Once, when M’Ameth was quite little, the song within was forbidden, for almost she brought death upon the other children. In time, death came anyway. Cries settled in the valley. A mournful wail wove through the smoke.
“Come now, you’re slowing down. It isn’t far to the top.”
The memory images gave way to L’Wreel beside a stunted pine, his hands on his hips. For a big brother of twenty years he was more patient than most. Even for an elf. For him, she managed a smile, a meager smile.
After all, he’d always tolerated her mischievousness.
Always, too, he’d protected her.
She wiped away the sweat collecting on a dirty brow. It became mud on the back of her hand. She smeared it on her tunic. “Your legs are longer and far more used to climbing peaks than mine. I am, after all, but twelve years.”
L’Wreel grinned. “It’s but a tiny mountain, little sister. Barely more than a hill. That makes it perfect for one your size.”
“But I’m tired.” She swept her hair aside. Had her light hair become black with ash? She set her feet and twisted towards the valley.
The sharp rebuke brought her back around. Too fast. Her feet shifted on the needles underfoot and balance took flight. She lunged for a sapling. It bent, but didn’t snap.
His big hand wrapped around her arm and lifted her to the saddle between tree and slope. Always he was strong enough for them both. He was the responsible warrior who’d become a visionary elder one day.
She was the irresponsible child who abused her gift.
“There now.” His smile flirted with sinking, but renewed. “We must reach the summit before another summer storm moves in.”
“I don’t understand. Why must we reach the top? Won’t they—”
She closed her eyes. A shudder pulled her shoulders in tight. They were coming. They had to be coming. They’d never give up.
Despite all that’d happened she didn’t want to die. Was that selfish?
Before her eyes could overflow, L’Wreel crouched before her. “It’s going to be okay. We need to focus on reaching the top for now. Then you’ll understand.”
“But … but, everyone—”
“I know.” He grasped the end of her sleeve and wiped her cheeks. “Do you remember the rhyme I taught you long ago?”
Sniffling, she sought the safe place where pleasant memories dwelt. It was still there. The floor, though, it was sagging where tears leaked inside and rotted the wood.
What did she know about fixing what was broken? What did she know about anything? She’d shamed herself with her gift.
His melodramatic disbelief lightened the moment. “You mean you can remember more than one?”
She chuckled. “Of course.”
His laughter was strained mirth. The hand tousling her hair stilled. His gaze lingered upon her features.
Flashing a pouty scowl, she removed hair from her eyes again.
L’Wreel winked and the hollow place inside wasn’t quite as hollow. “Okay, how about the one about the gryphons.”
“But, I’m forbidden to sing it.”
“I don’t mean for you to sing it. Merely recite it for me. Do you remember that one?”
Eyes narrowed, her lips spreading in a thin grin, she rolled her eyes. “Of course, I remember it.” She cleared her scratchy throat. “Gryphon gray/gryphon brown/a gryphon caged/is never bound.”
“Very good.” His smile spread to his eyes.
Her heart skipped. He, her big brother, always commanded the respect of others. He was also the only one who shared respect—with her.
She, who was memorable for her failings.
All the girls watched L’Wreel. He made the smartest ones giggle. The breeze played with his hair. His broad shoulders were the envy of unicorns. He knew all the peaks and valleys, had crossed all the rivers. His inner spirit was adventure, but it was said he had vision, would one day be an elder.
Her scowl wasn’t heavy enough to force down her grin. “It’s still forbidden. I shouldn’t have said that much.”
“What about the second verse?”
“Ah, the second verse?”
L’Wreel shook his head and chuckled. “Yes, the second verse.”
She diverted her gaze. The second verse would complete the rhyme. It shouldn’t be uttered, even if she could remember it.
His grip tightened on her arm. “Okay, this is enough of a rest. You can work on recalling the second verse while we climb.”
She rolled her eyes again. “I knew you’d say that.”
His wide back, a bow and quiver draped across it, dominated the way ahead as he resumed the ascent.
