The Fledgling (Sword and Claw, Ch. 1)

Author’s Note: “The Fledgling” is a fantasy story I’ve been writing on-and-off for the past few months. It might end up becoming the opening chapter of a full-length epic fantasy novel. I haven’t decided yet. I’ve posted it here for your enjoyment and also to solicit feedback. Any comments or constructive criticism you may have would be greatly appreciated. I’m currently working on a “Part 2” and if this story is well received I may post it in the future.

Taana trudged her way down the mountain in a sullen mood. After three days and nights on the wooded slopes she was returning home empty-handed. Autumn was fading fast into winter. Without meat from the hunt the family would be forced to buy provisions from the butcher in the nearest village. They could barely afford it; the harvest had not been as good as previous years, and they were scraping by. Taana’s older brother Rokka had been forced to take up a job as a tanner’s assistant to make some extra money, leaving her as the sole family member who could hunt. Mother had the house to mind; Father was simply too old.

A chill wind blew down from the mountaintop and Taana shivered, pulling her hood up over her long, raven-black hair and drawing her cloak close about her. She hung her head, dejected, picking her way down the twisting game trail that wound through the thick pine forest. Fallen needles and pinecones crunched softly under her boots.

It was because of her downcast eyes that she saw it – fresh sign! The cloven hoofprints of a red deer were clear to see coming up the path before leaving the trail and continuing into the thicket to her left. Taana knelt and examined the trail closely. Very fresh. This deer passed by less than an hour ago. She may have just missed spying it as she came around a bend several hundred feet farther back up the trail. Taana rose, unslung her hunting bow, and retrieved an arrow from her quiver. She felt a thrill run through her that wasn’t from the cold – her luck had turned! She imagined arriving home a conquering hero. Rokka and Father had made their feelings plain: “You’re not ready. You’re too young,” they’d objected. She’d show them. She was sixteen and ready to take on the responsibility of helping to support the family.

Taana took a deep breath and tried to calm her thoughts. She couldn’t afford to get distracted now; she needed absolute focus. She turned left and slowly skirted the edge of the thicket, heading deeper into the forest. She watched her step carefully; any snapping of a twig or dislodging of a loose stone could alert her quarry and dash her chances. The trees were thinning out; there was a clearing up ahead. She took up a crouching stance as she moved forward, flitting stealthily from tree to tree. She spotted a large boulder on the edge of the meadow and took up a position behind it.

There, on the other side of the clearing was a red deer, a good-sized doe. It foraged placidly among some shrubbery, unaware of the hunter’s presence. Taana breathed in and out slowly and deliberately. She nocked her arrow and aimed at a spot just behind the animal’s shoulder blade. One clean hit was all it would take….

The silence was abruptly shattered by a sudden howling shriek. Her shot went wild. The doe bolted in an instant, vanishing into the pines. Taana’s curse of surprise and frustration was drowned out by the ululating call as it sounded again, louder this time. It was unlike any animal noise Taana had ever heard. This was no wolf howl or leopard cry. It reminded her vaguely of the screech of an eagle but larger and more guttural. No bird she knew of was large enough to make a sound like that.

The eerie call echoed up and down the mountainside for a minute or two, then slowly faded away into silence. Taana stood up, stock still, and listened. When the mournful wail reverberated again a minute later, she gasped suddenly, unaware that she’d been holding her breath. The cry seemed to be coming from somewhere beyond the clearing, among the deeper pinewoods. It came again, lower and less forceful this time, with the hint of a trilling whimper at the end. Taana had been too started by the unfamiliar noise to perceive its full import, and the realization struck her like a thunderbolt: Whatever it is, this animal is clearly wounded – easy prey!

Taana considered briefly whether it was wise to confront an unknown and possibly dangerous creature, but she quickly decided that she couldn’t let this chance slip by. The doe she had been tracking was long gone and she still needed a kill to feed her family. She took a deep breath and mentally steeled herself: I will not go home empty handed!

Unwilling to risk exposing herself by cutting straight across the open glade, Taana began to make her way, slowly and warily, around its edge. As she did so, the mystery animal continued to vocalize, and it soon became clear that she was closing in on its position. The creature, whatever it might be, was no longer screeching like a bird of prey, but the noises emanating from the heart of the forest were still distinctly avian: mournful hoots punctuated occasionally by nervous chirping. It was obviously afraid and in pain.

