Roland remembered the last days of Eagleholm all too well, but if there was one day when it could be said that the once-great city died, he remembered that one most of all. It was the day that Arren Cardockson died.
On the night before that last, awful day, Roland could not sleep. He sat up in the little room at the back of the Hatchery that he called home, and brooded. He knew what had happened was his fault, but he didn’t know what to do. If only…
This was my fault, he thought bitterly. My fault from beginning to end.
After all, it was Roland who had chosen to train the young Northerner as a griffiner. It was Roland who helped him and his partner Eluna stay together. It was Roland who persuaded Lord Rannagon to support the pair of them and help them be accepted by the Eyrie. And when Eluna died and Arren descended into madness, it was Roland who did nothing, Roland who could not see the truth of Rannagon’s betrayal.
Roland who gave the half crazed Northerner a job. Roland who left him alone with the griffin chicks that day.
All his fault.
‘What have I done?’ he mumbled aloud. ‘Gryphus save me, what have I done?’
But the sun god didn’t seem inclined to answer. Roland wouldn’t have blamed him. Why would Gryphus want anything to do with him any more? After all, the legends said that the griffins had been sent to partner with Southerners alone, and if Roland had trained one of the Night God’s followers then he had betrayed Gryphus as well.
‘But I thought I could save him,’ he said now, staring blankly at the candle that burned on the table in front of him. ‘I thought I could make him one of us. I thought…’
The old man lapsed into silence after that, while the guilt and shame of everything that had happened soaked into his very bones. But how could he have predicted that this would happen? He had almost been a father to Arren, and he never in a hundred years would have believed that his former apprentice would go so far as to steal a griffin chick. But Arren had done exactly that, while Roland was away, and now he was going to die for it. Lord Rannagon, Master of Law, had sentenced him to death. Roland had been there to witness the trial, and he had seen the insanity that had taken hold of the young Northerner.
Arren had spat his accusations at Rannagon in front of everyone, and when Rannagon said what everyone thought – that Arren was mad – no-one believed that his claims could be true. And if they were true, who would care? Arren was a Northerner and a petty criminal, disliked by almost everyone in the city. Rannagon was a war hero, brother to Lady Riona the Eyrie Mistress herself.
Roland stood up and wandered distractedly out of the room, into the larger chamber where the griffin chicks slept in their pens.
Keth was there, dozing in the lantern light. She usually guarded the chicks at night, and after Arren had abducted one she had become even more vigilant – she woke up the instant she heard Roland’s footsteps.
The old griffin relaxed again at the sight of him. ‘Roland. Why are you not sleeping?’
‘Can’t,’ Roland mumbled.
‘You blame yourself for what has happened,’ said Keth.
‘I do,’ said Roland. ‘Keth, what am I to do? How can I face Cardock and tell him his son is dead because of me?’
‘It is not your fault,’ said Keth.
‘I left him with those chicks,’ said Roland.
‘We both did,’ said Keth. ‘We trusted him.’
‘But I should have known what he would do,’ said Roland. ‘He wanted to be a griffiner again so badly; it was only a matter of time before he did something stupid.’
‘Yes,’ said Keth. ‘But there was nothing you could have done.’
Roland said nothing.
‘You and I both knew that it was inevitable that those two youngsters would destroy themselves,’ said Keth. ‘It was madness to train them.’
‘I thought I could change him,’ Roland mumbled. ‘I really did. But I was wrong. Now Eluna’s dead, and soon Arren will be too.’ He shook his head. ‘I should try and get some sleep.’
But he got almost none at all, tossing and turning long after he had snuffed out the candle, and he woke up shortly before dawn.
He lay there in the semi-darkness for a long moment, before suddenly making up his mind. He felt lost, and alone, and he didn’t know what to do. There was only one place he could go.
He left the Hatchery alone, not even stopping to think of the chicks who would be needing their morning feed. His assistants could take care of it. For once, Roland would think of himself first.
