Little ever happens in the quiet villages of peaceful Feierabiand. The course of Kes' life seems set: she'll grow up to be an herb-woman and healer for the village of Minas Ford, never quite fitting in but always more or less accepted. And she's content with that path -- or she thinks she is. Until the day the griffins come down from the mountains, bringing with them the fiery wind of their desert and a desperate need for a healer. But what the griffins need is a healer who is not quite human . . . or a healer who can be made into something not quite human.
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Lord of the Changing Winds
By Neumeier, Rachel
OrbitCopyright © 2010 Neumeier, Rachel
All right reserved.
The griffins came to Feierabiand with the early summer warmth, riding the wind out of the heights down to the tender green pastures of the foothills. The wind they brought with them was a hard, hot wind, with nothing of the gentle Feierabiand summer about it. It tasted of red dust and hot brass.
Kes, gathering herbs in the high pastures above the village of Minas Ford, saw them come: great bronze wings shining in the sun, tawny pelts like molten gold, sunlight striking harshly off beaks and talons. One was a hard shining white, one red as the coals at the heart of a fire. The griffins rode their wind like soaring eagles, wings outstretched and still. The sky took on a fierce metallic tone as they passed. They turned around the shoulder of the mountain and disappeared, one and then another and another, until they had all passed out of sight. Behind them, the sky softened slowly to its accustomed gentle blue.
Kes stood in hills above the high pastures, barefoot, her hair tangled, her hands full of fresh-picked angelica, and watched until the last of the griffins slid out of view. They were the most beautiful creatures she had ever seen. She almost followed them, running around the curve of the mountain’s shoulder, leaving her angelica and elecampane and goldenseal to wilt in the sun; she even took a step after them before she thought better of the idea.
But Tesme hated it when Kes did not come home by dusk; she hated it worse when her sister did not come home before dawn. So Kes hesitated one moment and then another, knowing that if she followed the griffins she would forget time and her sister’s expectations. There would be noise and fuss, and then it would be days before Tesme once again gave reluctant leave for Kes to go up into the hills. So she stayed where she was on the mountainside, only shading her eyes with her hand as she tried to follow the griffins with her eyes and imagination around the curve of the mountain.
Griffins, she thought. Griffins…. She walked slowly down from the hills, crossed the stream to the highest of the pastures, and went on downhill, her eyes filled with blazing wings and sunlight. She climbed stone walls without really noticing them, one after another: high pasture to hill pasture, hill pasture down to the midlands pasture. And then the low pasture, nearest the barns and the house: the fence here was rail instead of stone. This meant Kes had no convenient flat-topped wall on which to put her basket while climbing over. She balanced it awkwardly against her hip and clambered over the fence with one hand.
Her sister, Tesme, spotted Kes as she walked past the nearest barn and hurried to meet her. The griffins, it was plain, had not come down so far as the house; Tesme’s eyes held nothing of fire and splendor. They were filled instead with thoughts of heavy mares and staggering foals. And with worry. Kes saw that. It pulled her back toward the ordinary concerns of home and horse breeding.
“Kes!” said her sister. “Where have you been?” She glanced at the basket of herbs and went on quickly, “At least, I see where you’ve been, all right, fine, did you happen to get milk thistle while you were in the hills?”
Kes, blinking away images of shining wings, shook her head and made a questioning gesture toward the foaling stable.
“It’s River,” Tesme said tensely. “I think she’s going to have a difficult time. I should never have bred her to that Delta stud. He was too big for her, I knew he was, but oh, I want this foal!”
Kes nodded, taking a step toward the house.
“I got your things out for you—they’re in the barn—along with your shoes,” Tesme added, her gaze dropping to Kes’s bare feet. But her tone was more worried than tart, the foaling mare distracting her from her sister’s lack of civilized manners. “You just want your ordinary kit, don’t you? Don’t worry about those herbs—somebody can take them to the house for you.” Tesme took Kes by the shoulder and hurried her toward the barn.
In the foaling barn, Kes absently handed her basket to one of the boys and waved him off toward the house. Tesme hovered anxiously. Kes saw that she could not tell Tesme about the griffins; not now. She tried to make herself focus on the mare. Indeed, once she saw her, it became less of an effort to forget sunlit magnificence and concentrate instead on normal life. River, a stocky bay mare with bulging sides, was clearly uncomfortable. And certainly very large. She looked to have doubled her width since Kes had last looked at her, and that had only been a handful of days ago.
“Do you think she could be carrying twins?” Tesme asked apprehensively. She was actually wringing her hands.
“From the look of her, she could be carrying triplets,” Meris commented, swinging through the wide barn doors. “I’ve been waiting for her to explode for the past month, and now look at her. Kes, glad to see you. Tesme, just how big was that stud?”
“Huge,” Tesme said unhappily. “But I wanted size. River’s not that small. I thought it would be a safe cross.”
Kes shrugged. Usually crossing horses of different sizes worked all right, but sometimes it didn’t. No one knew why. She looked at her kit, then back at the mare.
“Mugwort,” she suggested. “Partridge berry.”
“Good idea,” said Meris. “Partridge berry to calm her down and help her labor at the beginning—mugwort later, I suppose, in case we need to help the strength of her contractions. I have water boiling. Want me to make the decoctions?”
Meris was a quick-moving little sparrow of a woman, plain and sensible and good-humored, equally at home with a foaling mare or a birthing woman. Kes was far more comfortable with her than with most other people; Meris never tried to draw Kes out or make her talk; when Kes did talk, Meris never seemed surprised at what she said. Meris was willing, as so few people seemed to be, to simply let a person or an animal be what it was. No wonder Tesme had sent for Meris. Even if River had no difficulty with her foal, just having Meris around would calm everyone’s nerves. That would be good. Kes gave the older woman the packets of herbs and slipped into the stall to touch River’s neck. The mare bent her neck around and snuffled down Kes’s shirt. She was sweating, pawing at the stall floor nervously. Kes patted her again.
“What do you think?” Tesme asked, seeming almost as distressed as the mare. “Is she going to be all right, do you think?”
Kes shrugged. “Jos?” If they had to pull this foal, she wanted someone with the muscle to do it. Jos had been a drifter. Tesme had hired him for the season six years past, and he had just never seemed inclined to drift away again. He was very strong. And the horses liked him. Kes liked him too. He didn’t talk at you all the time, or expect you to talk back.
“I’ll get him,” Tesme agreed, and hurried out.
Kes frowned at the mare, patting her in absent reassurance. River twitched her ears back and walked in a circle, dropping her head and shifting her weight. She was thinking of lying down but was too uncomfortable to do so; Tesme, with her affinity for horses, could have made the mare lie down. Kes neither held an affinity for any animal nor possessed any other special gift—if one did not count an unusual desire to abandon shoes and sister and walk up alone into the quiet of the hills. She did not usually envy Tesme her gift, but she would have liked to be able to make River lie down. She could only coax the mare down with a touch and a murmur.
Fortunately, that was enough. Kes stepped hastily out of the way when the mare folded up her legs and collapsed awkwardly onto the straw.
“How is she?” Tesme wanted to know, finally returning with Jos. Kes gave her sister a shrug and Jos a nod. He nodded back wordlessly and came to lean on the stall gate next to her.