Finally leaving the clearing behind, Taana made her way deeper into the woods. The air was close and stuffy, heavy with the aroma of resin and rotting pine needles. As she closed in on the hiding place of the creature, her every step was deliberate. She was so focused on ensuring a stealthy approach that she initially failed to notice that the vocalizations had suddenly ceased. When the odd silence finally registered, she halted abruptly and looked from side-to-side, listening intently. The beast should somewhere directly ahead. Had it heard or seen her? Either way, she couldn’t hear or see any sign of it. A tight feeling began to grow in the pit of her stomach. Had she wandered blindly into an ambush? Did this strange monster only pretend to be wounded as a clever ruse to lure in unsuspecting victims?

No. Taana shook her head suddenly, driving the irrational thoughts away. That’s not how a predator behaves. Whatever this thing is, it knows I’m here but doesn’t know for certain if I’m a threat. It’s waiting to see what I’ll do. It has the advantage now and is clearly intelligent. Be. Very. Careful.

Taana wavered for a moment, considering whether or not to retreat back the way she came. She quickly decided that it would be a greater risk to turn her back to a potentially dangerous animal that she couldn’t see. She had come too far to quit now.

Up ahead, Taana could see that the woods suddenly thinned out. A single huge tree dominated a small open space. Its trunk was like a massive pillar and so wide that Taana thought that three people would just barely be able wrap their arms around it. As she stepped into the tree’s shadow, she noticed that the trunk was rent with deep, fresh gashes. Sap oozed out to fill the gaping wounds. Claw marks. Taana’s heart began to pound like a drum in sudden alarm as her eyes followed the vertical gouges up, up, more than twenty feet to the first branches of the mighty tree. And then she saw it.

Crouched on a branch, looking down at Taana with an intensity that caused her to reflexively step back a pace, was a creature out of travelers’ tales and children’s stories. It was about the size of a leopard, but was covered from head to tail with iridescent black plumage, streaked with bands of metallic blue and red. Its head, which seemed somehow slightly too large for its body, was like a monstrous eagle’s. It had a wicked-looking, hooked beak, perfect for rending and tearing flesh. Its two large, amber-colored eyes regarded her suspiciously. Its breath came in panting gasps, perhaps from pain or fear. Its left wing was upraised in an obvious threat posture, but the right was folded awkwardly against its side. Despite its avian appearance, Taana knew at once that this creature was no bird. In addition to its wings, it had four legs, each foot tipped with raptorial claws. Its tail was almost as long as its body, and swished back and forth, like that of an agitated cat. The apparition opened its beak and hissed menacingly. Taana swayed, overwhelmed momentarily by conflicting feelings of fear, wonder, and disbelief. She was face-to-face with a real, live gryphon!

How could it be true? It was common knowledge that gryphons were extinct, at least in this part of the world. If any still remained, their last holdouts were reputed to be in the Badlands, the barren maze of canyons and mesas hundreds of miles to the southwest, on the other side of the Ferron Mountains. Had this creature flown all the way from there? Or did a few isolated aeries still exist on this mountain and her nearby sister peaks?

The gryphon hissed again and flapped its one good wing in a vain attempt to appear ready to fight. The animal was obviously injured. It was also quite young. An adult gryphon was supposed to be as tall as a horse, with a wingspan to rival all but only the largest wyverns. This was clearly a juvenile, just large enough that it no longer needed parental care.

Did it injure itself during its first attempt to fly? Taana wondered. The gryphon shifted position on the branch, as if readying itself to fight or flee. Taana slowly raised her bow and fitted an arrow to the string. Gryphon meat was notoriously tough and had an unpleasant taste, or so it was said. But this rare animal represented a potential windfall for her family. Almost every bit of this creature was worth something; a single feather could fetch a gold piece at the least. A full set of talons would be worth a small fortune. Natural philosophers, apothecaries, and curiosity collectors would all pay handsomely for even the smallest fragment of its skeleton. With the wealth this creature’s carcass could provide, Taana’s family would never want for anything again.

And yet, she hesitated. This young gryphon was an undeniably beautiful animal, and it could be the last of its kind in the entire region. She met the gryphon’s gaze and felt, somehow, a curious connection to it. Like Taana, it was young, on the cusp of adulthood. And it was a fellow hunter, just trying to survive in a hard and seemingly indifferent world. The gryphon blinked and cocked its head, almost as if it could guess what she was thinking.