L’Wreel’s misfortune was having to care for a whimpering little sister. Sibling elves were rare. What brother wanted one around all the time, anyway? It was all the worse when the brother was levelheaded and the sister eight years younger, and an embarrassment.
She breathed deep. So high, the air was more crisp—and clean.
It was told that on a clear day the great ocean was visible if you were high enough, as L’Wreel often was. Could they reach the top before the charcoal clouds spread overhead and blocked the sight?
Many tales were told, and the elders said many curious things. They described the great ocean to the west, massive gulf to the north, and mountains to the east and south.
Her shoulders sagged.
There was no one else left to care about such knowledge.
No one else remained to care about the harsh words the elders shared when they didn’t know she was near. Cruel fate, they said, was bringing thieving, murdering men to steal the southern elf lands.
It was cruel fate, then, that had forced her to flee Glitter Wood. Cruel fate was forcing her to climb a steep mountain amidst the Ean Thros. Cruel fate had rendered her hollow.
There might be a view of fertile Logouve Wood’s groves in southern Mythwyll. Did it matter? Her lands were no longer elf lands.
She leaned on a waist-high rock and hung her head. L’Wreel had given her a simple task to perform as a distraction. She was failing. “A gryphon caged, not free…”
Freedom was soaring above the clouds. Mountaintops bowing beneath. Glitter Wood’s comforting forests lining the grassland avenues that connected the largest logouve trees.
Those were fantastic dreams and not at all appropriate for a young elf like her. Such thoughts had led to her great shame.
Yet, longing remained for.
She straightened, her land-bound self escaping to the sky in her mind. True freedom spread her arms wide. Her fingertips cut paths through the puffy white. Her heart lifted—
“You’ve stopped again!”
“What?” Her feet slid and she grabbed hold of the rock.
“You were daydreaming. I can always tell because you adopt your bird stance when you do. Sometimes I think you think you’re flying.” He shook his head, chuckling. “Who daydreams while climbing?”
“I do, if you must know, but it’s nothing I’ll share with you since you’re being mean.” She stuck out her tongue.
L’Wreel rolled his eyes and climbed. “Well, hurry up. We’re nearly there.”
Flying was a fanciful refuge, but it wasn’t real. Couldn’t be real. She’d broken the rules long ago. She’d acted without permission. She’d done what only a select few were ever chosen to do. Always Mother reminded her of the transgression.
If she hadn’t been but six years at the time the elders would have banished her. Mother also said that. They were harsh words for a mother to say. L’Wreel said Mother’s sternness grew after the father she didn’t remember died.
Mother was too often gruff, but she missed her anyway. She’d have to go on missing her because she was gone. Not gone.
Chest heaving, she twisted around. The valley. Home. Her eyes stung and her lower lip protruded. “No…”
She wept. Death and more death. She didn’t want to climb, she didn’t want to go on.
M’Ameth sank to her knees and gagged.
The valley was choking smoke that couldn’t hide imprinted images. She’d escaped, thanks to L’Wreel. Or had she? The slaughter and destruction were a haunting that’d walk at her side so long as the land was beneath her feet. If she climbed, it would climb. It’d forever whisper in her ear.
Those she loved hacked to death. Elders. Children. Friends. Loved ones.
Everyone running. People falling. Blood spilt. Screaming. Crying. The land beneath her feet spun atop a world out of control. It wasn’t supposed to happen. Danger was the occasional wolf or bear.
Not crazed, enraged humans.
She’d fallen. Her fingers had dug into the damp soil. She was gasping fouled air, a witnessing tree seeping forever tears.
Raising her hands, she’d awaited the blow meant for her. It became Mother’s instead. Mother, who was always cross, had sacrificed her life for her shamed daughter.
The hulking raider from the south had shoved Mother’s body aside. He’d faced her, his brutal weapon in his massive hands. Mother’s life on his hands.
Human men never had enough. Always they wanted more. Humans didn’t cherish, didn’t share. They took what others treasured and they spoiled it for all.
