Chapter 4 — The Last Forest

Hippogriffs have existed in Pando nearly as long as horses, much longer than they have been a stable line. As every giggling child knows, gryphons are scandalously indiscriminate about their mating partners, and may be as likely to couple with a horse as to kill and eat it. Nothing is the most common outcome of this joining, miscarriage the next most likely. Misshapen wretches are third most common, with anything from half-formed, horse-toothed beaks to stumps for feet with neither the dexterity of talons nor the constitution of hooves. On instinct, the mother stomps or pecks these misbegotten beings to death the moment they come out. Finally, one out of every several dozen couplings, a healthy hybrid is born. 

Eager throngs would gather before pregnant mares to see if the baby would be one of these rare specimens. The head of a horse and the body of a gryphon? A horse with great gryphon wings? A gryphon with a luxurious mane draped over its lush feathers? Or best of all, a hippogriff. 

Hippogriffs are a miraculous creature, taken by some as proof of a divine and loving Pando. As intelligent as a gryphon and as loyal as a horse, they once were a sought-after prize throughout the forest. More than one living at a time was unheard of until more than a hundred years after the Demon King’s defeat. Even after, when more mares meant more opportunities for hybrids, breeding wasn’t as simple as two hippogriffs existing during the same period of time. One farm may produce a male, another a female, and they may fight over who shall own the progeny. When late in the second century after the fall of the Demon King, two farmers reached an agreement to allow their miracle animals to mate, the era of the hippogriff began. 

Hippogriffs are so easily tamed that the pen in Candon was little more than a set of posts connected by wire. Although any hippogriff could easily fly over and eat a horse,  no such thing had ever happened. So long as they were well-fed, the hippogriffs were happy to laze about in their pen, and if they weren’t, they would rather whine for Lew to feed them than kill anything themselves. At Lew’s approach, the hippogriffs pushed up against each other, quorking and chortling in excitement for their next meal. 

As Lew moved to unlock the feed shed, the hippogriffs bustled around her, pushing her this way and that and nipping playfully at her shift and her ears. A tiny hippogriff chick still covered in gray baby fluff chirped and rubbed against her knees and she nearly tripped. “Hold on, hold on! I can’t feed you before I get the food out!” Lew noticed Biffy’s blotchy red beak among those hassling her, and reached out to grab the reins Zad never bothered to remove. Usually she took them off for him, since to never remove them would leave Biffy covered in miserable saddle sores.

Today, though, she had another idea. With the slightest tug, Biffy clopped forward. The other hippogriffs turned away, and she laughed. Somebody else must have already fed them. “Jostling for a second dinner, huh?” She stepped into Biffy’s stirrups and kicked her leg over his broad, feathered back. “Yah!” she shouted, and Biffy trotted forward. He bent his powerful legs to leap to the sky, but a withered hand reached out and grabbed the reins.

Kallen’s voice carried a distinct tenor to it that gave the impression that he was always somewhere between a sneer and a scowl, which was, in fact, often the case. His creased face now was all scowl. “Do you have permission to ride that animal?”

“Of course!” Lew lied. Kallen’s eyes narrowed.

 “I fed the hippogriffs their supper.”

“Oh!” she said, struggling to remember her manners and her diction. “uh, thank you! You  needn’t have done that.”

Kallen nearly growled. “Oh, but I did.” 

When Kallen paused it was only long enough for Lew to begin to speak, at which point he interrupted her to continue his train of thought. “It may come as a surprise, but as it turns out hippogriffs’ need to eat does not wait on the whims of the High Elder’s daughter.  Very little inside this forest does, but I’m sure I don’t need to remind Pando’s youngest ever Greenwarden of that.”

In the hand not gripping the reins, Kallen held two Greenwarden staffs. When Lew dismounted Biffy, he released the beast and took one staff in each hand. They looked identical to Lew, but he held his right hand high. “Tell me about this staff.”

Lew straightened and put her hands by her sides. Narcissa, noticing that Lew was unmolested, clopped over to rub her feathery head against hers and quork in her face. Lew pushed the beak out of the way and she wandered off. “Crafted by Pychis the Worthy twenty years after the demon king was vanquished, High Greenwarden. One of seven in all the realm, six remaining in the hands of the Greenwardens of Pando.” 

Kallen didn’t smile, but his scowl became a thoughtful frown. 

“Can I have it back now?” Lewellyn asked, but the scowl returned.

“I shall decide when you are ready for the staff,” Kallen answered.