Taana took a deep breath and made her choice. She slowly lowered her bow and, stooping, placed it and her quiver on the ground beside her. Without taking her eyes off the gryphon, she unstrapped her small pack of supplies and kneeling, opened it, and began rummaging around. The gryphon peered at her curiously. From the pack, she withdrew a small pouch that contained the last of her food, including a few pieces of jerky. Taana held up the dried meat so the creature could see and gingerly placed it on the ground. Then she gathered up her pack and other gear and slowly stood up. Still meeting the gryphon’s gaze, she retreated to the edge of the clearing, sat down, and waited.

From its perch, the gryphon stared intently at the proffered food. After several long moments it chirped inquisitively, its gaze flicking several times between Taana and the strips of meat. Its hunger finally overcoming its instinctual fear of Taana, the gryphon began to rise from its crouch and tucked both of its wings against its sides. With an agility that was astonishing for an animal of its size, the gryphon leapt from the branch and landed forefeet-first on the ground not far from where the jerky lay. The creature then sat down and delicately picked up a strip of meat with its beak before flicking its head back and swallowing the morsel whole.

Taana watched in fascination for several moments as the gryphon ate. She never thought that she’d ever be lucky enough to see a live gryphon, much less to be sitting mere feet away from one. The creature conspicuously kept one amber-colored eye fixed on her as it fed, so Taana made sure that her movements were relaxed and nonthreatening. She slowly reopened her pack and removed a small glass jar containing a thick green paste. It was a healing salve purchased from the local apothecary. It was expensive, and Father would no doubt have had some choice words for her if he were here and knew what she was planning to do with it.

The gryphon eyed her with feigned disinterest as she carefully opened the jar. The pungent fragrance of medicinal herbs wafted out into the glade. The creature took notice at once, cocking its head and chirping. The iridescent feathers on its neck and shoulders rippled in excitement or anticipation. Taana felt an uncanny certainty that the young gryphon understood that she meant it no harm. All the same, the voice of reason in the back of her mind desperately shouted that what she was about to do was abject lunacy and would likely end in her being disemboweled or worse.

Ignoring the primal fear, and trusting in the growing confidence she felt, Taana rose and steadily approached the gryphon. The animal did not move or make a sound, but gazed at her searchingly, as if trying to probe her thoughts. Growing up on a farm, Taana had enough experience treating sick and injured animals to know how to put them at ease.

“It’s alright,” Taana said in a reassuring tone. “I won’t hurt you. This will make you feel better.” She held out the jar and allowed the gryphon to sniff at it. Apparently satisfied, the creature looked over its shoulder at its injured wing and moaned deep in its throat. “That’s right,” Taana continued. “Will you let me take a look at your wing?”

Taana knelt at the animal’s right side and put the jar on the ground beside her. She gingerly placed a hand on the gryphon’s shoulder and murmured soothingly. Its feathers were soft to the touch and their lustrous quality was even more noticeable up close. Dappled sunlight from a break in the clouds above filtered down into the glade and shimmered off the metallic blue and red highlights on the gryphon’s shoulders, flanks, and wings.

Taana examined the creature’s right wing, cautiously probing the joints with her hands. The gryphon croaked in discomfort. It swished its tail and hissed.

“Shh,” Taana soothed. “Don’t be afraid. I’m trying to find out what’s ailing you. Be patient – that’s a good boy.” Taana wasn’t sure how, but by some strange intuition, she knew the creature was male. After another minute or so, she finished her inspection and looked the gryphon straight in the eye. “You’re very lucky,” she addressed it gravely. “Nothing seems broken; looks like just a sprain. You’ll be flying again soon enough, but this ointment will help with the pain and might even speed up recovery.”

Taana dipped her hand into the jar and removed a generous helping of the medicinal balm. She rubbed it on and around the area of the sprain, ensuring that most of it actually made contact with the skin underneath the thick plumage. The gryphon cooed appreciatively.

Taana stood up and wiped her hands on her trousers. “Feeling better already?” she asked. In response the gryphon opened its beak and blinked its eyes rapidly, a gesture which Taana chose to interpret as the animal’s equivalent of a smile. She grinned in return and began to retrieve her pack and weapons. The gryphon watched her gear up and stood as she finished. The two hunters eyed one another for several long moments.

“I’m glad to have met you,” Taana said at last. “And I wish you luck and good health. Go in peace.” She placed both her hands upon her breast and inclined her head in the traditional farewell of her people. In response, the gryphon bobbed its head several times and hooted. Then it turned and, looking back over its shoulder, sauntered off into the shadow of the trees. Taana stared after it for a minute or two until, finally, she adjusted the straps of her pack and began to make her way back to the game trail.

