Roland went about his work that day in a kind of trance, brought on by tiredness and gloom. He paid particular attention to the griffin chick Arren had stolen, which had been brought back by the adult griffins who had hunted him down. The little creature didn’t seem to be any worse for wear. Arren might have abducted it, but he hadn’t hurt it. In fact, the story went, it had hurt him.
Roland crouched by the chick’s pen, noting the small bloodstain on its feathers. ‘I’m so sorry, little one,’ he told it. ‘But you’re all right, aren’t you?’
The chick eyed him. ‘Food!’ it chirped. Most chicks couldn’t say much more than that.
Roland smiled ruefully and stood up with a shake of his head. At least the chick was all right.
And then, chaos erupted.
All at once, as if they had been given some kind of signal, every single chick in the room went mad. They began to screech loudly – the panic screech that Roland had only heard a few times before, once when a large stray dog had wandered into the Hatchery. Too young to fly, the chicks started to run around inside their pens. Some of them threw themselves at the gates or burrowed in the corners, trying desperately to escape. The more timid ones cowered in their nests, calling pathetically for help.
Roland turned around sharply, expecting to see some sign of danger, but there was nothing. But still the chicks panicked. Over in one corner, in their hanging cage, the live rats kept for feed ran about in terror, making their prison swing gently back and forth.
The hair on the back of Roland’s neck prickled, and an irrational fear started to sting at him as well.
‘Who’s there?’ he called stupidly. ‘What’s going on?’
Without warning, the door that led into his room at the back slammed. Roland started in fright, but ran over to investigate.
As he drew closer to the door, the fear grew in him. Very cautious now, he reached for the handle and inched it open. He couldn’t hear anything coming from inside.
Roland peered around the door, and once again he sensed a presence. ‘Is someone in here?’ he called.
‘Shh,’ a voice whispered back.
Roland jerked backward. ‘What the-? Who is that?’
‘Nobody,’ a melancholy voice replied as he pushed open the door.
But there was someone there. A thin, hunched someone sitting at the table and staring at the candle that burned on it, just as Roland had done the night before.
Roland relaxed slightly. ‘You’re tresspassing, you know.’
‘I do,’ said the voice. It sounded low and hopeless.
Roland entered the room. ‘Is there something I can do for you?’
‘No,’ said the stranger. ‘Not any more.’
That was when Roland finally realised the truth, and that was when he froze. ‘I know that voice,’ he said aloud. ‘I know that… but… but that’s not possible.’
‘I wish it weren’t,’ said the stranger, finally looking up at him.
Roland’s breath caught and twisted in his throat. ‘You,’ he rasped. ‘It is you.’
Arren Cardockson stood up. ‘I suppose so,’ he said.
‘But you’re-,’ Roland began. ‘Bran said you were dead.’
The bitter lines on Arren’s face deepened. ‘Of course he did.’
‘He lied?’ said Roland. ‘To help you escape?’
‘No,’ said Arren. ‘He let his friends kill me.’
Roland went silent for a moment, regarding his one time apprentice. The last time he had seen him, Arren had been a shadow of his old self – ragged and dirty, full of bitterness and self pity. Now, if anything, he looked worse.
He had trimmed his grubby beard into a small, neat pointed chin-beard, and now his curly hair, grown long over his shoulders, had been washed and combed. The wound that the griffin chick had torn on his face had been cleaned and had already begun forming into a scar. He wore a robe now – the traditional black robe of a slave. The same one Bran had been carrying in the Temple.
But it was the eyes that had changed the most, and the eyes that put terror into Roland’s heart. They were black, and full of hatred and despair. There was no soul left in them.
‘Arren,’ Roland said. He could feel himself trembling lightly. ‘What are you talking about?’
Arren laughed a laugh that had no humour in it whatsoever. ‘I’m not Arren,’ he said. ‘There is no Arren. Arren died. He fell thousands of feet and broke every bone in his body. It’s over, Roland.’
He’s mad, Roland thought. ‘Why have you come back here?’ he asked. ‘You’ll be caught.’
‘I came back to say goodbye,’ said Arren, sounding a little more normal. ‘Tonight I’m going to leave Eagleholm, and I’m never coming back.’ His shoulders hunched, and for a moment he looked as guilt-stricken as Rannagon had done. ‘I’m so sorry. For everything. I’m sorry for what I did, and I’m sorry for what I am.’
‘It’s all right.’ Roland came closer, holding out a hand. ‘Arren, it’s all right.’
‘Don’t touch me!’ Arren jerked away. ‘You don’t want to touch me. I’m cold.’ He relaxed and smiled weakly. ‘So damned cold. You know what I wish, Roland?’
‘What is it, lad?’ Roland asked.
Arren turned to look around the room. ‘I wish I’d never come into this Hatchery. I wish I’d never become a griffiner. I wish I’d never been born.’
In a moment of insanity, Roland almost wanted to laugh. ‘And I’m sorry too, Arren.’
Arren turned back. ‘For what?’
‘I should never have left you alone here. I should have done something to help you before it was too late. I should-,’
Now it was Arren who came closer. He reached out and touched Roland’s face. His hand was cold and lifeless. ‘It’s all right, Roland,’ he said. ‘It’s over. I don’t blame you for anything, and if you ever did anything to hurt me, then I forgive you. I shouldn’t’ve have done what I did, and I’m sorry. Thankyou for everything you ever did for me.’ He took his hand away. ‘And now I should go.’
