a short story
They shot Rakhille out from under me, in the battle for the Western Heights. I was lucky to get off with a broken arm, but I took the man who killed her in the throat, with my last crossbow bolt. Now my writing sprawls across the page, because I have to use my left hand.
Back to front as usual, Jannis would say. Very well, then.
The record of Wing-Captain Heleia, Second Squadron of the Gryphon Riders of Robardic, in the tenth year of King Roen's reign, and the fourth year of the war against the Southlands. Is that formal enough for you, Squadron-Captain Jannis?
When I came to myself I was lying in a tent, with a field surgeon and an orderly wrangling over me in the soft accents of the South. Damn Rakhille for plunging down on the wrong side of the lines. Damn her for being dead.
The surgeon did not know what to do with me, for in the Southlands the women do not ride to war. He placed a canvas screen around me to guard my modesty from the eyes of his own soldiers -- or, for all I know, to guard their modesty from mine. I told him I was sorry for disturbing his nice, orderly field hospital, and he looked at me as if I terrified him.
They had taken away my riding leathers, and when I was fit to sit up they brought me a gown. It was hard to fasten, one handed. I asked the surgeon for a shirt and breeches, and the poor man went bright scarlet.
The next day they put me in a wagon and took me out of the camp, under escort. No one would tell me where they were taking me. The wagon followed a road that wound up into the hills, jouncing along until my arm hurt like all three hells at once. As the daylight faded we came to this fastness, perched half way up a precipice.
When the cart halted in the courtyard my escort formed up around me and led me through the door to the tower, barred and braced with iron, up a spiral stair and through a small, bare anteroom.
The room beyond was larger, panelled, with a fire smouldering on the hearth. An unkempt lad with a shock of black hair was piling logs on it from a basket. There was a bed, a table and chair, all very plain.
"This is a fortress." The voice spoke behind me. "We have no suitable lodging for ladies."
I turned. My escort had withdrawn, though I could see them kicking their heels in the anteroom. In the doorway stood a man I had never seen before. He was small -- not so tall as I -- with curled golden hair and beringed hands like a courtier. He wore a blue velvet robe, furred at wrists and throat. I could have told him which of us looked more at home in his fortress, even in my borrowed gown.
"I am Aumeril, Lord Warden," he said with a freezing dignity. "You are a prisoner, lady. If you co-operate you will be treated well, but I fear we have no woman here to attend you."
"I'm no lady." I meant to be pleasant, at least until he gave me reason to be anything else. "A soldier, no more. I'm used to the company of men of honour."
Aumeril's response astounded me. A tide of blood flowed into his face, and drained away, leaving him white. His hands shook. He said nothing, but turned and slammed out of the room.
"What's the matter with him?" I said, to myself, but the boy with the logs turned from the fire, guffawing.
"He were a coward," he said. "He ran from the battlefield. We all knows it here. He thinks you knows it, too."
"You surprise me," I said.
That was true; I was surprised that Aumeril had ever been near a battlefield. I made my voice cold, for I have no stomach for gossip, but servants will do it, discouraged or not. The boy drew close to me, grinning; he had a slack mouth and a pasty, pimpled face.
"You ask me what you wants," he said. "I'll see you right, lady."
Whether he thought I could pay him, I don't know. I'm not such a fool that I believed he meant kindness. I said sharply,
"Go about your duties."
His grin faded. He hunched his shoulders as if I'd struck him, and took himself and his foul breath elsewhere.
When he had shambled out, I examined my prison. The bed was hard, but well supplied with blankets and a fur cover. The floor was bare flagstones. On the table was an earthenware jug of water and a cup, and an earthenware lamp.
Another door led to a privy, and a second out onto a balcony, but that was locked. I pressed my eye to the latticework opening, and saw nothing but clouds barring the sky. Almost I could imagine riding down the air, Rakhille beneath me...no. That way madness lies.
That was yesterday. This morning, Aumeril came back, sat at the table and interrogated me. He was nervous, fiddling with a silver pouncet box on a chain round his neck. I think he realised he had given himself away to me. He had brought paper, pen and ink, to record what I told him.
"My name is Heleia," I said. "Wing Captain of the Second Squadron of Gryphon Riders. That is all I'm obliged to tell you."