Kallen tapped the staves on the ground, one in each hand. “The ancient protectors of the forest.”

Lew glared at him, and he glared right back, daring her to give the wrong answer.

“The Gryphons,” she answered.

Kallen nodded, but Lewellyn continued speaking, biting her words. “The current protectors are the Hippogriffs and their riders. As Alisair High Elder,” she did not call him father when discussing politics, “reminds us in each State of Pando address, we don’t need dangerous and unstable monsters protecting us when we are perfectly capable of protecting ourselves.” 

Kallen’s face was stoic. His parry was swift. “How many attacks have there been on the people of Pando by Gryphons in the past thousand years?”

Lew’s lip curled like she had stepped in a pile of Narcissa’s leavings. The hairs on her arms stood. People told her it wasn’t a memory, she was too young, but it haunted her nightmares. Her mother’s warm, pillow-soft body on top of her, covering her. Her voice a strained whisper. “My baby, my baby,” were the last of her words that Lew ever heard.

Kallen waited for Lew to struggle with herself. After a few deep breaths, she forced a whisper. “We have no idea how many attacks have gone unrecorded.”

He shook his head. “Lewellyn Eldersdaughter, you cannot make up the history that suits you.”

She stood silent, tears pricking the corners of her eyes.

Now Kallen clenched his own jaw. “The answer is one. That was the only time. Then your father said all Gryphons are murderers and struck the laws protecting them. In the intervening years we have hunted our own protectors to near extinction.”

The air was electric with tension. Some hippogriffs lifted their wings, others danced in place, chortling nervously. Narcissa stood on her hind legs and screeched. Kallen glared into Lewellyn’s eyes. “When the Demon King tried to take this forest for his own, the Gryphons repelled him. During the great war, it was the Gryphons that kept us safe.”

“Now we have archers, hippogriff riders, and Greenwardens! We defend ourselves!”

Kallen glowered at that. “Defend ourselves from what? Our novel armies remain untested, but peace shall not last forever. If you listen to anything I say, hear this: we are not prepared for war.”

Kallen left no time for a retort.

“Your father should not have chosen this path for you so young, but it is your path now. No one can protect you from your duty, least of all me. Everything I do is to protect Pando, the last forest in all the realm. If that means forcing you to grow up, then that is my duty, too.”

Lew wanted him to stop harassing her. She didn’t even want to be a Greenwarden anymore. She just wanted things to go back to the way they were.

“You cannot run from this, Lewellyn,” Kallen intoned, raising his voice. Lew shook, balling and unballing her fists, wanting to scream and cry and shout in anger all at once.

Instead, she ran away.

Hot tears streamed down Lew’s face as she vaulted over the far fence. She sprinted at full speed, letting her shift billow behind her. “Hey, what’s wrong?” Zad shouted down from his tree as she sprinted past. She ignored him, not slowing until she saw the three triangle thatched roofs of the High Elder’s palace. 

“Miss Lewellyn,” Bat Face protested as she shoved him aside. 

“Not now, Bat.” Lew whined, pushing her way into the house and turning left to go down to her quarters. When she had her heavy wooden bedroom door between her and the rest of the world, she breathed a sigh.

She reminded herself she had a family. She had a father. He was a good father, very busy making Pando safe for his daughter. The woman who bore her was killed by a mad Gryphon, but Aerith was her mother, and she was good. Aerith is a good mother. Even in her head, the words rang hollow. Ever since Lew was old enough to say “mama,” Aerith would give Father a nervous glance and correct her. “Step-mama. Say ‘step-mama.’” Lew shook her head in frustration. Father was never there, and Stepmother Aerith managed to always be there and never be there at the same time. 

Father does everything for us. Stepmother gives me everything I need and just doesn’t want me to think she wants to replace my real mother. That’s fine. It’s ok. I’m fine.

Lew had nearly calmed down when a knock came on the door. Bat-Face’s voice came again. “The Missus told me ta ask ya if ya were keepin’ up with yer readin’.“

Lew shook her head. It just kept coming. She couldn’t get a break. “A course I am, Bat-face! Ya don’t need to hound me!”

“I’m sorry, Miss. I just do what she tells me. She also wanted me ta tell ya that the High Elder’s comin’ fer dinner. Yeh need ta wash up an’ get yer hair nice and purdy.”

Lew ground her teeth together. She took her barkcloth pillow, put it to her face, and screamed.

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By Sam Munk

Science fiction and Fantasy author with a focus on philosophical inquiry and character-driven drama.

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