Foals came fast, usually. There was normally no fuss about them. If there was trouble, it was likely to be serious trouble. But it would not help, in either case, to flutter around like so many broken-winged birds and disturb the mare further. Kes watched River, timing the contractions that rippled down the mare’s sides, and thought there was not yet any need to do anything but wait.
Waiting, Kes found her mind drifting toward a hard pale sky, toward the memory of harsh light striking off fierce curved beaks and golden feathers. Tesme did not notice her bemusement. But Jos said, “Kes?”
Kes blinked at him, startled. The cool dimness of the foaling barn seemed strange to her, as though the fierce sun the griffins had brought with them had somehow become more real to her than the gentle summer of Minas Ford.
“Are you well?” Jos was frowning at her, curious. Even concerned. Did she seem so distracted? Kes nodded to him and made a dismissive “it’s nothing” kind of gesture. He did not seem fully convinced.
Then Tesme called Kes’s name sharply, and, pulling her attention back to the mare, Kes went back to lay a hand on River’s flank and judge how she was progressing.
The foal was very big. But Kes found that, after all, once the birth began, there was not much trouble about the foaling. It had its front feet in the birth canal and its nose positioned properly forward. She nodded reassuringly at her sister and at Jos.
Tesme gave back a little relieved nod of her own, but it was Jos who was the happiest. The last time a foaling had gone badly, the foal had been turned the wrong way round, both front legs hung up on the mare’s pelvis. Jos had not been able to push the foal back in enough to straighten the legs; he had had to break them to get the foal out. It had been born dead, which was as well. That had been a grim job that none of them had any desire to repeat, and the memory of it was probably what had wound Tesme up in nervous worry.
This time, Kes waited until the mare was well into labor. Then she simply tied a cord around each of the foal’s front hooves, and while Tesme stood at the mare’s head and soothed her, she and Jos added a smooth pull to the mare’s next contraction. The foal slid right out, wet and dark with birthing liquids.
“A filly!” said Meris, bending to check.
“Wonderful,” Tesme said fervently. “Wonderful. Good girl, River!”
The mare tipped her ears forward at Tesme, heaved herself to her feet, turned around in the straw, and nosed the baby, which thrashed itself to its feet and tottered. Jos steadied it when it would have fallen. It was sucking strongly only minutes later.
After that, it was only natural to go to the village inn to celebrate. Tesme changed into a clean skirt and braided her hair and gave Kes a string of polished wooden beads to braid into hers. Tesme was happy. She had her foal from the Delta stud—a filly—and all was right with the world. Jos stayed at the farm, keeping an eye on the baby foal; he rarely went to the village during the day, though he visited the inn nearly every evening to listen to the news that travelers brought and to have a mug of ale and a game of pian stones with the other men.
Kes was not so happy. She would as soon have stayed at the farm with Jos and had bread and cheese quietly. But Tesme would have been unhappy if she had refused to go. She was never happy when Kes seemed too solitary. She said Kes was more like a silent, wild creature of the hills than a girl, and when she said such things, she worried. Sometimes she worried for days, and that was hard on them both. So Kes made no objection to the beads or the shoes or the visit to the inn.
They walked. The road was dry and firm at the verge, and Tesme—oddly, for a woman who raised horses—liked to walk. Kes put one properly shod foot in front of another and thought about griffins. Bronze feathers caught by the sun, tawny flanks like gold. Beaks that gleamed like metal. Her steps slowed.
“Come on,” Tesme said, and impatiently, “There’s nothing to be afraid of, Kes!”
Kes blinked, recalled back to the ordinary road and the empty sky. She didn’t say that she was not afraid, exactly. It had been a long time since she’d tried to explain to Tesme her feelings about people, about crowds, about the hard press of their expectations. From the time she had been little, everyone else had seemed to see the world from a different slant than Kes. To understand, without even trying, unspoken codes and rules that only baffled her. Talking to people, trying to shape herself into what they expected, was not exactly frightening. But it was exhausting and confusing and, in a way, the confusion itself was frightening. But Tesme did not seem able to understand any of this. Kes had long since given up trying to explain herself to her sister.
Nor did Kes mention griffins. There seemed no place for them in Tesme’s eyes. Kes tried to forget the vision of heat and beauty, to see only the ordinary countryside that surrounded them. To please her sister, she walked a little faster.
But Tesme, who had been walking quickly and impatiently with her hands shoved into the pockets of her skirt, slowed in her turn. She said, “Kes—”
Kes looked at her inquiringly. The light of the sun slid across Tesme’s face, revealing the small lines that had come into her face and set themselves permanently between her eyes and at the corners of her generous mouth. Her wheaten hair, braided with a strand of polished wooden beads and tucked up in a coil, held the first strands of gray.
She looked, Kes thought, startled, like the few faint memories she had of their mother. Left at nineteen to hold their father’s farm and raise her much younger sister, married twice and twice quickly widowed, Tesme had never yet showed much sign of care or worry or even the passage of time. But she showed it now. Kes looked down again, ashamed to have worried her.
“Are you all right?” Tesme asked gently. She usually seemed a little distracted when she spoke to her sister, when she spoke to anyone; she was always thinking about a dozen different things—mostly practical things, things having to do with raising horses and running the farm.
But Kes thought she was paying attention now. That was uncomfortable: Kes preferred to slip gently around the edges of everyone else’s awareness—even Tesme’s. Close attention made her feel exposed. Worse than exposed: at risk. As though she stood in the shadows at the edge of brilliant, dangerous light, light that would burn her to ash if it fell on her. Kes always found it difficult to speak; she never knew what anyone expected her to say. But when pinned by the glare of close attention, the uncertainty she felt was much worse. She managed, in a voice that even to her own ears sounded faltering and unpersuasive. “I—I’m all right. I’m fine.”
“You seem preoccupied, somehow.”
Since Tesme frequently noted aloud that her sister seemed preoccupied, even when she was paying quite close attention, Kes did not know how to answer this.
“There’s something… Is there something wrong?”
Kes could find no words to describe the magnificence of bronze wings in the sun. She would have tried, for Tesme. But the mere thought of trying to explain the griffins, the hard heat they had brought with them, the strange look of the sky when they crossed it in their brilliant flight… She shook her head, mute.
Tesme frowned at her. “No one has been, well, bothering you, have they?”
For a long moment, Kes didn’t understand what her sister meant. Then, taken aback, she blushed fiercely and shook her head again.
Tesme had come to a full halt. She reached out as though to touch Kes on the arm, but then her hand fell. “Some of the boys can be, well, boys. And you’re so quiet. Sometimes that can encourage them. And besides the boys…” She hesitated. Then she said, “I like Jos, and he’s a wonderful help around the farm, but Kes, if he bothers you, you surely know I’ll send him away immediately.”
Kes said, startled, “Jos?”
“I know you wouldn’t encourage him, Kes, but lately I’ve thought sometimes that he might be, well, watching you.”
“Jos doesn’t bother me,” Kes said, and was startled by the vehemence of her tone. She moderated it. “I like Jos. He wouldn’t… he isn’t… and he’s too old, anyway!”