Anyone would think that was plain enough, but not Aumeril. We went up and down and round about and back again, over all the questions you would expect: troop movements and numbers and supplies, and where did King Roen plan his next offensive. As if I would know. Or would tell Aumeril if I did. He was patient, I'll give him that. Patient to sheer stupidity, if he thought I would reply to a question the twentieth time he asked it, when I had not replied the first.
He threw the pen down in the end, and I thought he would crumple the sheet of paper, on which he had written nothing but my name and rank, but he controlled himself.
"Captain, then. You would be more sensible to answer my questions. It's for you to choose, whether your imprisonment is hard or easy."
I was not sure what he was threatening, or offering. I said -- a little pompously, I admit, and twisting the knife in his own wound, but I was heartily sick of him by now --
"I fear nothing but the loss of my honour. I desire nothing but to keep it."
He flushed again at that, and stamped out. He left the paper behind him, and so I began this record.
Aumeril reappeared in the evening, while I was eating the meal the black haired boy -- who tells me his name is Erran -- brought me. He saw my record, and took the sheets to the lamp to read. That annoyed me, but I concealed it. He would get what he deserved when he read what I had written about him.
I watched him, and saw his face change, but to his credit he kept on to the end. Did he think I was such a fool as to write secrets there? Then he tossed the papers on to the table.
"You may continue, if it amuses you. But do not try to write messages. No one will take them."
I went on spooning soup, as if he had not spoken. I waited until he was at the door, with his hand on the latch, before I said,
"I should like hot water to bathe. And the key to the balcony."
"The key?" He gave a spurt of laughter. "You're a prisoner, lady. Do you think I'm mad?"
"You are mad, if you think I could escape from there. Even a gryphon rider needs a gryphon to fly."
"There are wild gryphons, in these hills."
Now it was my turn to laugh. I was not sure whether he was stupid, or thought I was. A wild gryphon, even a female, grows no bigger than an eagle. And they are wild. Jannis, in one of his crazy fits, took a hatchling and tried to train it to hunt from his wrist like a falcon, but gave it up before he lost a hand.
Then my laughter died. Wild gryphons -- just to see them, riding the wind, soaring, gliding, plummeting on each other in mock battle... There are few things more beautiful. But I could not tell that to Aumeril, and anyway, he had gone.
This morning Erran brought hot water. Even with my arm bound up, I managed to bathe and wash my hair. Now if I wore my hair long as ladies do, instead of cropped to go under the flying helmet, I would have hairpins. I do not think the balcony door would resist for long. As it is, I shall need to think of an alternative.
The bedsprings bend very easily.
My midday meal, brought to me by Erran, is always soup, cold meat and bread. Today I kept the meat, and when I had eaten the rest of the meal I opened the balcony door, went out, and gave the whistle I always used to call Rakhille.
It was some time before they came, but I was well content, breathing fresh air for the first time in days, and looking at something other than the four walls of my room -- at air and cloud and plunging rock, and moorland spread out below.
Three of them answered my whistle at last. I had placed some of the meat on the stone parapet, and the wild gryphons flapped and squabbled over it. Another piece I held out in my hand -- well swathed in a napkin -- but only one of them dared to stoop and take it.
Oh, but he was beautiful! Bright-eyed, his beak a golden curve, his feathers black with a coppery glint. I've always been ridiculously proud of my hair, because it's that same coppery black, and cropped short it looks a little like feathers. Rakhille was that colour too; that's why I chose her, when she was a hatchling.
With the meat gone, the gryphons flew off, dancing in air. I watched them out of sight, and then turned back into the room. Aumeril was standing there, gazing out -- at the gryphons, I realised, not at me. He murmured,
I edged past him into the room and closed the balcony door, palming the key. Aumeril said,
"Do they always come when you call?"
"I don't know. To tell you the truth, I've not much experience with the wild ones. We train the fighting gryphons to come to a whistle. Perhaps they like it."
He smiled at me. The first time I had seen him smile, or look at all relaxed, or anything but dignified, or defensive, or ill tempered. Something had changed, even when he remembered himself; we had shared something.
He never mentioned the key.