An arrow had appeared between his eyes, one of L’Wreel’s arrows.
She couldn’t find it within herself to move. Mother’s blood was soaking into the land that was no longer elf lands.
Big hands pulled her back and away from the carnage. Away from Mother’s sightless stare. Away from the hundreds of other raiders waiting to share death…
That past would forever be her present.
On the slope, the screams of memory were slicing her throat. She raised her arms before her face to ward off the same threatened blows time and again. Mother died again and again and again.
On the hillside, L’Wreel wrapped her in his arms. “It’s okay, little sister. You’re safe. It was a tarnished memory stirred.”
“I don’t want to be safe, not when—”
“I know, but one day you’ll think different. One day, this day, there’ll be a purpose greater than the pain.”
What did that mean? How could there ever be a good that was great enough to counter unrelenting grief? Unforgiving sobs strangled her words and she gagged on the bile. “They’re dead. Mother, she’s gone forever.”
He set a hand over her heart. His gaze met her leaking eyes, her plain features, her crooked nose. “She’s in your heart now where she’ll live for as long as you live. You will live. You must live, for the future calls. Do you hear me?”
She squeezed her eyes tight and nodded.
L’Wreel tousled her hair. “The way is easier now so near the top.”
“Have you remembered the second verse?”
“The second verse?”
How could he think about such trivial matters? Better that she pound out bitterness upon his chest with her fists.
It wouldn’t work. Not with L’Wreel. He wouldn’t give up distracting her. He wouldn’t surrender her to the empty place urging her to seek refuge there.
“But Mother … the rhyme is about gryphons. You’re going to get me in trouble. The elders said no songs, not even rhymes. It’s forbidden to me.”
The moment, already six years past, reappeared. Mother was shaking her and demanding to know what she’d done. Mother was screaming. Mother had never screamed until that day.
“I think we can make an exception.”
“Others could have been hurt. I shamed the family.”
He held her face in his hands. There was sternness in his features. Tension pulled on the tendons in his neck. Yet, higher, the glistening in his eyes was the love he’d always shared. “You’re twelve years now. It’s different. I’m an elder now and it’s my decision.” He winked. “What have you remembered?”
She shrugged. “Same as before. Gryphon gray/gryphon brown/a gryphon caged/is never bound.” Caged meant not free. How could she ever be free again? Life was cruel fate. There shouldn’t be tears remaining, but one slipped past her lashes.
He squeezed her arms. “The second verse?”
“I … I can’t.”
He wiped her eyes, eyes that were nothing special. “Well, you keep working on it.” Again his gaze strayed.
“They … they’re coming?”
L’Wreel smirked. “Have I not always kept you safe?”
“Then you shall remain safe.” How certain he was, how much older he seemed than the day before.
“You’ll never leave me?”
“I will never leave you. Now, come on.” He continued upward, her left hand disappearing within the tight grasp of his right. It was easier to carry her own weight when he held her hand.
He released her when the view became a landscape beyond imagining. Even his tales of his wanderings couldn’t compare.
Taller mountains rose to the east and west, the flanks on some sheer, the crowns upon others colored white despite the warm months. Great birds carrying her heart drifted on the currents the thickening clouds stirred.
How long since she blinked?
Gryphons inhabited such heights, though they were rare creatures. They were also big and scary. That was firsthand knowledge.
The wind whipped and settled and whipped again. The thunderheads were working up their anger and preparing to pummel little girls like her. Distant rumblings became quaking in her limbs.
Yet, the view…
Might it be life could endure despite the slaughter? The mountains were life. The sky was life. She’d walk the sky were she able.
Several hundred feet ahead, the true summit celebrated the vista. Pine gave way to moisture in the air.
The last, stunted trees fell behind, allowing even young girls to behold the larger world. The remaining slope was gentler, but rockier. It urged her forward. The approaching crown held answers to great secrets long promised.