“Oh, well, Kes! He’s not that old, and he’s not blind, and you’re growing up and getting pretty, and if he notices you too much, there are other places he could get work.” But Tesme looked somewhat reassured. She started walking again, if not as quickly.
Kes hurried the few steps necessary to catch up. “I like Jos,” she said again. She did, she realized. His quiet, his calm, the competent way he handled the horses. The way he never pressed her to speak, or seemed to expect her to fit into some unexplained pattern of behavior she couldn’t even recognize. He was comfortable to be around, as so few people were. He had been at the farm for… nearly half her life, Kes thought. She could not imagine it without him. “He doesn’t bother me, Tesme. Really, he doesn’t. Don’t send him away.”
“All right…” Tesme said doubtfully, and began to walk a little more quickly. “But let me know if you change your mind.”
It was easier to nod than protest again.
They walked a little farther. But then Tesme gave Kes a sideways look and added, “Now, if there’s a boy you do like, you’d let me know, Kes, wouldn’t you? I remember what I was like at your age, and shy as you are, you are getting to be pretty. You know you don’t need to slip off silently to meet somebody, don’t you? If you want to walk out with Kanne or Sef or somebody, that’s different, but you would tell me, wouldn’t you? There’s a world of trouble for a girl who’s too secretive, believe me.”
Kes felt her face heat. “I don’t like anyone!” she protested.
“That changes,” Tesme said, her tone wry. “If it changes for you, Kes…”
“I’ll tell you. I’ll tell you,” Kes said hastily, hoping to sound so firmly reassuring that Tesme would let the subject die. It was true anyway. Kanne? She suppressed an urge to roll her eyes, not wanting her sister to reopen the subject—but Kanne? Kanne was a baby, and too interested in himself to even notice a girl. Sef was almost as bad, all but welded to the smithy where he was apprenticed. Kes couldn’t imagine either of them, or any other of the village boys, ever choosing to simply walk out across the hills and listen to the wind and the silence.
“All right…” Tesme said. She did sound somewhat reassured. “It’s true you’re not much like I was. On the whole, that’s probably just as well.” She glanced at Kes, half smiling and half worried.
Kes had no idea what to say to this, and so said nothing.
“You’re yourself, that’s all,” Tesme concluded at last, smiling. She patted Kes on the shoulder and lengthened her stride once more.
The inn, set by the road near the river, right at the edge of the village, was all white stone and dark wooden beams. It had a dozen pretty little tables in its wide, walled courtyard, across from its stables, which were screened from the inn by small trees and beds of flowers. Jerreid and his wife, Edlin, and their daughters ran the inn, which was widely acknowledged to be the best of all the little country inns along the western river road that ran from Niambe Lake all the way down to Terabiand. The inn was not overlarge, but it was pleasant and very clean, and every window looked out onto one flower garden or another. And the food was good.
Many ordinary folk and even nobles broke their journey in Minas Ford as they traveled from the little jewel-pretty cities of the high north to the sprawling coastal town of Terabiand in the south—the Ford of the town’s name had long ago been replaced by the best bridge anywhere along the river—and, as the saying went, everyone and everything passed along the coast at some time. And so a good proportion of everyone and everything traveled up from Terabiand and through Minas Ford eventually, and since Minas Ford was conveniently a long day’s journey from Bered to the south and an easy day’s journey from Riamne to the north, many travelers looked forward to a stay at Jerreid’s pretty little inn.
Every upstairs room had a window, shutters open in this fine weather; every table, outdoors or in, was graced by a slender vase of flowers. Edlin made the vases of fine white clay, glazing them with translucent glazes in blue and pink and white. She made them to keep cut flowers, and she had the gift of making in her hands: It was common knowledge that flowers stayed fresh in one of Edlin’s vases twice as long as they lasted in an old cracked mug.
Edlin also made tableware that was both pretty and very hard to break. She sold bowls and plates and platters from a shop behind the inn, leaving the running of the inn almost entirely to her husband and their three daughters. Edlin grew the flowers herself, though, and picked them fresh every week to arrange in the vases. That was, famously, as close to the work of the inn as she would come. Jerreid, fortunately, seemed perfectly happy to leave his wife to her dishes and glazes and gardens.
“Tesme!” Jerreid said, as they came into the yard. He was a big, bluff, genial man with a talent for making his inn feel homey and all his visitors feel welcome. He’d been leaning against one of the outdoor tables, chatting with what looked like half the folk of the village—a big crowd for the middle of the day. There were no travelers present at the moment, although some would probably stop later in the day. But Chiad and his wife had torn themselves away from their farm to visit the inn, along with a dozen children and cousins and nephews. And Heste had abandoned her bakery for the moment—well, the morning bread was long out of the ovens, and perhaps she had a little time before she would start the pies and honey cakes for the evening. But Nehoen was also present, which was less usual. His big house with its sprawling lands lay well outside the village, and he did not usually come to the inn except on market day. And Caris had for some reason left her weaving to visit the inn, as well as Kanes and his apprentice Sef the smithy.
Kes looked at them all uneasily, wondering nervously whether she might guess what had drawn them all away from their ordinary business. She hoped she did not blush when she glanced at Kanne or Sef. How could Tesme possibly think—? Was Kanne even fourteen yet? And Sef! She looked hastily away from the smith’s apprentice, aware that she probably was blushing, now.
“You seem happy,” Jerreid was saying to Tesme. His smile, at least, seemed ordinarily cheerful. “How is your mare? River, wasn’t it? She must have done well by you, yes?”
“Yes, yes, yes!” Tesme came across the yard, leaving Kes to follow more slowly. She took Jerreid’s hands in hers and smiled at him. “A filly, healthy and big, and River’s fine. We’re celebrating. Have you any blackberry wine left, or did you drink it all yourself?”
“But you might want to hold off on the celebrations,” said Chiad. Dark as the earth he worked, serious by nature and not given to celebrations at even the best of times, he looked at the moment even more somber than usual. He slapped the table with one broad hand for emphasis as he spoke.
“Give the woman a chance to catch her breath!” exclaimed Jerreid, shaking his head in mild disapproval.
Chiad gave him a blink of incomprehension and instantly transferred his attention back to Tesme. “You’ve got your young foals down by the house, haven’t you, Tesme? Do you know what Kanne saw this morning?” Kanne was Chiad’s son, and he now sat up straight in his chair and looked important.
Kes knew. She heard it in Chiad’s voice. She saw it in Kanne’s eyes.
Tesme arched her eyebrows, still smiling, if a little less certainly. “If it wasn’t someone underselling me with Delta-bred stock for cheap, I don’t think I’ll mind, whatever it was.”
“You will,” said Chiad, heavily, with a somber shake of his head. “Tell her, boy.”
Kanne laid his hands down flat on the table and sat up even straighter, looking proud and important. “Griffins!” he said.
This had not been what Tesme expected, and she looked blank.
“Griffins!” Chiad said. He slapped the table, shaking his head again in heavy disapproval. “Of all things! Half lion, half eagle, and all killer! My barley is likely safe enough, but you’d best look after your stock, Tesme!”
Tesme still looked blank. She said after a moment, “Kanne, are you sure they weren’t just eagles?”
“Now, that’s what I said,” Jerreid agreed, nodding.