At midday today, on the tray with my meal there lay a glove. A thick, leather glove such as falconers use. It's a great deal easier than a napkin.
I went on feeding the wild gryphons. After a few days, I distinguished about seven or eight different ones. The only one who always came was my little male. I called him Rakhil; I did not name the others.
After that first time, I wondered whether Aumeril would come again, to watch the feeding. For some reason I was disappointed when he did not. In fact, for several days I saw nothing of him at all.
As well as feeding the gryphons, I watched the road from the balcony. It was not as deserted as you might think. Soldiers rode along it, coming or going, usually in twos and threes. Sometimes there were supply wagons. Towards sunset on the sixth day after I first opened the door, a whole baggage train appeared, with a large escort, and I guessed that the garrison was changing.
After supper the same night, Aumeril reappeared.
He looked agitated. He was carrying a bundle, which he held out to me, and then seeing that I would have trouble taking it with one hand, he laid it on the bed.
"Some things you might need, lady," he said.
I unwrapped it. There was another gown, finer than the one I was wearing, underthings and stockings, handkerchiefs, a comb and a mirror. I was desperate for them, especially the underthings, being sick of rinsing out my own in my bathwater.
Aumeril must have sent for them. I stared at him. He had gone to stand in front of the fire, fiddling about with his pouncet box.
"Thank you, my lord," I said.
"There's news." He spoke hurriedly, as if he was confessing something he was ashamed of. "Your king has retaken the Western Heights. There's battle in the valley."
"Coming here?" I asked.
I felt a quickening. This might mean the end of my imprisonment. But Aumeril shook his head.
"No. Roen is trying to press on downriver to take the port at Stellast. That would open the way to the capital." He shot me a look, half pride, half a queer kind of embarrassment. "Garnil holds the way against him."
We have all heard of Garnil in the North. One of the chief Southern generals, and close kin to their Duke, who would call himself King. I had often wished to meet him, if only because the old saying tells us that next best to a noble friend is a noble enemy.
"Garnil is my cousin," Aumeril said, still in that same hurried, self-conscious way. "I fought in his company. I was with him when -- "
He broke off and turned away, a hand pressed to his lips. When he fled from the battle, I supplied silently. For the first time I really thought about that, and for the first time it seemed strange to me. What kind of general would take this fragile little courtier -- untrained and inexperienced, if I know anything of war, as I do -- put a sword in his hand, and order him to -- what? No Northern general would be so irresponsible, or he would find himself arraigned alongside the man who had failed.
And I thought again of Garnil. All the stories told of his courage, dash and daring, none of his judgement. But it takes both to make a commander.
"My lord Aumeril," I said, feeling kinder towards him, "when I first came here, I used an expression that I believe you found offensive. Truly I did not mean to. I am sorry for it."
He did not look at me.
"Garnil sent me here," he said. "It's a -- a decent exile. More than I deserve. He said he would visit me, but he does not come. Sometimes I'm afraid he has forgotten, or does not care, or -- no." He straightened; his face was still turned away from me. "He has his duties, after all."
He turned back to me then and bowed, all dignity again except for the tears on his face. He said,
"I ask your pardon for being tedious," and went out.
I have just read over what I wrote yesterday. I still do not understand what demon drove Aumeril to come and confide in me. Surely he did not expect comfort from a gryphon rider?
Yet he might find more, perhaps, than from his own people. In the North we do not despise anyone, man or woman, who chooses not to be a warrior, knowing they have no aptitude, or preferring to give their life to some art or craft or the teaching of their children. Here in the South, the men must take up the sword as the women must sit over their stitchery, and none of them, as far as I can see, is one jot the better for it.
I have had time to think, too, of the news of the war Aumeril gave me. It is a great thing that we have retaken the Western Heights. Who controls the Heights, controls the South, for the main road runs through the pass, and supplies must come that way, or go by sea. If Roen takes the port at Stellast, the war is all but over.
Meantime I sit and moulder here. I should like to take some part in it before the last.