She winced. Thin footwear was better suited to the soft turf beneath the forest canopy. The heights weren’t a soft place for children. The heights were a hard place for the likes of L’Wrell. He was their master. He was the rock outcroppings sheltering the fragile tufts of grass against the harsh wind.
L’Wreel stretched out his legs, his pace quickened.
She ran to match his strides. Still turning her head this way and that, she collided with him. He’d come to an abrupt halt. The mountaintop was below her feet. All around was open, teasing that flight was possible. The evils of the world wavered and disappeared.
Mountains stood taller to the south, visible through gaps that were alpine windows. Farther, a vast, green expanse dotted with bright logouve groves stretched to the horizon, a wide, blue strip upon the plain.
Her hand went over her mouth. Could it be? The mightiest river in Mythwyll? The Slu’ma Water? It appeared as a great serpent in the grass. Yet, even it bowed before the soaring Ean Thros and turned eastward.
L’Wreel crouched before her and the view disappeared. He set gentle hands on her arms. They were hands that made him the finest marksman among the dwindling elves. “I need you to do something for me.”
Their gazes locked. He clasped his hands before his mouth and bit his lip. It was his deep-thought face. He was choosing his words with care. It was true, he was an elder. L’Wreel exhaled. “I need for you to sing.”
M’Ameth shook her head, the motion slow. It wasn’t possible he’d make such a request. She had to have heard wrong. “What?”
“Not just any song. I need for you to summon the ancient song you once sang beside the brook. I know you still remember it.”
“No. I cannot. It’s forbidden. To summon a gryphon, even by accident, is forbidden unless the elders sanction it. I could have caused the other children to be—”
“But you didn’t.”
“Listen to me, M’Ameth. You were told a great lie to protect you from your own ability. Do you have any idea what a rare gift you possess? The real reason they didn’t banish you was because they recognized the truth.”
“Was afraid. It was understandable. You were only six. Children shouldn’t be able to wield the ancient gift of song at that age. They aren’t yet old enough to control its power. Yet, you did it anyway. You’re old enough now to understand the precious treasure that is your song.”
“But, sing?” Why climb a mountain to sing such a song, unless—
Her eyes widened. The increasing wind stung them and chilled her skin.
She shook her head. “No. I’m not old enough. I’m not chosen. I’m untrained. It’s forbidden. You said yourself the danger—”
“That was then.” He brushed her hair from her eyes and displayed the gentle smile that melted hearts.
“I’m not an adult. I’m your little sister. I’m still a little girl.”
“No. You’re on the brink of womanhood.” He chuckled, but it was weary. “You may yet be a woman before this day has seen its last. It’s time they heard you sing.”
“All the world, and the greatest of the beasts within it.”
“No. Please.” She turned her face away.
He seized her arms. If he felt the shaking then he had to know she was still a frightened child. What could be the purpose in performing a summoning? There wasn’t a rider ready for bonding? Such training took years.
She’d committed a great wrong once before. She’d shamed the family. She wasn’t worthy. “The wind, the storm, my voice is meager. It won’t carry.”
He smiled and squeezed her arms. “It’ll be enough. I know it will.”
“Try. Please.” Her heart constricted. L’Wreel never used pleading words. “I don’t wish to frighten you, but our time grows short.”
“Or the storm. It’s dangerous to be in such a place.”
She shivered. The storm was preparing to unleash its fury and she was wasting time. He was too kind to tell her, but he would if she continued acting like a child. “I … I can try.”
He winked. “That’s all I ask.”
The view reappeared when he stepped around and behind her. Chest heaving, she gaped anew at the scene.
No! The task, she had to focus on the task. She opened her mouth. No sound came.
L’Wreel rested his hands on her shoulders and tightened his grip.
She slowed her breathing as an elder once taught all the children. It was easier before the tragic images that sought to intrude through the open door that was memory.
Eyes closed, she opened all her senses.
No drops were falling, but the thin air was laden with the smell of rainfall. Too, the air was glacial air. It was a hard chill, the moisture of the ancient world bound in ice. It was the world the gryphons knew.