“Sure, I’m sure,” Kanne said importantly. “I am sure! I know what eagles look like, Jerreid! These weren’t eagles or vultures or any bird!”
“Griffins never leave their desert,” said Heste, frowning. Her attitude suggested that she had said this before, repeatedly.
“They do,” said Nehoen, so patiently it was clear he’d said this before as well. “Griffins in the spring mean a hard summer.” Nehoen was not sitting at the table. He had gotten to his feet when Tesme and Kes had entered the courtyard. Now he moved restlessly, leaning his hip against one of the tables and crossing his arms over his chest. He was old, nearly fifty, but he was one of the few gentlemen of the village and thus showed his age far less than a farmer or smith.
“What?” said Tesme, blinking at him.
Nehoen smiled at her. He owned all the land out on the west side of the village near the river, and he could not only read, but owned far more books than all the rest of Minas Ford put together. His grandmother had been an educated woman of the Delta, and had put great store by books and written learning. He explained now, “Griffins in the fall mean an easy winter, griffins in the spring a hard summer. They say that in Casmantium. There wouldn’t be a saying about it if the griffins never left their country of fire to come into the country of earth.”
“But why would they?” Tesme asked. “And why come so far? Not just so far south, either, but all the way across the mountains into Feierabiand?”
“Well, that I don’t know. The mages of Casmantium keep them out of Casmantian lands—that’s what their cold mages are for, isn’t it?—so maybe if the griffins wanted to move, they had to cross the mountains. But why they left their own desert in the first place?” Nehoen shrugged. “Who can guess why such creatures do anything?”
“Griffins are bad for fire,” said Kanes. The smith’s deep voice rumbled, and everyone hushed to listen to him. “That’s what I know. They’re made of fire, and fire falls from the wind their wings stirs up. That’s what smiths say. They’re bad creatures to have about.”
Smiths knew fire. Everyone was silent for a moment, thinking about that.
“Griffins,” said Jerreid at last, shaking his head.
“Griffins,” agreed Nehoen. He began a rough sketch on a sheet of paper somebody had given him.
Chiad’s wife said, practically, as she was always practical, “Saying Kanne is right, as I think he is, then what? Fire and hard summers, maybe—and then maybe not. But it stands to reason a creature with eagle talons and lion claws will hunt.”
“Surely—” Tesme began, and stopped, looking worried. “You don’t think they would eat our horses, really?”
“Nellis stops wolves from eating livestock,” said Chiad, laying a broad hand on his wife’s hand.
She nodded to him and went on herself, “Jenned stops mountain cats. Perren stops hawks from coming after chicks.” Perren was a falconer as well as a farmer, and gentled hawks and falcons for the hunt. Chiad’s wife added, “I can keep foxes off the hens, and my little Seb stops weasels and stoats. But I don’t know who’s going to stop griffins eating your foals or my sheep, if that’s what they want. What we need is a cold mage. I wonder why our mages in Feierabiand never thought to train up a youngster or two in cold magic?”
“We’ve never needed cold magecraft before,” Chiad answered his wife, but not as though he found this argument persuasive.
His wife lifted her shoulders in a scornful shrug. “Well, and we don’t need ice cellars until the summer heat, or a second lot of seed grain until a wet spring rots the first sowing; that’s why we plan ahead, isn’t it? They should have thought ahead, up there in Tihannad—”
“Now, now.” Jerreid shook his head at Chiad’s wife in mild reproof. “Summer we have every year, and wet springs often enough, but if griffins have ever come across the mountains before, it was so long ago none of our fathers or grandfathers remember it. Be fair, Nellis.”
“Whoever thought or didn’t think, it’s my horses that are going to be eaten by griffins,” said Tesme, sitting down rather abruptly at the table in the chair Nehoen had abandoned.
“They wouldn’t eat them,” Nehoen said, patting her shoulder. “Griffins don’t eat. They may look part eagle and part lion, but they’re wholly creatures of fire. They hunt to kill, but they don’t eat what they bring down.”
“That’s even worse!” Tesme exclaimed, and rubbed her forehead.
Kes watched her sister work through the idea of griffins coming down on her horses. It clearly took her a moment. She wasn’t used to thinking of the danger a big predator might pose if no one in the village could speak to it or control it.
In every country there were folk with each of the three common gifts. But just as Casmantian folk were famously dark and big-boned and stocky, Casmantian makers and builders were famously the best. There were makers everywhere, but more and better makers in Casmantium; to find makers with the strongest gifts and the deepest dedication to their craft, to find builders who could construct the strongest walls and best roads and tallest palaces, one went to Casmantium.
In the same way, one could recognize Linularinan people because they commonly had hair the color of light ale and narrow, secretive eyes, but also because they were clever and loved poetry. Everyone in Linularinum could write, they said, so probably it wasn’t surprising that Linularinum had the cleverest legists. There were legists in Feierabiand, at least in the cities, but if you wanted a really unbreakable contract that would do exactly what you wanted, you hired a Linularinan legist to write it for you.
But everyone knew that if you needed someone with a really strong affinity for a particular sort of animal, you came to Feierabiand. As Tesme held an affinity to horses, others held affinities to crows or mice or deer or dogs. In Feierabiand, every town and village and tiny hamlet had one or two people who could call wolves and mountain cats—and more important, send them away. But griffins were creatures of fire, not earth. No matter how dangerous or destructive they might prove, no one, even in Feierabiand, would be able to send the griffins back across the mountains.
Tesme was looking more and more unhappy. “Maybe you and Edlin would let us borrow the use of your lower pasture for a while?” she said to Jerreid. “Mine isn’t big enough for all the horses. Will I have to move all the horses, do you think? How big are griffins? How many did you see, Kanne?”
“Dozens,” the boy said. He sounded pleased about it. “Big.”
Nehoen silently held out a sketch he’d drawn. It showed an animal with a savage look: a creature half feathered and half furred, with the cruel hooked beak and talons of an eagle and the haunches of a cat. Everyone crowded forward to look. Kes, peering over Kanes’s shoulder, winced a little. The monster in the drawing was a crude misshapen thing, neither bird nor beast; it looked clumsy and vicious.
“Yes,” said Kanne triumphantly. “Griffins!”
Kanes nodded heavily. “We need king’s soldiers. That’s what we need. Clean the creatures out before they settle in to stay.”
Kes continued to study the drawing for a moment longer, not listening as everyone else spoke at once. It was all wrong. And what she found, though she didn’t understand why it mattered to her, was that she couldn’t bear to have everyone believe Nehoen’s drawing showed the truth. So she silently took the paper from Nehoen’s hand and picked up the piece of charcoal he had used for his drawing. Nehoen looked startled, but he let her have the charcoal. Nellis stood up, giving Kes her place at the table, and waved for Kanne to move, too.
Kes turned the paper over to the blank side and sat down. She had already forgotten her audience. She was thinking of griffins. Her eyes filled with fire and beauty. She turned the charcoal over in her fingers and set it to the paper. The creature she drew was not like the one Nehoen had sketched. She had a surer hand with the charcoal than Nehoen, but that was not the difference. The difference was that she knew what she was drawing.
