That night most of the Eyrie’s gutted remains did collapse, and in the months that followed Roland watched the city collapse as well. With the city’s government gone, the unpartnered griffins from the Hatchery left. Young and old left their former home and soon afterward most left the city, choosing humans to take with them. Normally, to be chosen, a would-be griffiner had to present him or herself to the griffins and only the noble or wealthy would be chosen. But with the city falling apart, the griffins threw their standards aside and seized whatever partners they could find. Away from the city, an unpartnered griffin would not survive.
Some of those new griffiners tried to take over the city and found a new Eyrie, but none of them lasted long. Roland watched at a distance as assassination followed coup, and bickering devolved into a series of fights that left dozens of people dead. More of the city burned, and the commoners formed gangs. With nobody left to run it and raids and thefts becoming a daily threat, the marketplace quickly fell apart. Shops were looted, and as many of their number joined the ranks of the new griffiners or turned to crime, the city guard could do very little to keep order. Most of their original administration had been lost anyway.
But people left Roland alone. He was only an old man, not a true griffiner, and he had no money or power to offer anyone. Many of the new griffiners came to him to be trained, or at least to learn griffish, but only one stayed long enough to learn much at all. Captain Branton Redguard, the only guard Captain left still trying to do his job.
Before long the few remaining guards had rallied to work under Bran, and he survived only by refusing to try and make himself Eyrie Master, or ally with anyone else who did.
‘You’re a fine leader, lad,’ Roland told him one day. ‘But you’re being wasted here.’
‘The city needs me,’ Bran said stolidly.
But beside him, his new partner Kraeya said; ‘You are right, Roland. This city is falling to pieces and will soon collapse. Already the wooden parts of the street have begun to break apart. My human and I were made for better things than this ruin.’
‘What’d she say?’ asked Bran.
Roland translated. ‘And she’s right. Get out of here, Bran, before you’re hurt. It’s only a matter of time before someone decides that you should be removed.’
‘But what about Flell? She’s pregnant, an’ nobody’s gonna take care of her.’
‘Take her with you,’ Roland suggested.
Bran hestitated. ‘I dunno…’
Roland smiled. ‘Come now, lad. I’ve seen the way you look at her. And besides, she needs you.’
Bran frowned. ‘I’ll think about it. But yer right; I oughtta leave. But what’ll you do?’
Roland shrugged. ‘There’s nowhere for me to go. I’ll stay here and do what I can for these people. I’m too old to go gallivanting across the country, that’s for certain! But you’re young and strong, and there’s a dozen different things you could do together. Think about it.’
Bran did think about it, and in the end he chose to follow Roland’s advice. He and Flell were married some weeks later, in the Temple. There weren’t many people at the ceremony, but Roland went with Keth to watch. By now Flell’s baby was showing very clearly. It would be born in another month or so by Roland’s guess.
A few days later she and Bran left with their partners. Roland was there to see them off.
‘Good luck, all of you,’ he said. ‘Take care of each other, and the baby especially.’
He looked warmly at Bran. He hadn’t shown any hint that he knew who the true father of Flell’s child was, but surely Bran must know, and it had been a brave and good-hearted thing for him to marry Flell and claim the child as his own.
‘Have you decided where to go?’ Roland asked.
Bran nodded. ‘We’re goin’ North. To Malvern.’
Roland looked to Flell. ‘Why Malvern?’
Flell gave him a steady, determined look in return. It made her look very much like her father. ‘That’s where Erian is now. And if he’s still alive, that’s where Arren went as well.’
Roland took her hands in his. ‘Don’t go looking for him, Flell, if that’s what you’re thinking of. No good will come of it. Not for anyone.’
‘I won’t,’ said Flell.
‘Good,’ Roland smiled and gave her a hug. ‘Goodbye and good luck.’
He farewelled Bran with a griffiner’s handshake.
‘Don’t worry,’ said Bran. ‘Kraeya an’ me’ll take care of this lot. Yeh can count on us.’
‘I know I can,’ Roland said proudly. ‘Take care of yourself too, my lad.’
‘Count on it.’ Bran winked.
Kraeya carried him and Flell down from the mountaintop, with Thrain fluttering along after her. Roland watched them go, and never saw any of them again.
Everyone left, Roland reflected later. Left, or died. Erian and Senneck left, never to return. Flell, Roland, Thrain and Kraeya, they left. His second longest-staying apprentice, the former Segeant Danthirk, left with his wife Finna and his new partner, Gerak. Before long all the griffins had gone from the Hatchery, even the chicks. One of Roland’s assistants left, and the other died in a fight. Not long after that, Keth sickened. Roland did his best to care for her with the medicines he had left, but she was old, and he knew that it wouldn’t be long before she too was gone.
Nobody visited the Hatchery any more, except to take the food that he gave away to those who were desperate. More and more people were fleeing the city altogether.
The few griffiners who visited Eagleholm from the outside reported that its lands were being seized by its neighbours on either side – Wylam and Withypool. Canran to the north had begun sending armies in as well to take what they could. But nobody wanted Eagleholm itself, not any more. It was a ruin now, its wooden outer streets rotting or scavenged for firewood.
Soon, Roland knew, he would be all alone. His family was gone, and when Keth died the last of his friends would be gone too. He felt as if his life was over. He had done everything that was ever asked of him, and now there was nothing left to do at all but wait until old age took him just as it would do to Keth.
‘Did I ever do any good?’ he wondered aloud one day. ‘Did I ever help anyone?’
He didn’t know, and as Keth grew weaker, a deep weariness came over him. The stiffness in his knees got worse, and sometimes he didn’t have the energy to get up in the mornings.
Around him the city descended into anarchy. Within a year or so most of the larger buildings had been destroyed or occupied by squatters. Outside, war tore the last of Eagleholm’s lands to pieces, until nothing was left of them but a patch of lawless no-man’s-land around the city and further to the South where the Coppertop Mountains stood.
Every so often, travelling griffiners would come to see the ruins of Eagleholm, but they soon found that it wasn’t worth the visit. Only Roland was left to greet them, and to hear their news.
From them he heard about the civil wars that had broken out elsewhere in the South, as Eyrie fought Eyrie. Word reached him about the war in the North as well.
‘The Northerners have risen up,’ one man told him. ‘Rebelled just as they did all those years ago. They’ve found a new leader, and they’re destroying everything. They’ve assassinated half of Malvern’s council. Lady Elkin sent messages begging the other Eyries for help, but nobody’s answering. Nobody can spare the troops, not with all that’s going on.’
‘Have you heard anything about Erian?’ Roland asked. ‘Or Senneck?’
‘Oh, you mean the new Master of Farms?’ said the traveller. ‘Yes, he was in Malvern for a while. He left, though, and nobody seems to know where he’s gone.’
He hadn’t heard anything about Bran or Flell.
Months later, another traveller told Roland the outcome of the war.
‘It’s over,’ she said. ‘The North is lost. Malvern’s been overrun by the rebels – only a few of our people escaped.’
‘What about Bran and Flell?’ Roland asked urgently. ‘And Erian? And Senneck?’
The woman shook her head grimly. ‘Erian’s dead, I know that much. The Dark Lord killed him in Malvern.’
‘Dark Lord?’ Roland repeated, puzzled.
‘The leader of the rebels,’ the traveller said darkly. ‘A Northerner, of course. It’s said he sold his soul to the Night God, and no man can kill him.’
For some reason, those words sent a chill down Roland’s spine. ‘The Dark Lord…’ he murmured to himself.
‘Yes, the Dark Lord Arenadd,’ said the traveller. ‘He rides a black griffin.’
The coldness gripped Roland’s heart. ‘Arren,’ he half-whispered. ‘What have you become?’
Only one other traveller came after that, and it was from this one that Roland heard about the death of Flell at the hands of the man all Southerners now called the Dark Lord Arenadd. He heard nothing about Bran at all, or the child.
He heard, too, about how the Northerners had captured all of the North and had built a new nation there, with Arenadd as its King. But nearly all the tales everyone told about the place were tales of burning and slaughter, torture and murder.
Roland knew who Arenadd was – who he had to be. But he didn’t want to believe it, and a part of him simply refused to.
Shortly after this Keth finally passed away, and Roland was left alone to think of the past and regret so many things that had happened. Surely, he thought every day, surely it was over now. Surely life had nothing more left for him.
But it wasn’t over. Not yet. Not quite.
One day in a moment of nostalgia, Roland decided to visit the remains of the Eyrie. He walked to it through the old streets, which were now strewn with garbage and rubble. A few ragged, scrawny people stared dully at him as he passed, or called out pleas for food or money.
He reached the Eyrie before long. There wasn’t much left of it. By now the ruins had collapsed into a heap of rubble, with only a portion of one wall left standing as a reminder of what it had once been. Survivors had long since looted whatever scraps had been left behind.
Roland picked his way through the blackened pieces of stone and broken wood, and felt a deep sadness press down on him. So many memories still lingered here. So many lost lives. Rannagon, Flell, Erian and Senneck. His old father Elrick, long since dead. Riona, lost in the flames with her partner Shree.
Slow tears wet the old man’s face.
‘Why me?’ he asked, looking up at the sun. ‘Why me, Gryphus? So many people dead, so much destroyed. Why leave me? What use is one old man in a dead city?’
He sat down on a piece of rubble, and put his head in his hands. His father had once told him that everything happened for a reason, but he could see no reason in this, none at all.
‘Go away,’ a voice called, interrupting his thoughts.
‘Eh?’ Roland looked up.
A small girl had wandered over to him and stood glaring at him. ‘Go away,’ she said again. ‘This is my place.’
Roland eyed her. She looked about ten years old, and she was gaunt and grubby. Her clothes were in rags. But her expression was fierce as she stared challengingly at him.
Roland stood up. ‘Who are you, lass?’ he asked in his gentlest voice. ‘Do you live here?’
‘Yes. I’m Liantha and this is my house.’
‘Hello, Liantha.’ Roland smiled and wiped his eyes on his sleeve. ‘My name’s Roland Elrickson.’
Liantha frowned. ‘From the Hatchery?’
‘Yes. Why are you living here? It’s a ruin.’
‘I was born here,’ Liantha said defiantly.
Roland had already noticed her refined speech. ‘You lived in the Eyrie before it burned, then? Were your parents griffiners?’
‘Yes,’ said Liantha. ‘My grandma was Lady Evlyn.’
‘Are your parents somewhere about?’ asked Roland.
‘No.’ Liantha’s ferocity faded somewhat. ‘They’re dead from the fire. So’s Granma Evlyn. I’m the only one who lives here now.’
‘Nobody looks after you?’ Roland pressed.
‘No, I look after myself,’ said Liantha.
‘I see. Well… I’m going back to the Hatchery now. If you’d like to come with me, I could give you something to eat.’
Liantha brightened up. ‘You’ve got food?’
‘Yes. The griffins left, but I still have the goats I used to feed them, and people trade me other things for the milk and meat.’
‘You’ve got milk?’
‘Yes. Would you like some?’
Liantha looked close to tears. ‘Yes I would!’
And she followed Roland home, all her protectiveness toward the Eyrie ruins forgotten.
Roland was as good as his word. He gave the child a hearty meal, and scrounged around for some new clothes for her as well. Liantha ate ravenously, and chattered on about her parents and how she lived by stealing what she could from the other survivors who clung on in the rubble.
Once she had eaten and talked and grown sleepy, Roland gave her a blanket and let her snuggle down by the fire in the Hatchery’s back room.
‘Why are you here?’ she asked drowsily.
‘This is my home,’ said Roland. ‘It always has been, since I was just a boy.’
‘But why?’ Liantha persisted.
‘Well…’ Roland began. Liantha was watching him curiously, and before long he was telling her everything. He told her about his own childhood, and about his adulthood caring for the griffins. He told her about all the new griffiners he had trained – even Arren.
‘He burned the Eyrie,’ Liantha interrupted. ‘He killed everyone. He killed Mummy and Daddy.’
‘Yes,’ Roland said sadly. ‘I think he did. But not all my apprentices did things like that. Now they’re all gone, and I don’t know what to do next. I’ve got no-one left to teach.’
‘Teach me!’ Liantha said suddenly.
Roland looked at her in surprise.
‘My parents were griffiners,’ said Liantha. ‘One day I’ll be one too. You should teach me how.’
‘But-,’ Roland began.
But there were no griffins in Eagleholm any more.
‘Please?’ said Liantha. ‘I’ll be really good and I’ll listen to everything and do what you tell me.’
‘I suppose I could,’ said Roland. ‘But you’d have to live here with me. The Eyrie’s no good to live in any more.’
‘Can I live with you?’ Liantha asked.
‘Certainly,’ said Roland. ‘There’s plenty of room.’
‘And I can take care of you,’ said Liantha.
Roland looked at her, and smiled for the first time in days. ‘Yes,’ he said. ‘I think you can, Liantha.’
‘Then I’ll be your apprentice and live here with you,’ said Liantha. ‘And one day I’ll get a griffin and be a griffiner.’
Roland found himself thinking of Arren, and Erian as well. ‘Perhaps you will,’ he said.
But Liantha had already settled down to sleep.
Roland watched her drift off, peaceful in the firelight, and dared to let himself feel hopeful in a way he hadn’t done for years. It made him feel lighter, and younger.
‘It’s not over yet,’ he murmured to himself. ‘Not yet.’
Eagleholm was dead, it was true. Everything came to an end. But everything had a beginning as well. And here, today, something had begun and who knew where it would end?
Roland remembered Arren’s last words to him, more than two long years ago.
The gods have given me a chance to do what I should have done when I was alive.
And perhaps they had. Arren had been given another chance. Now, another chance had come to Roland as well.
He looked down at Liantha again, and made a silent vow. He would train her, as he had trained Arren once upon a time. And this time, he would not let her story end in tragedy. Liantha would have the future that Arren never could, and maybe something of Eagleholm would live on through her.
He could only hope.
‘Thankyou, Gryphus,’ he said softly, knowing that his prayer had finally been answered. ‘I know what I have to do now, and I won’t let you or this city down again.’
He left Liantha to her rest, and went to his own bed, where he slept peacefully. Forgiven, at last. And finally able to begin again.
And congratulations KJ on winning the Canberra Critics Circle Writers Award!