The streets of the mountaintop city were almost completely silent. A few birds chirped here and there in the eaves, but nobody was stirring. The sun had not yet begun to rise.
Roland walked alone through the deserted streets, making for the centre of the city where the larger buildings stood on the stone of the mountain itself. At the very centre, the Eyrie rose into the sky – a great, round tower with a flat top built for griffins to land. Roland’s griffin partner had died when he was young, and he almost never went into the Eyrie any more. But that wasn’t where he was going. Not today.
Not far from the Eyrie, the city’s great Sun Temple stood. Roland often went there, and he knew that its front doors were never shut.
They were open now, even this early in the day, and he went in through them as the first rays of the sun started to pale the sky. The last of the stars had begun to go out.
The Temple was a round building with a domed roof, and the inside of that dome was one huge domed space. At the very centre, the altar stood beneath a rounded window in the ceiling designed to let the sunlight in. Just now there was no sunlight, but the Temple was never dark. Gold lanterns burned on the walls and hung from the ceiling, keeping it lit all night long.
On the altar were the remains of some incense, long since burned to powder, and some withered flowers that had been left as offerings.
Roland went to it, and stopped to look up at the ceiling. It had been covered in gold leaf, as if the inside of the Temple were the inside of the sun.
He sighed to himself and knelt at the altar, silently bowing his head. For a long time he stayed there like that, saying nothing, and only waiting.
After a while, the light brightened in the Temple as the sun rose outside. But still Roland waited, arthritic knees aching. He waited until the light finally touched the altar, and then he began his prayer at last.
‘Gryphus,’ he murmured. ‘Please help me. Forgive me for what I did. I never meant to hurt anyone. I swear to you, I meant it for the best. I’ve only ever tried to help others. Please, Gryphus, I don’t know what to do. Help me. Guide me. Forgive me.’
Saying it aloud made him feel a little better, but the answers he wanted didn’t come to him.
He looked up at the window in the ceiling, where the dawn sun shone. ‘Gryphus, what shall I do? How can I repair the damage I’ve done? I don’t know, I just don’t.’
Still the answer did not come, and Roland sighed and went to sit on one of the cushions that ringed the altar. Maybe if he rested a while, he would be able to see a way forward.
After a while, he dozed.
Footsteps on the floor woke him up. Unmoving, he opened his eyes and stared at the altar.
Someone else was coming to it. He carried a bundle under his arm, and as he moved Roland heard the faint creak of leather armour.
Not wanting to interrupt, Roland stayed where he was, and went unnoticed while the newcomer knelt at the altar. But he couldn’t help but hear the muttered prayer.
‘Gryphus forgive me, what’ve I done? It’s all my fault. Why didn’t I do somethin’?’
And the young guardsman put his head in his hands and shuddered.
Roland watched him for a time, but his heart wouldn’t let him leave the man alone. He got up slowly, wincing as his knees straightened, and limped over. ‘Is there something I can do to help?’ he asked softly.
The man looked up. He was indeed a guard – he wore the red tunic and leather breastplate of Eagleholm’s finest. He looked young, but very strong, burly and bearded. His eyes were brown, and red-rimmed. ‘Who’re you?’ he said, obviously embarrassed by being seen.
‘My name’s Roland,’ said Roland. ‘I’m sorry to interrupt you, but you’re obviously upset, so if there’s anything an old man can do to help…’
‘Roland?’ the man stood up and squinted at him. ‘Wait, I know you. You’re the old man what runs the Hatchery, right?’
‘So I am, lad,’ said Roland. ‘And who might you be?’
The man rubbed his eyes. ‘Captain Branton Redguard.’ He looked up at Roland. ‘You’re the one, right?’ he said. ‘You’re the one what trained Arren t’be a griffiner.’
‘I am,’ Roland said sadly. ‘And I know your name. You’re Bran. Arren’s friend.’
Bran shuddered again. ‘I was. Wouldn’t want t’go puttin’ it about nowadays, though. But what’s it matter any more?’