The griffin flowed out of the charcoal, out of Kes’s eyes. It was eagle and lion, but not mismade, not wrong, as Nehoen’s griffin had been wrong. She gave this griffin the beauty she had seen. She had seen griffins flying, but the one she drew was sitting, posed neatly like a cat. It was curled around a little, its head tilted at an inquisitive angle. It was fierce, but not vicious. The feathers around its eyes gave it a keen, hard look. Its sharp-edged beak was a smooth curve, exactly right for its eagle head. The feathers flowed down its forequarters and melted smoothly into a powerfully muscled lion rear. Its wings, half opened, poured through the sketch with the clean purity of flame.
Tesme, looking over Kes’s shoulder, took a slow breath and let it out.
Nehoen took the finished drawing out of Kes’ hands and looked at it silently. Kes looked steadily down at the table.
“When did you see them?” Nehoen asked gently.
Kes glanced up at him and looked down again. She moved her hand restlessly across the rough surface of the table. “This morning.”
Tesme was staring at her. “You didn’t say anything.”
Kes traced the grain of the wood under her hand, running the tip of her finger around and around a small knot in the wood. “I didn’t know how. To talk about them. They… are nothing I know words to describe.”
“You—” Chiad said incredulously.
“Hush,” said Nellis, laying a hand on her husband’s arm. “Kes, love—”
At the gate of the inn yard, someone moved, and everyone jumped and stared. Then they stared some more.
The man at the gate was a stranger. But more than a stranger, he was himself strange. He wore fine clothing, but unusual in both cut and color. Red silk, red linen, red leather—all red, a dark color like drying blood, except for low black boots and a black cloak. He did not wear a sword, though even in Feierabiand nearly all men of good birth carried one. But this man did not carry even a knife at his belt. He held no horse, and that was surely strangest of all, for how had a gentleman come to Minas Ford if not by horse or carriage?
The man’s hair was black and very thick, without a trace of gray—although it was somehow immediately clear that he was not a young man. The lines of his face were harsh and strong. His eyes were black, his gaze powerful. He had a proud look to him, as though he thought he owned all the land on which his gaze fell. His shadow, Kes saw, with a strange lack of astonishment, was not the shadow of a man. It was too large for a man’s shadow, and the wrong shape, and feathered with fire. Kes glanced quickly into her sister’s face, and then looked at Nehoen and Jerreid and Kanes, and realized that although everyone was startled by the stranger, no one else saw that his shadow was the shadow of a griffin.
The black-eyed stranger with the griffin’s shadow did not speak. No one spoke, not even Jerreid, who liked everyone and was hard to put off. Everyone stared at the stranger, but he had attention only for Kes. And rather than speaking, he walked forward, straight to the table where she sat. He clearly assumed everyone would get out of his way, and everyone did, although Nehoen, getting abruptly to his feet, put a hand on Kes’s shoulder as though he thought she might need protection.
Ignoring Nehoen, still without speaking, the man picked up the drawing Kes had made and looked at it. Then he looked at her.
Kes met his eyes, seeing without surprise that they were filled with fire. She took a breath of air that seemed stiff with heat and desert magic. She could not look away, and wondered what the man saw in her eyes.
“What is your name?” the man asked her. His voice was austere as barren stone, powerful as the sun.
After a moment, Nehoen cleared his throat and answered on her behalf. “Kes, lord,” he said. “Kes. She doesn’t talk much. And what is your name?”
The man transferred his gaze to Nehoen’s face, and Nehoen stood very still. Then the man smiled suddenly, a taut hard smile that did not reach his eyes. “I am sometimes called Kairaithin. Anasakuse Sipiike Kairaithin. You may call me so, if that pleases you. And yours, man?”
Nehoen swallowed. He met the black stare of the stranger as though he was meeting a physical blow. He said slowly, reluctantly, “Nehoen. Nehoen, son of Rasas, lord.”
“Nehoen, son of Rasas,” said the stranger. “I am not your enemy.” He did not say, I do not care about you at all, but Kes saw the merciless indifference in his eyes. When he turned his attention back to her, she looked down at the table. She said nothing. She did not dare speak, but beyond that, she simply had no idea what to say. The stranger seemed to see her exactly as she was, but she had no idea who, or what, he saw. In a way, she found this hard-edged perception more difficult to endure than the ordinary expectations of the townsfolk.
“Kes,” said the man. He put down the drawing she had made. “My… people… have encountered difficulty. There are injured. We have need of a healer. You are a healer, are you not? My people are not far removed from this place. Will you come?” He asked this as though Kes had a choice.
Kanes rose to his considerable height, crossed his powerful smith’s arms across his chest, and rumbled, “Who asked you to bring your… difficulties… here, stranger?”
The man did not even glance at the smith. But Kes flinched. She could not understand how Kanes, strong as he was, could possibly think he could challenge the stranger. She could not understand how the smith could miss his contained power.
But Kanes, it seemed, was not alone in that inclination. Nehoen shifted half a step forward and said in a tone edged with hostility, “She’s needed at her home.” He looked at Tesme.
Tesme blinked. She had been staring at the stranger, wordless. Now she said in a breathless voice, “Kes. Come home,” and held out her hand to her sister.
Kes did not move. She looked into the face of the stranger and whispered, “You are a mage. As well as—” she stopped.
A swift, fierce smile glinted in the black eyes.
“Are you—” Kes began, and stopped again.
“I am not your enemy,” the man said, harsh and amused. “Do this for me, and perhaps I will be your friend.” Fire flared in his eyes. He said patiently, holding out his hand, “I have no power to heal. I think you do. Will you come?”
“Kes—” said Tesme.
“Look, Kes—” said Nehoen.
“I—you should understand, lord,” Kes whispered, “I only use herbs.”
The man continued to hold out his hand expectantly. “You drew that. Yes?”
Kes, lowering her gaze, looked at the drawing that lay on the table between her hands. It seemed strange to her now, how smoothly that image had emerged from her eyes, from her memory. Her hands closed slowly into fists. “Yes.”
“Then I hardly think you will need herbs. It was not a herb woman I sought. Searching, it was you I found. Will you come?”
Kes found she wanted to go with him. She knew he was not truly a man; she knew he was not any creature of the ordinary earth. But she longed, suddenly and intensely, to go with him and see what strangeness he might show her. Kes got to her feet, not looking at anyone but especially not at her sister, and laid her hand in his. His long fingers closed firmly around hers. The stranger’s skin was dry, fever hot to the touch. He tilted his head to the side, meeting her eyes with his powerful black gaze. There was nothing remotely human in his eyes.
The world moved under their feet, rearranging itself. They stood high up on the slopes of the mountain. Kes caught her breath, blinking, and found the world had gone as strange and beautiful as she could ever have wished.
The sun poured down with ruthless clarity upon the rocks, which were red, all in twisted and broken shapes, nothing like the everyday rounded gray stone of the mountain. Griffins lounged all around them, inscrutable as cats, brazen as summer. They turned their heads to look at Kes out of fierce, inhuman eyes. Their feathers, ruffled by the wind that came down the mountain, looked like they had been poured out of light, their lion haunches like they had been fashioned out of gold. A white griffin, close at hand, looked like it had been made of alabaster and white marble and then lit from within by white fire. Its eyes were the pitiless blue white of the desert sky.