● ● ●

As the afternoon waned, Tanna climbed down from the lower slopes into the foothills. The evergreen forest was thinning out and being replaced by deciduous trees, their fallen leaves creating a carpet of brown, yellow, and orange on the forest floor. Home was only a few miles off. If she kept up this pace, she should be able to reach the farmstead before sunset. Her mind swirled with a riot of conflicting thoughts. She was of course sorely disappointed that her hunt had been unsuccessful. Four days with nothing to show for it. She was looking forward to Rokka’s inevitable “I told you so,” about as eagerly as a hammer blow to the head. Mother – and even Father, in his own way – would be understanding, but that wouldn’t assuage her gnawing feelings of failure and guilt. I wasn’t good enough. I couldn’t provide for the family.

At the same time, she was thrilled by her encounter with the gryphon. What a story I’ll have for them! She suspected Father would grumble over the waste of healing salve. Rokka, no doubt, would deliver some snide comments about her sparing such a valuable prize, as well her own foolhardiness in approaching a dangerous wild beast. Taana didn’t care. Today’s adventure was certainly one of the high points of her young life, and she’d carry the memory of it with her forever. This was a tale she could tell to her children and grandchildren! Assuming, of course, I ever get married.

At sixteen, Taana was of marrying age but her parents weren’t exactly keen to have her leave home just yet. The loss of her help on the farm would be a sore blow to the aging couple, especially now. Rokka, who was two years older than Taana, would have proposed to Jaari, the butcher’s daughter, last spring, until things on the farm, as well as most of the other farms in the district, took a turn for the worse. Not only did this year’s harvest produce barely enough to meet their family’s meager needs, but the occupying Tarasqan Imperial Legions requisitioned an outrageous percentage of all food grown in the province to feed their troops.

There were a good number of eligible young men in the area, both in the village and on surrounding farms. Several were detestable, the type of louts that Taana wouldn’t touch with a fifty-foot stick. But there were a few that she thought would make decent husband material. She knew that one of the village boys in particular was seriously interested in her. But as long as her family was in such dire need, she knew she couldn’t leave home in good conscience.

Well, she joked to herself, if things don’t work out and all the good young men are taken, I can always join the convent! She had great respect for Sister Perna and the rest of the local Selenean Order community but knew in her heart that the religious life wasn’t for her. She was too much of a restless spirit to make a good nun.

Preoccupied as she was with these and other thoughts, Taana almost missed seeing it – in fact, she almost stepped in it. Lying in the middle of the path in front of her was a steaming pile of fresh dung. Immediately, she snapped back into a hunter’s mindset. She crouched and observed the droppings closely, prodding them with a stick to discern their consistency and contents. She searched the side of the path and descried some footprints – cloven hoofs, but larger than the doe she had tracked earlier. A buck would provide plenty of meat for her family! Taana unslung her bow and took a series of long, deep breaths, calming herself for the hunt ahead. The animal was close. If her luck held, she could find and kill it before nightfall. She would be home late, but it would be worth it to return in triumph.

The buck’s trail led her to the edge of the woodlands, where the thicker forest gave way to meadows and scattered groves of trees. From a stand of large oaks, Taana looked out into a field of tall grasses and sedges with brambles and evergreen bushes scattered here and there. In the fading light, the deer browsed, picking its way leisurely through the grass from bush to bush. Its antlers spread out majestically and its flanks were ruddy. This was a large, healthy young stag, a substantial prize – certainly more meat than Taana could ever hope to carry home.

Taana’s drew her bow as the stag munched sedately on evergreen leaves. Its right side was facing her. She had a perfect shot….

Taana’s bow twanged and her arrow flew sure and buried itself deep in the stag’s torso. It screamed in pain and alarm, an eerie, high-pitched bellow. Bleeding profusely, the animal bolted off into a thicket at the far side of the meadow. Taana retrieved another arrow from her quiver and jogged off in pursuit. The trail of blood was easy enough to follow. The stag wouldn’t get far with a wound like that.

She found it in a glade not far away, lying on the ground, all four libs tucked under its body. The arrow still protruded from its side. It was panting heavily, its tongue lolling out. It was slowly bleeding to death. The stag tried valiantly to rise to its feet but succeeded only in rolling over onto its side, exhausted. Taana unsheathed her long hunting knife and approached the stag cautiously. She knelt and with a single, swift motion slit the deer’s throat, putting it out of any further misery. Taana breathed a silent prayer of thanksgiving for a successful hunt and began to dress her kill. She would have to work quickly – it was almost sundown.