My arm has healed enough for the bandages to come off, though it aches if I use it overmuch, so the reader of this record must make do with my left-handed scrawl still. My hair has grown; it covers my ears now. I thought of asking for scissors, but what point? I do not need to wear the flying helmet. I've heard that some of the Southern ladies grow their hair long enough to sit on. Will they keep me here until I can sit on mine? But long before that I should be screaming mad.
The gryphons still come to be fed on the balcony. More of them now. The year draws to its end, and wild prey will be harder to find. My little Rakhil comes to my call.
Aumeril has never been to see them since that first time. But someone sends a bowl of raw meat scraps with my meal each day.
Yesterday, towards evening, I saw a band of soldiers riding up from the valley. A tight little band, brisk and disciplined. Their weapons glinted in the dying sunlight, and a scarlet pennon fluttered in the wind.
I was expecting Erran with my supper tray, but instead he sidled in empty-handed, with a knowing grin on his face.
"Lord Aumeril, he says you're to put on your fine gown and come down to the dining hall for supper."
I was astonished. In all the weeks I'd been here, I'd never set foot beyond the door that led to the rest of the fortress. I could see no reason for Aumeril to allow it now, unless it was somehow connected with the soldiers who had arrived earlier.
It was. When I had changed my gown, Erran brought me to the dining room. It was a panelled room like my own, but larger, with a huge fireplace, and a shield on the wall above it, blazing scarlet and gold. Two men stood before the fire.
One was Aumeril. The other, tall and dark and lean, stepped forward as I came in, bent over my hand, and kissed it.
"Lady Heleia, I am honoured," he said.
"I am Captain Heleia of the Gryphon Riders."
To tell the truth, I was thrown a little off balance. I am a warrior, no Southern lady to be pleased with kisses and compliments. The dark man smiled, bowing; he was superbly handsome. Aumeril said,
"This is my cousin, General Garnil."
I had already guessed. Aumeril looked more alive than I had ever seen him, and there was a kind of challenge in his eyes, as if he would have said, "You see? He came after all!"
"Then I too am honoured," I said.
We went to table. I enjoyed the meal, which was a change from the dull fare Erran brought to my room, and the first wine I had drunk since my capture. But I did not enjoy it so much that I drank enough to fuddle my wits.
General Garnil was pleased to be fascinated by the Gryphon Riders, and asked me many questions about them. At first it was innocent enough, about breeding and training, and how the riders are chosen. As the meal went on, however, his questions became more pointed, and I knew we were back to the old game: what did I know that would be useful to him?
For a while I played the game, fencing with him, parrying his questions, but soon I wearied of it. Did he think I was so foolish that I would be dazzled by a handsome face and a few compliments, enough to trade my honour for them? I took a last sip of wine, and said,
"Your pardon, my lords. I grow tired. I will leave you for tonight."
They both rose as I did, bowed, and wished me good night, but I guessed from the flash in Garnil's eyes that I had not pleased him. I left, not waiting for an escort to take me back upstairs.
Outside the door I lingered. I wondered whether they might say anything worth my hearing. The first voice was Aumeril's, but so low that I could not make out the words. All through the meal he had said little, and eaten less, keeping his eyes fixed on Garnil. He did not trouble to hide his admiration.
I heard Garnil's laughter; it sounded angry. He said,
"I must ride tomorrow."
"Take me with you."
A pause. I imagined Garnil's refusal, because the next voice was Aumeril again, pleading.
"Let me ride with you. Give me a chance to prove myself."
"You had your chance." The voice cold, cruel. "You failed, and I found this charge for you. Can't you even bear that faithfully? Or are you afraid of one woman?"
A longer silence now. I stood in the passage, at the foot of the stairs. The dining room door was still open a crack. I edged it open further. I knew I was a fool. What would Garnil do if he found me? And why should I care in any case whether he took Aumeril with him or not?
They had left the table and stood by the fire again. Aumeril reached out to his cousin.
"Please. I cannot bear it."
"Then -- then will you promise me something?"
Garnil said nothing, and there was nothing encouraging in his silence. Aumeril's voice was shaking as he went on again.
"If they break through -- the Northerners -- they'll overrun all this tract of country. What will they do to us here? Especially when they find we have one of their gryphon riders. Promise that you won't let us be cut off. Promise that you won't leave me here."