And, Kes realized, the griffins were not actually lounging. They were not relaxed. They lay on the sand or atop the twisted red stone ledges, tense and tight-coiled, looking at Kes with fierce and angry stares.
The man at her side moved a step, drawing her glance. The merciless sun threw his shadow out behind him, and here in the desert that shadow was clearly made of fire. It was more brilliant than even the molten sunlight. Flames tossed around the shadow’s fierce eagle head like feathers moved by the wind. Its eyes were black.
The man said with harsh approval, “You knew, of course.”
Kes nodded hesitantly.
“Of course. You see very clearly. You are such a gift as I had hardly hoped to find, woman, though it was for one such as you I searched. You are exactly what we need.” He drew her forward, between gold and bronze griffins, into the shade cast by the shoulder of the mountain. His shadow paled in that relative dimness, like the edges of a clear flame, more sensed than seen.
A griffin lay there in the shade. It was, indeed, injured. A deep and bloody wound scored its golden lion flank, and blood speckled the bronze and black feathers of its chest. It lay with its mouth open, panting rapidly. Its tongue was narrow and barbed. Its eyes were open but blind, glazed with pain.
Kes stared at the wounded griffin in horror, as much at the ruin of its beautiful strength as at its pain. The stranger had said he needed a healer, but she had not imagined such desperate wounds and suffering. She had none of her things, not the sinews for sewing injuries nor the powders to keep infection from starting. And even if she had had those things, the griffin’s wounds looked too serious for her skill anyway.
Another griffin crouched near the injured one like a friend or a brother: Something in this griffin’s manner made Kes think of how Tesme would have hovered by her side if she had been hurt. She longed, suddenly and intensely, for Tesme; yet at the same time, she was fervently glad that her sister was not here. There was nothing in this place Tesme would have understood, and Kes felt, strongly if incoherently, that her sister’s presence would only have offended the griffins and weakened Kes herself.
The guardian griffin had feathers of brilliant gold overlaid with a copper tracery. He sat up as they approached, tail wrapped neatly as a cat’s around his feet, and fixed Kes with a brilliant copper-gold stare. She faltered, but Kairaithin drew her forward.
“There are others injured,” Kairaithin said. He sounded… not concerned, precisely. Not like a man might sound, whose friend was injured. Kes did not understand what she heard in his voice, but it was nothing human. He went on, “But this is the worst. This is our… king. He must live. Far better for your people, as well as mine, if he should live.”
Kes could not tell if he meant this as a threat, or merely as a statement. She moved forward hesitantly, kneeling by the wounded griffin. She put her hand to its chest, parting the feathers delicately. The injured griffin did not move; the other one shifted a foot, talons scraping across stone. Kes flinched back, but he did not move again. And Kairaithin was waiting.
The wound she found was a puncture, deep… she could not tell how deep… wide as well as deep. It was bleeding only a little, a slow welling of crimson droplets that ran, each in turn, along the lie of the feathers to fall, glittering and solid, to the sand. Tiny gemstones, rubies and garnets, sparkled in the sand under her knees. Kes blinked at them, fully understanding for the first time that these were truly not creatures of earth. That they were wholly foreign to this land and to her own nature. And she was expected to heal them? She cast Kairaithin a frightened glance.
“An arrow made of ice and ill intent,” said the griffin mage, watching her face. “I drew the arrow and slowed the blood. But I have no power to heal. That is for you.”
Kes laid her hand over the wound. She had no herbs, no needles, no clean water, nothing a healer would use at her craft… She touched the griffin’s face, traced the delicate shadings of gold and bronze under the blind eye, moved her hand to rest on the rapid pulse beating under the fine feathers of the throat. She said, trying to sound helpless rather than defiant, “But… truly, lord, I know nothing but herbs.”
“You know what you see. You know what we are. Are you not aware of your own power, poised to wake? Did you not know me at once?”
Kes did not know what the man meant by “your own power.” True healers were mages, not mere herb women. She was not a mage. She knew very well she was not a mage. Mages were not simply gifted, as Tesme was gifted with her affinity for horses, as makers or legists might be variously gifted. There was always magic in making, in made things; everyone had that to at least a small degree. There was magic in spoken and, especially, written words—especially in Linularinum, where everybody learned to write. But the affinity to an animal, the ability to make or build, the legist’s gift of setting truth down with quill and ink… all of those things were part of inborn, natural earth magic. Anybody could be gifted.
But mages were not merely gifted. They were gifted, but the gift wasn’t enough to make a mage. Or so Kes had always believed. Mages studied for years and years, learning… Kes could not imagine what. And there were never many of them: the necessary combination of power and dedication were vanishingly rare.
It had never occurred to Kes to wonder how an old mage chose an apprentice, or how a young person, perhaps, found within herself the desire or capacity or… whatever it might be that might lead her to want to be chosen. Kes had never wanted anything like that. Kes had only wanted to be left alone, to walk in the hills and look at the sky and the pools and the growing things. Hadn’t she? If the idea of being a mage had ever occurred to her… would she have wanted that? Did she want it now?
Now that the notion had occurred to her, Kes thought, uneasily, that she might almost want it. It would set her apart… but in a way that people could understand, or at least that they could be comfortable with not understanding. And she had always been set apart anyway, or set herself apart, somehow. Mage-skill would have made her… made her… she did not know what. Something different than she was now. Wouldn’t it? And yet, this griffin-mage thought she might be a mage? Even trying now to look inside herself, she could find nothing whatsoever that seemed to her like power.
Kairaithin’s power, on the other hand, beat against her skin like the heat of a bonfire. Kes closed her eyes and saw a black-and-red griffin move in the darkness behind the lids. I have no power to heal, he had said. What power did a griffin have, when he was also a mage? When she thought of the griffin, fire roared through the darkness. A voice like the hot wind of the desert said in her mind, Anasakuse Sipiike Kairaithin. She did not doubt Kairaithin’s power. Was it possible the griffin mage had made a mistake about her?
“Searching, I found you, and so brought my people to this place,” Kairaithin said to her, as though in answer to her unspoken question. With her eyes closed, it seemed to Kes that he spoke from a place very far away. “And so we are here; and so is Kiibaile Esterire Airaikeliu, Lord of Fire and Air. See him whole, woman, with insistent sight; pour through your heart and into him the fire that sustains him, and he will be whole.”
Kes opened her eyes again and looked up at the griffin mage, baffled. Insistent sight? She laid her hand on the wounded griffin’s chest and stared down at him, hoping for inspiration. His breath came rapidly. His blood, liquid as it left his body, was hot against her fingers. The gold-and-copper griffin stared furiously at her. She did not ask what the griffins would do if she could not heal their king. She thought instead of the griffin mage saying in his austere voice, I hardly think you will need herbs.
Could he be right? What, then, would she need? See him whole, and he will be whole. She stared down at the bloody feathers under her hands, and found she did indeed want to heal that terrible wound and restore the griffin to health and wholeness. She wanted that. But even so, she did not know what to do. She drew her hands back and looked helplessly at Kairaithin, afraid he would be angry, but simply at a loss.
The griffin mage did not appear to be angry, although perhaps impatient. He took one of Kes’s hands in both of his and held it firmly. Heat struck up her arm, racing from her hand up to her shoulder and then spreading down toward her heart. Kes gasped. It did not actually hurt. But it was a strange feeling, as though her own blood had been turned into a foreign substance within her veins.