Wetting her lips, she tasted it. It was the dream of soaring.
L’Wreel squeezed again and eased his grip.
She sang. She sang the song she should have long ago forgotten. Instead, after a faltering start, the moment long ago returned. It was the moment when she’d dare utter words forbidden to children.
The long ago pronunciations and cadences ushered forth, coming from a place deep within. Strange how she’d never questioned their presence.
They were never taught to her.
The words slid over her lips, as welcome as Mother’s most delicious berry cakes passing in the other direction. Her lungs expanded, gaining force. Her volume climbed through the storm clouds.
It was the old song, but carving a new memory. Her land-bound heart knew there was more world to explore and it existed above. She pulled back her shoulders and raised her voice higher yet.
The song granted permission and she seized it. Her voice rode the currents. In awe, the currents struggled to keep pace and fell behind.
L’Wreel jerked her back to his protective embrace.
Her voice faltered, the moment broken.
A crack! sounded in the clouds and she cried out. Lightning struck a distant point to the west and a tree exploded. Boulders tumbled into the valley. Wind stoked flames and carried the smoke. The air sizzled and danced over her skin as the first raindrop struck her cheek.
It all paled against a dream realized.
Out of the clouds, a great beast with an impossible wingspan swept towards her. It was magnificent, but they must run. Lyra knew she’d done an awful thing and punishment was descending to strike her down. Why did L’Wreel hold steady when they must flee?
The gryphon landed on the point she’d vacated a moment before, thrust out its chest, and released a cry rivaling thunder’s mightiest hammer. Half growl, half shriek, it suppressed the storm and ripped the lightening from the sky to make it its own.
Her hands went over her ears.
The great creature’s talons and claws scratched the rock and shards flew. It lifted its chest again, the second cry cutting the first’s echo.
Their moment to flee was gone. It was too late.
M’Ameth’s knees buckled, but strong arms rescued her dignity. It took several attempts to swallow the storm in her throat. The wind swirled in her open mouth and cast it a desert, the place devoid of rain that some said existed.
His hand pressed against her back. “You must approach it, but slowly.”
“Me? It … it’ll eat me!”
“No. It’ll ignore you and leave or it’ll allow a bond.”
“Trust me. You need do nothing more than approach. The gryphon will do the rest. Remember the second verse.”
The second verse? How could she remember verses at such a moment? “L’Wreel?”
“Time is short.” He reached around and set a hand over her heart. “I’m always here.”
Released, she forced a foot forward. The leg became logouve heart, the hardest wood known. Tremors within spread up and down the wooden limb, then limbs. Sweat broke across her brow despite the chilling gale.
The great animal’s scrutiny was unyielding. It was worse than the elders had dealt when she’d broken the rules. How could she approach upon such rigid limbs? Would it disapprove if she crawled? What if it attacked her for daring to meet its eagle stare?
Dwarfing her, it could snap her in two and feast upon her.
The talons in front dragged on the rock. It cocked its head, its gaze locked on her every move. White and black plumage across the chest gave way to gray fur. Its presence emitted power, a power it might be possible to touch.
If she was brave.
She raised a hand in defense.
The gryphon cried out. Lightning streaked across the churning background.
Her right knee buckled.
Clouds in ever-darkening shades rolled over themselves. Thunder battered the mountainsides into falling stones.
The other knee folded. Violent shaking threatening to pull her apart, she bowed her head.
An unseen force not unlike the electricity in the air assaulted her mind. She squirmed and winced. It probed. It sought a weakness.
If it touched her thoughts it’d know she wasn’t worthy. The gryphon would eat her or the lightning would descend and turn her to ashes. Death would come as it already had for those she loved.
No, it was too much. She must flee.
It found her mind.
The unseen force swept in, flooding her inner landscape. Air fled her lungs and bent her over. The lungs refilled in a rush and her body jolted.