Roland let him pass. ‘Where will you go?’ he asked. ‘What are you going to do?’
‘I’m going to end this,’ said Arren. ‘The gods have given me a chance to do what I should have done when I was alive, and I’m not letting that chance go. Goodbye, Roland, and good luck.’
And then he was gone.
That night, the Eyrie burned.
Roland heard the news of the fire, and like many others he came running to see for himself. But there was very little that he or anyone else could do.
He stood in the semi-darkness, watching the flames billow out of every window. The fire had already consumed most of the building, and it was now too dangerous to go inside. But a gang of guards were still trying. Roland saw two of them emerge from the Eyrie’s ground-floor entrance, dragging a couple of bodies. Others had formed a line, keeping the onlookers from getting any closer. Roland could hear the screams as people struggled to get past them.
‘Let me go!’ one man yelled. ‘For gods’ sakes, she’s still in there…!’
Roland kept back. All he could do in that moment was stare at the burning Eyrie, while Arren’s face appeared in his mind and intoned those last words again.
I’m going to end this… do what I should have done when I was alive.
‘Oh gods,’ Roland whispered.
An almighty crack split the night air, and a portion of the Eyrie’s outer wall crumbled inward. Screams rose from the crowd.
I’m going to end this.
‘Arren, what have you done?’ Roland said to the invisible presence. ‘What have you done?’
He knew that Arren had done it. Who else would have, or could have? The people of Eagleholm had destroyed his life, and now he had destroyed Eagleholm.
Roland stared dully at the flames, and wondered if Arren was in there somewhere. Had he lit the fire and stayed there so he could finally die – properly this time? Surely if he’d escaped he wouldn’t have gotten far. After all, he was the only Northerner in the city.
Whatever had happened, that was the night that Eagleholm died. The Eyrie burned, the Eyrie Mistress and the members of her council perished in the flames, and after that there would be nothing left to bind the city together. Arren Cardockson had taken his revenge.
Sometime later, while Roland watched helplessly from the crowd, a little group of survivors came over to him. He heard one of them calling his name, and sighed in relief when he recognised the voice.
‘Flell!’ he called, pushing his way toward her. ‘Thank Gryphus you weren’t in there.’
Flell’s pretty face was deathly white with shock, and tears and soot had stained her cheeks. Her young partner, Thrain, perched on her shoulder, cheeping in fright.
‘Roland,’ Flell said hoarsely.
Roland put a comforting arm around her shoulders, and looked at the young man who had come with her. He had never seen him before, but nevertheless he looked familiar. He was stocky and broad-shouldered, with a strong jawline and tousled blond hair. His eyes were bright blue, and red-rimmed from the smoke.
A griffin walked beside him. She was as young as her partner, and she too was blue-eyed, with sandy brown feathers.
‘Senneck,’ Roland said, nodding to her. ‘And you-,’ he looked at the boy. ‘I know who you must be. You look just like your father.’
‘Thankyou,’ the boy said grimly. ‘You’re Lord Roland the Hatchery owner, yes?’
‘I am,’ said Roland. ‘You’re Erian, aren’t you? Rannagon’s son.’
Erian’s shoulders hunched, and a terrible sadness showed on his face. ‘Yes,’ he said softly. ‘Yes, I am.’
Senneck hissed bitterly. ‘What a cruel night this has been. At last I choose a human, and in one night the Eyrie we would have lived in has been destroyed. If only I had known, I would have killed the Northern pup the moment I saw him.’
‘So Arren did do this?’ asked Roland.
‘Yes he did,’ Erian growled. ‘We saw it.’
‘Were you in there?’
‘Yes. We’ve been helping other people get out, but it’s too dangerous to go back in now.’
‘Who got out?’ Roland asked urgently. ‘Did Rannagon-?’
Flell started to sob.
‘He’s dead,’ said Erian.
‘No,’ said Erian. ‘The blackrobe murdered him. We saw it. He broke into the Eyrie and killed him and Shoa. Then he lit the fire and ran away.’
Roland closed his eyes for a moment. ‘What happened to Arren? Dead as well?’
‘Escaped,’ said Senneck. ‘But he will not get far.’
‘How did he get away?’ asked Roland. ‘Surely, with the fire, he would have run straight into the arms of the crowd here.’
‘He had help,’ said Senneck. ‘The black griffin. They fought together, and it was the black griffin that killed Shoa. They are partnered now.’
Roland gaped. ‘Arren… with the black griffin? That’s not possible! Why would Arren want to be with him? He killed Eluna. Arren hated him so much he wanted to kill him; he told me so himself.’
‘Don’t ask us,’ Erian snapped. ‘They’re savage beasts, the pair of them. They were made for each other.’
Roland shook his head sadly. Once he would have argued, but not after this. ‘So they flew away together.’
‘Yes, and in the morning, Senneck and I will go after them,’ said Erian. ‘We’ll catch them, and I’ll kill that murdering scum myself.’
Roland looked sternly at him. ‘Revenge won’t bring you peace, lad. Do you imagine that Arren feels better having done this?’
‘Justice must be done,’ Erian said stonily. ‘My father taught me that.’
‘Yes…’ Roland turned away wearily to look at the burning Eyrie. The fire was starting to die down now, and the building looked close to collapse. He hoped that Erian would never find Arren, for both their sakes.
Stay tuned for the final part tomorrow!
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