“Creature of earth,” said Kairaithin, letting her go but holding her eyes with his. “You may yet learn to understand fire. Reach for fire and it will follow the pathway your will lays down for it, as a fire follows tinder across stone.”
“Reach for it?” Kes said, faltering.
“Make it a part of your nature. I will give you fire. Let the fire strike into your heart.” The griffin mage bent forward, staring at her, willing her to understand.
Kes stared back at him. Let the fire strike into your heart. She pictured an arrow slanting down out of the sun at her, guided by Kairaithin’s will: a burning arrow, a golden arrow trailing flames. She flinched from the image.
Beside her, the injured griffin shifted. His breath rattled in his throat. His eyes were blind, Kes thought, because they were filled with shadows.
She blinked, and blinked again, and then shut her eyes and turned her face up to the sky. Lord of Fire and Air. King of the griffins. His pulse beat under the tips of her fingers. His name beat in her own pulse. She said, not understanding her own certainty, “Why is he in the shade? He needs light.”
The mage moved his hand and the rock above them shattered and fell away, raining far down the mountain in little pieces. The sun poured down. Kes thought about the fiery arrow coming down at her, and this time she didn’t flinch. Instead, she did something that felt like calling out to it.
“Yes,” said Kairaithin, his tone fierce and triumphant.
Mere image though it might be, the arrow seemed to blaze down and snap into Kes’s body with an almost physical shock: The image in her mind of the arrow striking home was so vivid she gasped. She thought she could feel its sharp entry into her heart. There was a sharp-edged moment of agony, but then at once a sense of fierce satisfaction and a strange kind of wholeness, as though she had been waiting all her life for that arrow of light and heat to enter her. She felt filled with fire. It did not feel like power. It felt like completion.
Kes shut her eyes and held up her hands to the sunlight. She cupped the light in her hands, hot and heavy as gold, and then opened her hands to pour it out like liquid. She listened to the griffin’s name in the beating of her blood. Kiibaile Esterire Airaikeliu. Creature of fire and blood. She stared into the sun, and then lowered her eyes to stare into his. She saw him whole, and blinked, and blinked again, her eyes filled with heat and light.
Beneath her hands, the pulse that had been so rapid steadied and slowed.
The king of the griffins moved his head and looked at her with eyes that were no longer blind, but clear and savage. The wounds were gone. When he rolled to crouch and then sit, his movements were fluid, effortless. When he struck at Kes with his savage eagle’s beak, he moved fast as light pouring across stone.
Kes could never have ducked in time. But in fact she did not try to dodge the griffin’s beak at all. She knelt in the sun and stared into fierce golden eyes, stunned as a rabbit by the gaze of an eagle, as much by what she had done as by the unexpected violence, watching light glance savagely off that curved beak as it slashed toward her face.
The gold-and-copper griffin interposed his own beak, blindingly quick, with a sound like bone striking bone. The king of the griffins turned his shoulder to the copper-traced one and stretched, muscles shifting powerfully under the tawny pelt of his haunches; he spread his great wings, shaking the feathers into place. They spread behind him, a tapestry of gold and bronze and black. He cried out, a hard high cry filled with something that seemed to Kes akin to joy, but not a human joy. Something stranger and harsher than any human emotion.
Kairaithin had not moved, but he was smiling. The copper-traced griffin swept his head back and cried out, the same cry as the king, but pitched half a tone higher. The king swept his wings forward and then down, catching the hot breeze, and leapt suddenly into the air. The hot wind from his wings blew Kes’s hair around her face and drove up from the ground a whirling red dust that smelled of hot stone and fire. Flickering wisps of fire were stirred to life in the wind of those wings; the fiery sparks turned to gold as they scattered across the sand.
The other griffin lingered a moment longer. I am Eskainiane Escaile Sehaikiu, he said to Kes, his voice flashing brilliantly around the edges of her mind. When you would set a name to burn against the dark, think of me, human woman. Then he said to Kairaithin, I acknowledge your claim; you were right to bring us to the country of men and right to seek a young human with her magecraft on the very edge of waking.
Kairaithin inclined his head in acknowledgment and satisfaction.
The coppery griffin spread wings like a blazing stroke of fire and swept into the sky, following the king. Kairaithin put his hand down to Kes. “There are other injured. I will show them to you.”
Kes asked him shakily, “Will they all try to kill me?” She felt very strange, and not only because of the griffin king’s unexpected savagery. She felt light and warm, but it was not, somehow, a comforting kind of warmth. It seemed to her that if she stood up she might fall into the hot desert wind and blow away across the red sand; she felt as though she had become, in some essential manner, detached from the very earth. But she took Kairaithin’s hand and let him lift her to her feet.
“Perhaps some.” The mage released her hand and tilted his head to look at her sidelong, a gesture curiously like that of a bird. He said after a slight pause, “Do not be offended, woman. These are not your own kind. Esterire Sehaikiu gave you his name, and he is not the least among us. Will you not then allow the king his pride? I will protect you if there is need. Will you come?” He offered her his hand again.
Kes got slowly to her feet, though this time she did not take the mage’s offered hand. She looked at him wordlessly, meeting his eyes. She took a breath of hot desert air, tasting light like hot brass on her tongue. She thought of a red griffin with black eyes. Red wings heavily barred with black shifted across her sight. Kairaithin, she thought. Anasakuse Sipiike Kairaithin. His name beat in her blood like her own pulse.
“No,” said the mage briefly, and moved his hand. A darkness fell across Kes’s sight like the shadow of a great wing, and the rhythm in her blood faded with the light. His shadow looked at her; its black eyes laughed. “You could be powerful,” Kairaithin said, that same harsh amusement in his voice. “But you are young. You would not be wise to challenge me, woman. Remember that I am not your enemy.”
Kes looked at him. The black eyes met hers with absolute assurance. There was no trace of offense in his eyes, in his austere manner. She asked, her voice not quite steady, “Will you be my friend?”
He smiled slowly, a hard expression that was not like a human smile.
“Kairaithin,” she said, tasting the word.
He shifted and glanced away, expression closing, and turned to show her the way he wanted her to go. “Come, woman. See the other injured.”
Kes followed obediently. She wondered who in the world had had the temerity to attack griffins. With arrows of ice and ill intent. Had she not heard that, in Casmantium, some of the earth mages used a magecraft of cold and ice? And used it specifically against griffins, to keep them out of the lands of men? Such mages might, she supposed, make arrows of ice.
But griffins had always dwelled in the desert north of Casmantium; why would Casmantian mages now attack the griffins? Had the griffins first come south and threatened the cities of men? She wanted to ask Kairaithin. But she did not ask. She only threaded her way between stark stones, following the griffin mage. The sun rode its punishing track above. The griffins ignored their mage, but they turned their heads to watch Kes pass. Their eyes were the fierce hot eyes of desert eagles, unreadable. The griffins were beautiful, but Kes did not have the nerve to meet their stares.