Taana was so immersed in her task that she didn’t even realize that she was being watched by ravenous eyes. A vicious snarl emanated from the foliage behind her and she spun around in surprise and fear. A hulking animal form emerged from the thicket – three hundred pounds of muscle, teeth, claws, and spines – a manticore! Vaguely catlike in appearance, the manticore had a long, low-slung body and four stout, powerful limbs. Its face had many simian features and it had a mane of thick, dark fur along its neck. It was brown in color with darker bands along its flanks and limbs. Its most distinguishing feature was, of course, its tail, which was long and powerful and covered with a phalanx of wicked-looking spines. Manticores were ill-tempered, solitary by nature, and exclusively carnivorous. They were feared and hated throughout the region for their predilection for raiding farms and carrying off livestock. They were also notorious scavengers, able to use their size, strength, and sheer ferocity to drive leopards, wolves, and human hunters from their kills. Years before, prior to the Tarasqan occupation, the provincial governor had placed a sizable bounty on manticores, but even that failed to extirpate the creatures, as few hunters were willing to take the risk of directly confronting the vicious beasts.

Taana stood frozen with fear and indecision. What should she do? What could she do? Her rational mind screamed at her to run. Let the manticore have the carcass. It wasn’t worth her life, no matter how hard she had worked for it. But another part of her mind replied steadily No. This is YOUR kill. You’ve come too far to give it up now. Your family is counting on you. Stand your ground.

The manticore bared its teeth and growled low in its throat, slowly advancing on her, but Taana did not give way. She stood as tall as she could and shouted at the top of her voice, trying to appear as intimidating as possible. Her bow and quiver sat useless on the ground just out of reach. She didn’t dare make a lunge for them. Instead, she stooped for a stone and hurled it with all her might. The rock struck the manticore in the shoulder and it yelped in pain and anger. It lunged toward her and swiped its giant paw in her general direction. Tanna leapt back just in time and slashed her hunting knife through the air with a full-throated war cry.

The manticore seemed to hesitate and gave way several steps. Clearly it hadn’t expected determined resistance. Taana’s chest swelled with elation. It was working! She was driving it off. But the creature was only feigning retreat. With a single, fluid motion it leapt at her with a snarl, batting the knife out of her hand and knocking her backward. She toppled over the body of the stag and landed flat on her back; the wind knocked out of her. She barely had time to recover before the manticore was on her. It stooped over the carcass, its grotesque face contorted in a leering rictus, blowing hot, fetid breath right in her face.

Taana just had time to think how foolish she had been before a piercing shriek filled the glade. A whirlwind of feather, beak, and claw passed over her, taking manticore with it. It was the gryphon! Whether it had been following her down the mountain since their earlier encounter or whether it had been drawn here by her war-cry, Taana would never know. Regardless, despite its injuries, the grateful animal had come to her rescue and saved her life.

Taana rolled and rose to her hands and knees, crawling to where her bow and quiver lay. Meanwhile, the manticore had recovered from the shock of being blindsided and was now on its feet, facing off against the young gryphon. The two animals circled each other. Snarling and screeching rent the twilight air. The manticore was not intimidated. It swung its barbed tail back and forth threateningly. The gryphon was the smaller and lighter of the two opponents and, with its injured wing, was clearly outmatched. It could not win this battle alone.

Unnoticed for the time being, Taana reached her bow and quiver. She quickly retrieved an arrow and stood, fitting it to the string. The manticore was steadily advancing on the young gryphon. The gryphon briefly stood up on its hind legs, spreading its forearms, claws splayed wide in an impressive show of menace. It hissed and screeched. The manticore howled and jabbered in response and lunged forward, unknowingly putting its vulnerable flank in Taana’s sights. She released her arrow.

The shaft buried itself deep in the manticore’s hindquarters. It yelped in pain, twisting round, trying to turn reach the source of its distress. The gryphon, seeing an opening, pressed its advantage. It took a mighty swipe with its right forepaw. At the last moment, the manticore turned towards its attacker only to have the gryphon’s three-inch talons rake across its face. The manticore howled in agony and, half blinded, fled into the trees.

Her legs suddenly weak, Taana sank to her knees, her bow hanging limply in her hand. She started shaking. The realization of how close she had come to death washed over her. She shook her head and composed herself. The gryphon stood a short distance away, its beak wide open, panting. It glanced in her direction and sat down on its haunches. They were both very lucky to be alive. Taana rose and approached her protector.