‘Why?’ asked Roland. ‘He’s still your friend even if he’s in prison, isn’t he?’
Bran looked away. ‘He’s dead.’
Roland froze. ‘What?’
‘Arren’s dead,’ said Bran, shuddering as he suppressed a sob. ‘He died last night, an’… an’ it was my fault.’
Roland put a hand on his shoulder. ‘What happened? Tell me everything. Please.’
So Bran did, in short, terse sentences, as if he were reporting to his superiors. ‘He got out of his cell. Dunno how. Got out of the whole prison. We don’t know how he did that either. He just vanished. Like a ghost. But after that he went to the Arena. He let Darkheart out. The black griffin. Let him out of his cage. He went on a rampage. Killed half a dozen men an’ then flew away. We was investigatin’, an’ we found Arren. Saw him tryin’ to escape. We chased him. Got him to the edge of the city. I… I told him to surrender, an’ he did. I was just gonna arrest him, but Sergeant Danthirk an’ young Toman shot him. He fell off the edge of the city. I tried t’catch him, but it was too late…’ Bran shuddered again. ‘He’s gone. Dead. If I’d just…’
‘What are you going to do?’ Roland asked gently.
Bran held up the bundle of cloth he’d been carrying. It was a black robe with silver fastenings. ‘Arren left this in his cell. I gotta… I gotta go tell his parents what happened. Give ’em this back. It’s the least I can do.’
‘You should,’ said Roland. ‘And I’m sure they’ll forgive you.’
‘I ain’t gonna forgive me,’ said Bran. ‘I should’ve… he was my best mate. Why didn’t I do somethin’, before it was too late?’
‘Because there was nothing you could do,’ said Roland. ‘There was nothing anyone could do. After Eluna died, it was all over. If it’s any comfort… I think Arren wanted to die.’
Bran shook his head. ‘I didn’t listen to him. None of us did. He told us what Rannagon did, but… I gotta go.’
He turned and shuffled out, head bowed.
Roland watched him go, and felt the same guilt that Bran must have been feeling, and for the same reasons.
Why didn’t we listen?
But if they had, was there anything any of them could have done? Maybe Arren would have been doomed no matter what.
After that, Roland stayed in the Temple, sensing that there might be something else he could do there.
He was right. Not long after Bran had left, another visitor came to the Temple. This one was a woman, and one Roland knew.
‘Flell!’ he called as she entered.
Flell saw him, and ran to him. ‘Oh, Roland,’ she sobbed, throwing herself into his arms.
Roland held her close. ‘Are you all right, Flell?’
‘No.’ Flell let go of him, and fought down her tears. ‘I’ve seen Bran. He said that Arren’s…’
‘Yes,’ said Roland. ‘I know. He told me too.’
‘I should have listened to him,’ said Flell. ‘I should have…’
‘We all should have,’ said Roland. ‘But we didn’t, and now there’s nothing we can do.’
‘I should have saved him,’ said Flell.
When he heard that, Roland finally felt certain. ‘No,’ he said. ‘There was nothing anyone could do. Arren didn’t want to be saved. You saw it. He wouldn’t let anyone help him. He wanted to die.’
‘But I loved him,’ Flell whispered. ‘I thought I did. Oh gods, what have I done?’
‘Did you come here to ask for forgiveness too?’ asked Roland.
‘Yes. I loved Arren, and I abandoned him.’
‘But there’s something else too, isn’t there?’ said Roland.
Flell tensed. ‘I can’t tell you.’
‘Yes you can,’ said Roland. ‘You know you can trust me. If something’s hurting you, then let it go. Or it’ll stay with you and keep hurting you forever.’
Flell sat down by the altar, resting her back against it. ‘I’ve committed a sin. I came here to ask Gryphus to forgive me.’
‘So did I,’ said Roland. ‘So did Bran. If you’d rather not tell me, tell Gryphus.’
And Flell did, softly. So softly that Roland couldn’t make out the words – but he didn’t try to. It was her secret to confess.