Garnil looked down at him, mouth curling in cold contempt. If he had turned such a face on me, I would have sprung for his throat. Aumeril just sank his head into his hands.
The General went on looking at him for a long time. Gradually his expression changed to a weary disgust. He said at last,
"Very well. I promise I will come for you."
When I went back to my room, I lit the lamp and began to write this record. Before I had set down more than a few lines, I was interrupted by voices in the anteroom. The door opened. Garnil was standing there.
I rose and started to speak. But Garnil had not come to talk. He strode across the room to me, took me by the shoulders, and brought his mouth down on mine.
For a few seconds I did nothing, and I swear it was not passion, but outrage, that kept me pliant. Because I was a woman, and his prisoner, did he think I was available? Or did he really have such a good opinion of himself that he thought he might come at my secrets another way?
I thrust him off. He took a step back, watching me. He was not displeased. A smile touched his mouth.
"Oh, yes, lady," he breathed out. "Don't give in too easily. Where would be the fun in that?"
I met his eyes. Southern ladies scream, I suppose. Perhaps because I did not scream he thought I welcomed him.
"Please me," he said, "and who knows? I could have you exchanged. Freedom. In a few days, lady, you could be riding a gryphon again."
He had read me well enough. I might have been tempted to yield for that bribe, if I had believed him. As it was, his ignorance helped me to keep my balance. If I ever ride another gryphon, it will be at the price of long and rigorous training. Gryphon and rider pair for life.
He was smiling still. He stepped forward, and I raked a hand across his face. The hand is now softer than when I held reins each day, but the fingernails are longer. I drew blood.
Garnil stepped backwards, his breath coming hard, his smile gone. He touched his scratches and looked at the blood smeared on his fingertips.
"Vicious bitch," he said. "You've been stuck in here for weeks, you must be panting for it. What's the matter with you? Or is it true that the gryphon riders neuter their women?"
I took no notice of the insult. For a minute I thought he would come at me again. I hoped he would; I relished the thought of doing him an injury that he might have trouble explaining to the next trollop he bedded. I was not afraid. He could have called the guards, of course, and overpowered me that way, but I knew a man like Garnil would never admit that he could not handle one woman. I waited, until he spat out an obscenity I will not write, and went out.
I had not found it necessary to speak to him. When he had gone, I sat down and went on writing this record.
I slept late this morning. Perhaps the wine had affected me. When I woke, the prison walls seemed to confine me more than ever they did. I unfastened the balcony door and went out.
It was a raw day. The year was drawing to its end. With the first snows, the war would dwindle into a long progression of seiges, winter quarters, and disarray. Roen would have to make his push soon, or lose his advantage.
The moorland was empty. Nothing moved on the road. I wondered if Garnil had already left, or if he intended giving me the honour of another visit.
When the door opened, I thought it was Erran with my tray. I said,
"Put it on the table."
Movement in the room behind me. Then Aumeril's voice.
I stepped back into the room. He looked ill, his face white and pinched.
"Garnil has gone?" I said.
"Lady, he told me..." He was twisting his hands together in anguish. "He told me to have you tortured."
He could barely force the confession out. I was not even surprised.
"And will you?" I said.
He shook his head.
"I cannot. Not even to give the order." He made a helpless gesture. "I have been shamed enough. What can I do to make it worse?"
He fell silent. I thought he was not far away from tears. Certainly he did not know how to get himself out of the room again.
I brought the falconer's glove and gave it to him.
"Put that on, my lord," I said. "Let me show you."
Wonderingly, he did as I said. He had brought the bowl of scraps as usual. I carried it out on to the balcony, pushing him in front of me. I gave the whistle that would summon the gryphons.
They were greedier than ever, these days, half starved on winter's scant pickings. After only a few minutes, the air around us was filled with a chaos of wings.
I showed Aumeril how to hold out the meat, on the palm of the gloved hand. He was nervous, half inclined to flinch, yet still in thrall to the wonder of it. I felt a pang, I admit, to see my Rakhil stoop to his hand, but I looked at Aumeril's face instead. It was exalted, transformed. I saw a shadow, at least, of what he might have become if he had ever been allowed to be happy.