“Thank you, my friend,” she managed. She still felt short of breath from her experience.

The gryphon stared at her steadily with its large amber eyes. She again felt an odd sense of connection with this incredible animal. The gryphon lowered its head and Taana reached out with her hand gratefully to stroke it.

As soon as her palm made contact, she felt an extraordinary surge of energy course through her body. Strange images and feelings flashed unbidden across her mind and for a brief moment she felt as if she could see through the gryphon’s eyes. Her own thoughts and emotions, her surprise and fear, felt like they were streaming from her mind down a river of consciousness and making contact with a completely alien, other mind – the gryphon’s mind. She felt the creature’s own surprise and concern, as well as its lingering feelings of gratitude for her help and its elation in its triumph over the manticore. Time seemed to warp and slow down, she could have been standing there for an hour or a moment for all she knew. With a wrenching effort of will, Taana severed the connection and jerked her hand from where it still lay on the gryphon’s forehead. With a cry, she fell backwards onto the ground, panting wildly. The gryphon leapt away and squawked in alarm. It shook its head, as if to clear its own mind and looked at Taana with what she could only describe as a bewildered expression.

“What… What was that?” she finally gasped, speaking as much to herself as to the animal. The gryphon cocked its head and stared. On the edges of her consciousness, Tanna was aware of thoughts brushing against her mind that were not her own – not words she could understand but feelings and images – confusion, wariness, and finally a dawning realization, an instinctual understanding that something of momentous, life-altering importance had just occurred. The gryphon took a step towards her.

“No!” Taana cried, leaping to her feet. “Stay back. I… I don’t want any part of… whatever this is. Please leave me alone.” The gryphon recoiled as if struck by a blow. A wave of new emotions swept from the gryphon’s mind and over hers – rejection, sadness, longing.

“What is happening to me?” She staggered and clapped her hands over her forehead in a vain effort to shut out the intruding thoughts.

The gryphon, seeming to realize that she was in distress, backed off and sat down at the edge of the clearing. Taana likewise sat down, crossing her legs and holding her head in her hands. She sat this way for some minutes until her mind felt like it was clearing up. Her own thoughts were less leaky, and she no longer felt the touch of the gryphon’s mind. Her thoughts and emotions seemed under her control again and she suspected that the uncanny connection could only be reestablished by a deliberate act of will on either her or the gryphon’s part.

Taana sighed heavily. Out of the corner of her eye she saw the gryphon stir. She ignored the creature for the time being and looked over at the deer carcass. She was losing light fast and knew she would have to finish her work quickly. She had no chance now of making it home before dark and it wasn’t safe to travel far in the wilds by night. She was lucky that she was currently within walking distance from the farmstead.

Slowly, with a weariness she didn’t quite understand, Taana got up and returned to the carcass to continue dressing it. A red deer stag was a big animal, and she could only carry so much. She removed as much of the meat as would fit in her pack, going for the choicest cuts. She also skinned a good deal of the reddish-brown hide, especially from the flanks and torso. By the time the first stars began to appear in the deepening twilight of the sky, she had tied the skin into a bundle she could carry. All the while, the gryphon watched her intently, keeping a respectful distance.

When she had finished, Taana turned and met the gryphon’s gaze. It stood, and the two faced each other silently for a long minute.

“Thank you again for saving my life,” Taana said with genuine gratitude. She didn’t dare try to reach out with her thoughts and contact the creature’s mind again, but she was certain that on some mysterious level the gryphon understood the intent behind her words, if not the actual meaning.

“I can’t properly repay you. All I can offer is the rest of this kill. It’s yours,” she said, gesturing to the stag. The gryphon looked past her at the carcass, then bobbed its head and hooted three times.

“I’ll take that as ‘you’re welcome,’” Taana said with a tired smile. As the gryphon approached the carcass and began to pull out the viscera, Taana gathered up her things. The gryphon watched her out of the corner of its eye as it ate until she appeared ready to leave. Then it turned to face her, its beak stained with blood.

“Goodbye,” Taana said. “Perhaps… Perhaps we’ll meet again someday. Take care of yourself – and be mindful of that wing – you don’t want to aggravate the sprain.” Taana inclined her head, her hands on her breast, just as she had done at their earlier encounter. “Go in peace.”

As Taana turned and made her way into the gathering dark she felt the gryphon’s thoughts brush her mind again. The creature knew with absolute certainty that they would see each other again very soon.

To be continued….

©2020 Thomas J. Salerno. All rights reserved.

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