But once she had prayed for a little while, Flell began to look a little stronger. She faced Roland again, and told him.
Roland froze. ‘You are?’
‘Yes. I found out a few days ago.’
‘Yes,’ said Flell. ‘It’s Arren’s. But I never told him.’
Roland felt sick. So this was why Flell was in tears. She was carrying a half breed child, and if she ever gave birth to it she would be disgraced forever.
‘Don’t tell anyone,’ he said urgently. ‘Take something to empty your womb, and quickly, before you start showing.’
‘No,’ said Flell. ‘I can’t. You know I can’t.’
‘Flell, you know what will happen if-,’
‘Killing an infant is a worse sin than bedding a Northerner,’ Flell said harshly. ‘I don’t care what happens to me. I’m keeping the child. I’ll find a way to take care of it. If I have to, I’ll leave.’
‘It’s your choice, lass,’ Roland said gravely. ‘But never tell anyone the truth.’
‘I won’t,’ said Flell. She smiled weakly. ‘If it’s a girl, I’ll call her Laela. It was my grandmother’s name.’
‘And if it’s a boy?’ said Roland.
Flell smiled again, more strongly. ‘I hadn’t thought of that yet. Maybe I’ll call him Roland.’
Roland chuckled. ‘It’s a fine strong name, I’ll give you that.’
Flell hugged him again. ‘Thankyou, Roland. For being here. I…’ She broke off midsentence, and Roland felt her tense.
‘Flell?’ a voice called.
It was Lord Rannagon. He came into the Temple alone, frowning, still wearing the clothes he had had on the day before.
‘Father,’ Flell said coldly. ‘What are you doing here?’
Rannagon came on toward the altar. He wasn’t much younger than Roland, and his once blond hair and beard had gone to grey, but he was still as solid and stocky as his bastard son, Erian, who had come to the Hatchery to introduce himself to the griffins only a day or so ago.
‘Hello Roland,’ he said stiffly. ‘What are you two doing here?’
‘Praying,’ said Roland. ‘What are you doing here, my lord?’
‘I-,’ Rannagon hesitated. ‘I was looking for you, Flell.’
‘I’m fine,’ she said, and stalked out of the Temple.
Roland watched her go. ‘She’s angry with you, Rannagon, and I don’t blame her.’
Rannagon hesitated, but the moment Flell was out of sight he seemed to age ten years. His shoulders sagged. ‘I don’t blame her either.’
Roland shook his head. ‘Why did you do it, old friend? Why? He was no threat to you.’
‘I know,’ Rannagon muttered. ‘I just… found out what happened. He’s dead. I should have seen to it long ago. If I weren’t such a coward, I would have had him assassinated, not… not this.’
‘But why?’ said Roland. ‘What did he ever do to deserve it? Because he was a Northerner? That never bothered you before. You supported him as much as I did.’
‘He was becoming a danger,’ said Rannagon. ‘Getting too ambitious. I’m certain he poisoned old Lord Cyric to become Master of Trade. Not that it’s unheard of for apprentice griffiners to dispose of their Masters for promotion. But Riona was going to put him on the Council, and what then? What then? You tell me, Roland; you’re so wise, aren’t you?’
‘So Riona wanted to put him on the Council,’ said Roland. ‘Why not let her do it?’
‘And have a Northerner in the Eyrie?’ said Rannagon. ‘Half the other Eyries would have seen it as an act of war. Especially Malvern. We should never have let him become a griffiner. You should never have let it happen. I warned you back then, but you wouldn’t listen.’
‘I just don’t understand it,’ said Roland. ‘This isn’t like you, Rannagon. What happened to you? You were the most honourable man I knew. You watched Arren grow up. He looked up to you as a father.’
Rannagon closed his eyes for a moment. ‘I know. But times change, don’t they? People change, and I…’
‘Yes?’ Roland said it as kindly as he could, sensing that Rannagon desperately wanted to tell him the truth.