The injured griffin Kairaithin brought Kes to was a slim dark creature, with feathers of rich dark brown only lightly barred with gold. The lion belly was cut across by a long terrible gash that had come near to disemboweling the griffin. Garnets lay strewn across the sand near it, some of them disturbingly large. The griffin lay half in the sun, half in the shade of a towering red rock shelf. Its beak was open as it panted; its eyes, dazed with pain and endurance, were half-lidded. It turned its head as Kairaithin stopped beside it, though, and looked at the mage, and then at Kes. Golden-brown eyes met hers. But this griffin did not seem savage. It seemed, more than anything, simply patient.
“Opailikiita Sehanaka Kiistaike,” said Kairaithin.
There was something in his tone, something strong, but nothing Kes recognized. When she moved cautiously past the mage to put a hand on the leonine side of the griffin, it only turned its head away. She did not know if it was acquiescent to her touch, or simply refused to acknowledge her. Or whether it felt something else that she recognized even less. She was not absolutely certain she could heal it. She did not understand what she had done to heal the first griffin. But she wanted to heal it. The thought of the savage wound across its belly was like the thought of broken legs on a foal.
It was surprisingly hard to remember that the griffin was dangerous. That it would perhaps try to kill her. That she did not understand it. Her, she thought. She had not been paying particular attention, but she knew that this griffin was female. And young. Yes. The slimness of the haunches said this was a young griffin. She wondered if its composure was feminine in a griffin? Or was it part of just this griffin, an individual characteristic, like Jerreid’s friendliness and Nellis’s practicality and Tesme’s slightly flurried kindness? She did not let herself think of Tesme for longer than an instant. Opailikiita. Opailikiita Sehanaka Kiistaike. Dark and slim and quick and graceful. Opailikiita. Yes.
Kes closed her eyes, then opened them, looking into the sunlight. The griffin’s name beat through Kes’s awareness. Through her blood. Kes stared into the dark, patient eyes, her own eyes blind with the fierce light of the sun, and groped for the memory of what she had done to heal the griffins’ king. She seemed, in just those few steps it had taken to come to this griffin, to have lost the trick of it. She felt much like a child learning to walk, who could not keep his balance and fell every few steps. Of course, a child could cling to the hand of his father. What could Kes cling to?
She thought of fire and fiery arrows and put her hand out, blindly, to Kairaithin. His long angular fingers closed around hers, and again the half-familiar, not-quite-painful heat rushed up her arm. Her heart bloomed with fire.
It demanded no effort to see the griffin the way she should be, rather than the way she was. Opailikiita Sehanaka Kiistaike. Slim and young and beautiful, undamaged by malice or injury. It was more difficult to gather light and heat in her hands, as though half her mind had realized by this time that what she was doing was impossible and this realization interfered with her heart.
Kes blinked through the dazzle of heat, then closed her eyes and lifted a double handful of sand and gemstones. The sand was hot; the garnets rich even to the touch. Kes closed her hands around the grit, then opened her hands again, and looked down. Light pooled in her hands, molten and liquid, and she reached then to touch the injured griffin. And found, with no sense of surprise at all, that the griffin under her hands became whole.
This griffin stretched slowly and rose, and stretched again, fastidious as a cat. She did not strike at Kes, however. She angled her head to the side and regarded Kes from an eye that was unreadable, but not violent. Kes smiled, finding that her face felt stiff, as though it had been a long time since she had last smiled. The griffin leaped up to the top of the red rock that had sheltered her, stretched out in the sun, and began to ruffle her feathers into proper order with her beak, for all the world like a common garden songbird.
Kes looked at Kairaithin. He, too, was smiling. It was not a gentle expression on his harsh face, but he was clearly pleased. “Come,” he said, and moved a hand to show her the way.
“She didn’t try to kill me,” Kes said tentatively.
“She would not,” the griffin mage agreed without explanation. “This next one will try, I think. His name is Raihaisike Saipakale. He is quick in temper and embarrassed to have suffered injury. I will, however, protect you.”
Kes believed he would. She followed the mage around broken rock and struggling parched grasses, thinking about wounds made with arrow and spear. Made with ice and steel. And ill intent… “Who makes such weapons?”
The mage gave her a severe look from his black eyes. “Mages.”
This was singularly uninformative. Kes asked tentatively, “Cold mages? Casmantian mages?”
“Yes,” said Kairaithin, but he said nothing else.
Kes wanted to ask him why the cold mages of Casmantium had done this, but she looked into Kairaithin’s hard, spare face, into his black eyes that held fire and power, into the fiery dark-eyed shadow that shifted restless wings at his back, and did not quite dare.
Raihaisike Saipakale was lying in a patch of withered grass that had once been spring fed; Kes recognized the site, but the spring was dry. The mostly buried gray rock from which the water had seeped was cracked and broken, half-hidden by drifting sand. It was strange and disturbing to see a familiar place so altered; for a moment, Kes found herself wondering whether, if she went home now, she would find her home, too, half buried in desert sand, the bones of the horses wind-scoured, Tesme gone. This was a terrible image. Kes paused, horrified, unable to decide whether she thought it might be true.
“You may attend to the injured. The places of men remain untouched by the desert,” Kairaithin said, watching her face. His black eyes held nothing she could recognize as sympathy, but neither did they hold deceit.
Kes took a shaky breath of hot desert air and turned back to the wounded griffin.
This griffin had dreadful injuries across his face and throat and chest; his blood had scattered garnets and carnelians generously through the dead grasses. Kes was surprised he was still alive. But she was confident, this time, that she could make him whole. She called light into her eyes and her blood; she poured light through her hands into the griffin and felt it shape itself into sinew and bone, into bronze feather and tawny pelt. His name ran through her mind, and an understanding of his fierce, quick temperament. She made him whole, unsurprised by the ferocious blaze of temper that accompanied his return to health.
There were many injured griffins. The mage brought her to one and then another, and another. He gave her their names, and she made them whole. The names of the griffins melted across her tongue, tasting of ash and copper, and settled uneasily to the back of her mind. She thought she would be able to recognize every griffin she had healed for the rest of her life, to recall each one’s name like a line of poetry. Dazed with sun and the powerful names of griffins, she was startled to find at last that there were no others awaiting her touch and the healing light. She stood in the shadow of a red rock where Kairaithin had brought her and looked at him in mute bewilderment. The only griffin there was Opailikiita Sehanaka Kiistaike, and Kes knew the small brown griffin did not need further healing.
“Rest, kereskiita,” Kairaithin suggested. Not gently, nor kindly. With something else in his tone. Not exactly sympathy, but perhaps… a strange kind of heedfulness.
It seemed, at the moment, enough like kindness. Opailikiita shifted, half-opening a wing in a gesture that looked like welcome, or something similar. Come, she said, a smooth touch against the borders of Kes’s mind. The tone of her voice, too, suggested welcome.
Kes had not known how desperately weary she had grown until the opportunity to rest was offered. She did not answer the slim brown griffin. She did not think she was capable of putting words together with any lucidity. But she went forward and sank down in the shade where the heat was marginally less oppressive, leaned her head against Opailikiita’s feathered foreleg when the griffin turned to offer her that pillow, and was instantly lost in fire-ridden darkness.
Excerpted from Lord of the Changing Winds by Neumeier, Rachel Copyright © 2010 by Neumeier, Rachel. Excerpted by permission.
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