The world changed. Her sense of self grew—to include another.
Tears ran. Not out of grief. Instead, brighter like spring rain. The strength the climb stole returned.
Her steps to the magnificent creature were endowed with newfound grace. It nuzzled. She wrapped her arms around as much of its neck as she could manage. Running a hand over its feathers, she found where they transitioned to coarse fur. Could she ever let go?
“You are dear to me, now and always.” The wind drowned her words, but they were heard. The silent acknowledgement warmed her inside.
A name formed in her mind. Spha.
Big hands thrust her onto the gryphon’s back. She dug her fingers into the fur behind the feathers and cast a glance at the precipice on the mountain’s southern side.
Wind lifting her hair, she turned to L’Wreel. Why did he wait? They were saved. With a gryphon beneath them they could go anywhere they wished.
Perhaps far enough to forget.
L’Wreel stared at her as if memorizing her features. Where there should be excitement there were tears. Never had she seen him cry.
The escalating storm forced her to yell. “What’re you doing?”
He surveyed the gryphon and shook his head. “It cannot be. He’s too young. Two would be too much.”
In the distance behind him, a score of angry, murderous men were emerging from the trees. Their steps faltered upon spying the gryphon.
She shook her head with short, jerky movements. “No, he can try.”
“And we’d all perish in the effort, for I’ve no doubt he’d give his last to save you, as he always will.”
“Then he can fight them.”
“There are too many with bows. I’ll not sacrifice him—and you.” He touched her arm and smiled. “But, then, you know that.”
“I have a few tricks in my destiny yet. Secrets I know about this mountain. M’Ameth, your destiny begins now with him. Lyra recognizes your gift. She allows time to reach back and bring you forward. You must survive, for the present, for the future.”
“No! I don’t want to—”
“He’s bound to you, but only so long as your heart recognizes his freedom.” He glanced over his shoulder and back. “Remember the second verse.”
“Please don’t do this.” She sobbed. “You said you’d never leave me!”
He set his hand to her heart anew. “And I never will. We are one. You safe and me in your heart. I’ll never leave you, but for us both to survive you must leave me.”
“I … I cannot. Please—”
“You must, and you will. You’re strong. You’ll thrive. Believe in yourself, as you should. I, who should have been watching for threats, was selfishly exploring the wilds instead. You, who were raised to be ashamed, was always the greatest of us all.”
“What? That can’t be—”
“Mythwyll is dying, the elves with it. Except for you. He’ll take you to Forstava, to the ora’ean. They’re distantly related. You bring what they can’t resist: your gift of song. For that, if nothing else, they’ll accept you. Their northern mountains, the A-mlu Thros, are where all gryphons originate. You’ll be a leader there.”
He squeezed her hand and retreated. She shifted to escape the beast’s back, but the gryphon lifted to the sky, the land falling away.
Eyes burning, she griped the animal tighter.
Below, L’Wreel was releasing arrows at the approaching killers. A lightning bolt flashed. It passed close to Spha. Her skin tingled. The mountaintop disappeared in a burst of dirt, broken stone, and burning brush. Haze engulfed the summit, hiding all from view.
She gripped tighter the gray fur beneath her hands. The animal banked right. The lost home that’d be forever her surrendered childhood appeared. The smoke filled back in and it was left behind.
There’d be no more memories gathered there.
Spha climbed, outrunning the storm. Mountains larger than those in her past slipped beneath. He tracked to the northeast. Crying out so that all other creatures might flee before him, he headed for Forstava and the ora’ean.
Her future would set down in the heights of the A-mlu Thros.
Eyes dried, she raised higher, her back straight. Her hair fluttered in the breeze. The clouds, unable to keep pace, dissipated. The sun appeared, its warmth caressing her face.
The burning in her heart continued. It would always burn, but maybe there was a special place to store the fire. She released one hand and held it to her heart. They were all there. She was alone, but not alone.
The words returned…
a gryphon caged
is never bound.
a gryphon free
binds to you.