Rannagon wandered over to the altar. The Temple was still deserted, but soon enough a priest would come in to light fresh incense and replace the flowers.
‘You remember the war, don’t you?’ he said.
‘Against the Northerners,’ said Roland. ‘Of course.’
‘You know, after I killed their leader, our friends in Malvern, they…’ Rannagon rubbed an old scar on his arm. ‘They wanted to make me their new Eyrie Master. I said no. I was tired, I hated the cold, and I wanted to go home. Shoa never forgave me.’
Roland thought of his friend’s yellow feathered partner. She had never been the sort to forgive anything.
‘I promised her that sooner or later I would become Eyrie Master here instead,’ said Rannagon. ‘She believed me, but you and I both know how that turned out. Riona, she-,’
‘What?’ Roland tensed. ‘What happened? Is it because of Erian?’
‘My son?’ said Rannagon. ‘No. She put about that it was the reason – said that because I’d fathered a bastard that meant I couldn’t be trusted. But no. The truth was… she’s mad, Roland.’
‘Her and Arren both, apparently,’ Roland said coldly. ‘How so in her case?’
‘She-,’ Rannagon hesitated. ‘She said that… she wanted to put Arren on the council, and she said that if he proved himself there, she would make him her successor.’
Roland choked. ‘She said that?’
‘Yes,’ said Rannagon. ‘It was insanity. I don’t know if she meant it, or if it was just to taunt me, but Shoa believed her. She believed that Arren would become Eyrie Master instead of me. And from then on, Arren had to die.’
‘But you didn’t believe it, did you?’ said Roland.
‘No,’ said Rannagon. ‘But what did it matter what I thought? She forced me to do what I did. She used her magic on Arren. Cursed him to die. Forced me to send him away, to disgrace him. I had to threaten him when he came back, to keep him quiet about what I’d done. I had to protect myself, didn’t I?’
Roland couldn’t believe what he was hearing. ‘How did she force you? She couldn’t kill you.’
‘No,’ Rannagon said bitterly. ‘She said that if I didn’t do what she wanted, she would kill my son instead. After all, he’s only a bastard peasant – who would care?’
‘So you did what she wanted,’ said Roland. ‘And now Arren and Eluna are both dead.’
‘Yes,’ said Rannagon. ‘And it’s my fault. I should never have let Erian stay here. I should have sent him back to Carrick. I was weak, Roland. I’ve always been weak, just as Shoa says. All I had left was my honour, and now I’ve lost that as well.’
The two of them stood there in silence for a while, Rannagon brooding while Roland tried to digest what he had just heard.
‘It goes without saying that you’ll never mention this to anyone,’ Rannagon said eventually. ‘If you do, Shoa will kill you – or force me to have you arrested. I’ve lost control of her, Roland. A griffiner should be able to stand up to his partner, but I can’t. I’ve grown old and tired, and I wish…’
‘What do you wish, Rannagon?’ Roland asked.
‘I wish I’d never come to the Hatchery,’ said Rannagon. ‘I wish I’d never met Shoa, or become a griffiner. I wish for a thousand things I can’t have, just as Arren did. He’s lucky to be dead – he’s well out of it now.’
Roland touched his old friend on the arm. ‘Is there anything I can do?’
‘No, Roland. There’s nothing anyone can do. Now, I should go. I have to order an enquiry into Arren’s death. As if that will save him now.’
And Rannagon left the Temple as well, head bowed as if the weight of the world were on his shoulders.
Roland watched him go with a heart full of sadness. Later on, when he thought of his old friend, it was that image of him that returned to his mind. It was the first time that it ever occurred to him to see the Master of Law as an old man like himself. But perhaps that was because, before that moment, he had never looked like one.
He left the Temple himself shortly afterward, when the priest arrived to clean the altar. The Hatchery needed him, and there was nothing more he could do for any of those suffering people he had seen.
But Eagleholm’s last day was not over yet, and the strangest and the worst part of it was still to come.
Check back for Part 2 tomorrow!