When the scraps were all finished, Aumeril watched regretfully as the gryphons soared away, until all the fierce brightness of them vanished into the sky. The light was still in his face as he stepped back into the room.
"Thank you," he whispered. "Such a precious gift..."
He stripped off the glove and seemed as if he would offer me his hand, only realising at the last moment that I would not wish to take it. He held out the glove instead. Hesitantly, with a queer formality, he said,
"I would call you friend, lady, if I did not know that would be distasteful to you. But I will stand your friend here, as far as I can."
He bowed awkwardly, the courtier's grace gone, and left. I put little trust in his offer of friendship, and yet, strangely, I do not find it distasteful.
Today I saw the distant hills darkened by a great gathering of birds. And in the evening, the sky smudged with smoke. The wild gryphons did not come when I whistled, not even Rakhil. He was not tame; I never wanted him tame.
Last night my dreams were filled with shouting and banging and the galloping of horses. This morning, instead of Erran with my breakfast tray, there came a hurried knocking on my door, and the sound of the key. I sat up in bed, pulling the blanket around my shoulders as Aumeril all but fell into the room. He looked wild and dishevelled; he was gasping for breath, and he had a purpling bruise on one temple.
"Lady..." he said. He was clutching the back of my chair for support. "Word came in the night. There was battle on the plain before Stellast. Your king has won. It is over."
I rejoiced to hear his news, but it was no more than I had expected.
"Sit, my lord," I said. "Are you hurt? What happened?"
He slid into the chair and supported his head on one hand.
"Your people are marching into these hills," he said. "The soldiers fled when they heard it. I tried to stop them..." He fingered the bruise, and winced.
"You stayed," I said.
That was more tenacity than I would have expected from him. His head went up.
"Garnil said he would come."
He spoke defensively, and I could tell he did not really believe it. After a moment, in a lower voice, he said,
"The messenger told me, Garnil was riding to the capital, to take part in the peace talks. But...he must have been mistaken." The defensive note again. "Garnil would not break his word."
Lord Aumeril has left my door open and I have the freedom of the citadel. In truth, I am free to go, but there are no horses left, and last night the snow began. It still falls heavily.
Aumeril and I eat together in the kitchen. There are stores enough to feed the two of us for months.
No one has come.
Aumeril scarcely speaks. He looks ill. I do not think he sleeps. Four days now since the battle, and not even he can believe any longer that Garnil will keep his word.
After I began today's record, I went down to the kitchen to prepare our midday meal. I am no cook, but I can throw salt pork and beans into a pot, and Aumeril does not complain.
When the pot was bubbling on the fire I went back to my room. I did not see Aumeril at first, until wind banged open the balcony door, driving a swirl of snow into the room. Then I realised he stood outside on the balcony.
I went out to him. Snow stung my face and eyes. He stood gripping the parapet, leaning over, staring down into the boiling snow. I grabbed his arm.
"What are you doing?"
He pulled away from me. For a second I thought he would leap over; I would not have stopped him. But he shrank back and sank to his knees.
"I can't!" He was sobbing. "It's the only way -- I've nowhere to go, and Garnil won't come -- but I can't..."
I pulled him to his feet and guided him back inside. He stood shivering, his velvet robe sodden with melting snow, his hair streaming. I took out the belt knife I have carried ever since word came of the battle.
"Do you want me to help you?" I said.
His eyes widened.
"No -- oh, no. Please, don't..."
As I sheathed the knife he began to weep again.
I stripped off his robe and put him into my bed. He sleeps there now, whimpering a little, as if his dreams are evil.
I have seen the gryphon riders over the hills. The ground troops will be here, tomorrow or the next day. When they come, they will question Aumeril, and he will tell them what he knows, such as it is. And he will bear for ever the name of traitor along with the name of coward.
And yet the man who betrayed him, who would have betrayed me if I had trusted him, goes free. And when the war is over and the treaties are signed, he will no doubt be named by both sides as a hero.
So ends the record of Wing-Captain Heleia, second squadron of the gryphon riders of Robardic, as my imprisonment ends. When it began, I thought I could recognise the face of honour. Can anyone -- can you, Squadron-Captain Jannis -- tell me what it looks like now?
Elsewhere in infinity plus: