petted by his newest friends. Once again, the villagers crowded around Balkind; it was a rare occurrence to see a griffin at such close quarters.

  One woman stood apart from the crowd, clasping her hands together and gazing at Neb with an unspoken hope. He noticed the gold rings on her fingers, the embroidered headscarf over her blonde hair, and guessed this was Lillian's – and Luke's mother. Neb looked around for Samara; she had seen how impossible this task was – she would back him up. But Samara had disappeared, leaving him feeling strangely alone. Taking another deep breath, he grasped Blain's elbow and walked him out of earshot. The older man's eyes grew wary. Neb watched comprehension dawn.

  'You can't help the child?' he stated bluntly, before Neb could say anything.

  'I don't think even Romulus could persuade Fletcher to fly into that river. Have you seen it? It's like a never-ending tidal wave. Even if I had the skill – the chasm's so narrow – there's nowhere to land – and in any case, the griffin's feathers will get water logged – he'll never be able to take off again.'

  Confiding his doubts took a weight from his shoulders. Pain ripped through them again as Blain's arm descended, and Neb found himself twisted around.

  'Do you want to be the one to go and tell her then?' Blain growled. Neb's eyes met the woman's – in fact, her eyes had probably never left him. Blain twisted him again. Neb found himself watching the villagers patting Balkind. He cringed at the contempt in Blain's voice: 'Go and explain to your new supporters – you can ride a griffin – but you're no Griffin Rider.'

  Neb gritted his teeth, partly in pain, partly in exasperation. 'What would you have me do? Shout at the waters to turn back? I was only taking that griffin to Romulus. I'm not a Griffin Rider, and never claimed to be.' He spoke in a fierce whisper. Blain also lowered his voice, jabbing a meaty finger into Neb's chest for emphasis:

  'There's a child down there who's clinging on to life, waiting for someone to do something. Are you going to just fly away? Because you're probably his last chance. Without you, and that griffin – the child's doomed.'

 

  Unheeding of the pain and the fact that Blain was twice his size, three times his age and many times his superior, Neb shrugged the giant's arm aside. 'Then the child is doomed, with or without me. No griffin will fly into that river – it would become waterlogged within seconds, and then the griffin – and its rider – would be swept away by the current.'

  Blain dropped his head, and for a moment, Neb thought he was going to charge at him, like a bull. When he looked up again, his face was thoughtful, not angry.

  'If I can stop the water's spate – just for minutes – could you … persuade … your griffin to reach the child?'

  Neb's head throbbed, and his shoulders and upper arms burned with pain. He looked across at the villagers, who sensing discord, had stilled. Glancing past them, he saw Lillian had rejoined her mother. They stood with their arms around each other. Every man, woman and child stared at him. The lead weight settled on him again, but he couldn't face telling them the truth. He sighed heavily, and then nodded.

  'Stop the river's flow, and I'll do everything in my power to reach the child.'

 

  Blain nodded his approval. He tightened his belt several notches around his waist, and slodged away to survey the quagmire either side of the chasm. He paid particular attention to the broken bridge's planks, still roped together. Around sixty planks were scattered on the mud this side of the river. They petered out a few paces from the chasm's edge. The other half of the bridge had fared better, with its planks dangling a third of the way down the chasm's side. Several of the younger men slogged alongside Blain; he began giving instructions for the planks to be extracted from the mud and piled in a particular spot. Then he raised his voice and gathered the rest of the villagers around him. Within minutes, women scurried into the woods with their children following. Men paired off to grapple with beams broad and heavy enough to serve as house rafters. Neb watched; Blain was a force of nature himself. The giant would have his dam, or the makings of his dam ready in minutes.

  A hand fluttered on Neb's arm. Luke's mother was at his side. Her eyes were red rimmed, but dry. 'Romulus sent you?' she asked in a voice that caught at Neb's heart – tremulous yet hopeful, wanting to be reassured. Neb exchanged glances with Blain, who grimaced and returned to supervising his workforce. Luke's mother waited patiently for his response, while her eyes continued to beseech him. She wore rings on her fingers, but her hands were roughened, and she wore an apron over her clothes. Her skirt was creased, as though it had been tucked up over her knees. Fish scales coated her arms to her elbows, like a pair of shimmering gloves. Lady Lydia had been doing her own appraisal of him. She closed her eyes tightly, with a small gasp of despair. But when her eyes r
eopened, they were still dry. From somewhere, she summoned a smile. Her hand still rested on his arm, and she squeezed it gently.

  'I'm sorry,' Neb blurted, 'I'm just a griffin's boy, from Cherub Conventus. I was on my way to …'

  She waved his explanation away. 'Does Blain know?'

  He nodded. She squeezed his arm again. 'If Blain trusts you, then I trust Blain.'

  He felt forgiven for not being what she needed; an experienced Griffin Rider.

  'Thank you,' he stammered.

  She swallowed hard a couple of times, as though to hold back her tears before replying: 'You're my son's last hope. And only a fool would give up hope, if hope is all that's left.' She pulled a small knife from her pocket, and swiped it clean against her apron. It was pressed into his hands. Neb looked at her and raised his eyebrows.

  'While you're waiting for Blain, you may as well trim your griffin's talons.' Her eyes roved over his shoulders, to the blood stained rips on his tunic's sleeves. 'Don't worry, I'll caution Lillian not to tell anyone else you were practising "fall and catch" with a novice griffin,' she shook her head and clicked her tongue: 'You boys, always getting into scrapes and breaking your mothers' hearts.' With that, she rushed away.

  At first, Neb thought she was sobbing. But instead she approached Blain and their heads bent as they conferred together. Blain shrugged, then cupped his hands to his mouth and shouted something unintelligible to a group of women on the other side of the river. Neb wondered if they were sisters, or part of a religious sect, as they all wore red headscarves over their hair. The women responded to Blain with cat-calls. But then Luke's mother shouted to them. Her voice carried clearly: 'Please ladies, I know many of you have children of your own. For their sakes, I beg you, help save my child's life. But please hurry, we don't have much time.'

  Reminded of the chore she had given him, Neb whistled for Balkind who ambled over, together with Lillian and a few of her friends. The children continued to pet Balkind as Neb knelt. Lifting the griffin's front left talon on to his lap, he began trimming the raptor like claws, taking care not to cut into the quick. Balkind's tail twitched, but he closed his eyes and pretended he wasn't really there.

  The children began piping questions:

  'Why are you doing that?'

  'What does a griffin eat?'

  'Can I have a ride on your griffin?'

  'Can I be a Griffin Rider?'

  Neb ignored them, but wished they'd go away. He reset Balkind's foot on the ground, and went to squat beside the next leg. The talon clippings gleamed like opals on the ground. 'Can I keep these?' Lillian asked.

  He nodded, brushed the hair from his eyes, and started on Balkind's right talon. 'Plant them and maybe you'll grow your own griffin,' he grunted. This had the desired effect; with childish squeals, his audience scooped up the clippings and ran off. Apart from one. One pair of small brown feet didn't move. Somehow Neb knew they belonged to Samara. She crouched to gather the last handful of discarded clippings. Her eyes met his.

  'At least Luke's arms won't be ripped to shreds,' she said. They both straightened. Around them, the air was filled with a soft thunk-thunk-thunk of wooden slabs being stacked against each other. Women slogged through the mud, dragging tree branches behind them. They shouted and yelled instructions to each other as they piled the branches, still festooned with leaves and dripping with mud, into a pyramid shape. Older children carried armfuls of undergrowth, bracken and ferns. Above all the hub-bub, Blain's voice carried clearly.

  'He's building a dam,' Samara said in wonderment. Neb grimaced. 'It won't hold for long.' He glanced at the clay flask Samara nursed against her chest, and then glanced across the chasm. The women were still there. He realised they weren't wearing scarlet headscarves; their hair was dyed bright red. He nodded towards them, 'Who are they?'

  Samara wrinkled her nose. 'Ladies of the night. They ply their trade in a hamlet midway between our village, and a couple of neighbouring town-steads.'

  Blain cupped his hands to his mouth and shouted across the chasm. 'Be ready ladies.' In response, they lifted their skirts and jeered.

  'What did they say?' Samara asked. Neb blushed. 'I didn't hear,' he lied. 'Blain's probably asked them to cut the bridge ropes and hurl the remaining planks from their side into the river on his signal.' His throat tightened. 'Once the river's dammed, Balkind and I will get as close to Luke as we can.' He frowned, 'If only there was someway to explain to the child – to tell him what to expect.'

  Samara pushed the flask into his hands. 'Drink this – it will sooth your pain. There's a ledge – I can climb down there.' Neb started in alarm, and almost dropped the flask. Samara curled her fingers around his, and pressed it to his lips.

  'Drink – please – it will calm your nerves and sooth your pain.'

  'My nerves don't need calming.' He had grown used to the constant pain in his shoulders and arms. Blain was striding towards them. 'Get ready boy.' He nodded in approval when he saw the flask. 'Clever girl, Samara! Drink that down lad, it'll steady your nerves.'

  Samara slipped away, toward the edge of the chasm.

  'Where's she going now?' Blain stared after her, and then rubbed at his eyes as Samara's waif-like body slipped into the chasm, and disappeared from view.

  'She said there's a ledge, she can get closer to Luke and warn him what to expect,' Neb explained. Blain nodded again. 'She's only a slip of a girl, barely weighs a feather. She should be safe.' He rubbed his eyes again and then blinked them open. They appeared as two white patches in a sea of mud and facial hair.

  He smiled wearily at Neb, and nodded at the flask. 'Drink up lad, the show's about to start.'

  Neb sipped at the potion. It left a bitter taste in his mouth, and his stomach churned somersaults as he watched Blain stalk back to his improvised dam materials.

  'Show time Balkind,' he whispered. The griffin, sensing his rider's anxiety, nibbled at Neb's hand. Poor Balkind, even without the river raging beneath, he isn't going to enjoy flying at the bottom of the chasm. If only he were a little more obedient, and a little less intelligent.

  Like a bolt of lightning an idea struck – Balkind, the cleverest griffin of all; obeyed him – most of the time anyway! He stroked the griffin's neck feathers, thinking through this new plan. He glanced across the quagmire to Blain, waiting for Neb's signal.

  Blain won't like it - he might understand, but it means losing precious seconds, and he won't approve. Dare I risk it?

  'Are you ready?!' Blain shouted, impatience in his voice. Neb made up his mind. Raising his hand, he lowered it with a chopping motion. 'Ready!' He shouted back. Then his mouth dried up and time slowed to a crawl. He reached up, grasped Balkind's snout, and led him to the edge of the chasm.

  ********

 

 
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