When she was just shy of six years old, Father took Lew out to see a gryphon slaughter. It was the greatest day of her life. He held her hand and pointed out each element of the process they had refined to a science. “The net is made with bark rope and tied to heavy stones,” he said, pointing out the dark rocks that pinned the hulking beast to the ground. Lew remembered it, the queasy thrill of watching such a powerful animal laid low. At the time, she didn’t understand her feelings. She looked at a massive black wing pinned backward at an odd angle, at the struggling black talons in front and yellow furry feet in back. At the immobile head, beak hanging partway open, eye darting this way and that. Lew felt her heart race and clutched at Father’s hand. “Daddy,” she said. “Daddy, they’re hurting him.”
Father held her close and her breath came short. This was the love she wanted. If only he could just hold her like this forever. “Watch, little one. Watch as we free ourselves from one more oppressor.” Lew didn’t understand who was oppressing who, or what oppression was, but she clung to Father and kept her eyes on the beast as she was told.
“Here comes Meden.” Father beamed with pride, and Lew scowled. Father spent so much time honoring and celebrating Meden Rider that some people wondered if he should be called Meden High Elderson. It left a sour taste in the mouth of Lewellyn High Eldersdaughter.
Meden had a special relationship with gryphon slaughter. He had killed so many of the beasts that he had more trophies than he could reasonably wear on his person, but that didn’t stop him. Three gryphon beak bracelets adorned each arm. From his quarries’ feathers he had crafted a crude headdress that bounced and fluttered as he sauntered towards the helpless animal.
Father said that Meden was the only one who could kill a gryphon, but didn’t explain why. Francis was more forthcoming. He said that the word from the rats was that other Pandoans had tried by the dozen. When your prey was trapped underneath a heavy net, it wasn’t a question of skill, but nerve. Rushing in to save your child was one thing, but without that singular motivation, Pandoans moving to stab a gryphon couldn’t do it. They shook uncontrollably or burst into tears. Some fainted and had to be dragged away. “It’s wrong,” they would stammer, overcome with nameless dread. But Alisair had swept the election for High Elder on a promise — Pando for Pandoans.
He traveled north, past Mar, all the way to the gray lands, where hard soil and cold weather stunted Pando’s trees. Here the sky was not a green canopy but steely clouds, and the forest floor was white with snow as often as it was brown with dirt. Even the people were pale, with blue eyes, black curly hair and thick black beards on the men’s faces. Gray also described this place’s tone. Brutal cold and the shadow of the mountain made for a short growing season, and there was seldom crop leftover for raising livestock or building storage. The community lived each year one bad harvest away from starvation. The final gray represented the far north of Pando’s uncertain nature. It was so different from Pando proper as to spark no small disagreement on whether it was of Pando at all. A thousand years ago, Barbar signed the same accords as the rest of Pando to stop warring amongst themselves, but the gryphons never stopped hating the Barbarians, and the feeling was mutual. Alisair had only to mention killing gryphons and Barbar agreed it would be an honor to give one of their own to the cause.
The animal seemed to come alive as Meden approached it, cawing and squeaking as best it could under its restraints. The whole net moved a fingerlength as a heavy black beak snapped out to grab him. Meden had seen it all before. Father had taught him the basics and he had refined them to an art. In a quick motion, he swept to the side and jabbed his dagger into the neck. Blood gushed from the animal and it gagged, spasming madly until, with another stab, Meden’s knife found the heart.
Lew cried and shoved her face into Father’s purple robes. He held her close like he never had before or since, murmuring praise for her courage. Nothing mattered but his affection.
In the hall adjoining the barracks, long blocks of orange wood made crude benches. From the back row, Lew watched Meden in the front, his neck and most of his back now covered by his ever more elaborate headdress. As a small child, everyone had seemed big, but as she grew, Lew had realized that Meden was bigger than everyone. Even sitting, he took half the bench, a huge feathery wall blocking the view of the front. No one dared tell him he should sit in the back, so the rest of the riders sat on either side to see around him.
Francis had passed on an order from Kallen for Lew to collect the riders and wait for him. She bit her lip. Was this about the missing page? She’d lost a whole night’s sleep trying to puzzle through what Wyn Wanderer could have written that would be dangerous enough to desecrate a sacred artifact like An Annotated History of Pando. It was tempting to believe her discovery was a secret between her and the crows, but wherever there were rats you could never be sure who knew what.
Francis himself cowered on Lew’s shoulder, keeping his disproportionately large mouth to himself before he got into more trouble. It didn’t stop him from chittering at Lew to be on her best behavior. “Sit straight. Look up. Don’t pick a fight with Meden.”
Meden Rider didn’t speak Chichu, but nevertheless, he responded on cue. He crossed his arms underneath his gryphon-claw necklaces.
“Did the High Greenwarden mention when he was plannin’ to arrive?” He growled. Then the wall shifted and he whipped back to look at Lew. Even two rows away, a chill went down her spine. Francis let out an involuntary squeak of terror. Kallen didn’t say anything about how long he expected the riders to wait for him, of course, but Lew tried to think of a way to say it that would not to give Meden an excuse to start another fight that inevitably would be blamed on her.
Just in time, Zadyn rider on the back bench next to Lew yawned and stretched his wiry arms. “Med, buddy, you know the High Greenwarden don’t care nothin’ about our time. Lew ain’t got no say.”
Meden grunted and turned forward again. Zad pat Lew on the shoulder and winked. He was the only rider that treated her kindly. Who wasn’t either afraid of her, technically his commanding officer, or disdainful of the girl promoted above them at twelve by her powerful father. For the first time in a long while, she was happy to see Kallen approaching.
“Lewellyn,” the old man barked before he even stepped in the door. “What are you doing?”
Lew’s relief evaporated. “What?” She almost cried. What did I do now?
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