Here’s part 14 of the new short story by K.J. Taylor, set in the world of her Fallen Moon Trilogy. Happy Friday reading everyone!
Bran the Betrayer Pt. 14
‘Curiousities?’ Bran repeated to himself. He wondered what that meant.
When they walked through that building, he soon found out. It was an open structure, which a passage straight through the middle of it, and the five of them took a shortcut through it, forcing the crowd to move away. Bran looked around, and quickly realised what they had come to see. On either side of the passage, cages of different sizes had been set into the walls. Creatures sat inside them – the kinds of bizarre things that could usually be seen at a fair. Bran saw a two-headed calf, and a griffin youngster with four wings, all of which were stunted and useless. People gawped at the wretched creatures, most of which lay pathetically in their own filth, dead-eyed and scrawny. He guessed that a lot of them were already close to death, unable to live with their deformities.
Bran tried not to look at them, but he couldn’t help himself. Like the crowd he stared in fascinated horror at each new grotesque beast – and then he saw something that made him stop so suddenly that his guards stumbled to a halt as well. Normally they would have urged him on, but once they saw what he was looking at they too hesitated. One of them swore softly.
The creature sat in a smaller cage, set higher up in the wall. It was also small – about the same size as Laela, in fact. And it was the most bizarre and horrible thing Bran had ever seen.
What made it worse was that, while the other creatures there were deformed, it was at least possible to tell what animal they were. But this thing didn’t look like any animal that could possibly exist. It crouched awkwardly, unable to stand on its twisted back legs, which merged into its clawed hind paws. Its front legs were scaled, but the front paws… they had tiny talons on them, but they were pink and soft, and shaped more like human hands. The head was flattened, and the face had only the barest stump of a nose, and a few wisps of hair on the head.
The creature’s skin was mottled pink and grey, with patches of fur and feather sprouting seemingly at random. A stumpy tail hung over its backside. And, twitching on its back, there were…
‘Wings,’ Bran muttered. ‘It’s got wings.’
They were wings; they had to be. They were long and spindly, and covered in fluffy feathers, like the wings of a baby bird. The creature was like a baby, he thought, in some ways. But if it was a baby then it was the most hideous one he had ever seen.
Apparently realising it was being watched, the creature looked up, and fear shot through the disgust in Bran’s mind.
The creature’s eyes were large and yellow, slanted in its ugly face. They weren’t human coloured, or human shaped, but… but somehow Bran could see an expression in them. They were full of a terrible sadness.
Help me, those eyes said.
The creature made a feeble bleating, squarking sound, and Isleen stepped in. ‘Come along, all of you,’ she said impatiently. ‘We aren’t here to gawp at the freaks.’
Bran found his voice. ‘What in Gryphus’ name is that thing?’
Isleen looked past him at the bizarre creature. ‘Nobody knows,’ she said. ‘They found it abandoned in an inn somewhere outside the city. Now, hurry up. Noon is coming, and we can’t be late.’
The creature bleated again.
Bran forced himself to look away from it, and followed Isleen away. He felt sickened by what he had seen. But soon enough his own troubles returned to occupy his mind. Once this was over he’d have time to worry about other things. For now, he had to see Kraeya.
The building that housed the griffins lay just beyond the one where the freaks lived. Out of necessity it was much bigger, but it too was filled with cages – huge ones, but still not big enough to give their occupants much room. Most of them were occupied by what had to be wild griffins. They were scarred, and hampered by chains attached to collars around their necks, and they snarled threats at the small group of humans as they passed.
Kraeya was at the far end in a cage of her own, but she wore no chains. She lay on her belly, looking bored, but stood up at once when she saw Bran.
She came over to the bars. ‘Bran, my human. Why have you come? Is the trial over? Have you come to free me so that we may leave this place?’
Bran’s guards let him go up to the bars by himself. ‘No, Kraeya,’ he said. ‘I’m sorry. They got me nailed.’
‘What is it?’ Kraeya demanded. ‘What has happened?’
Bran gave her a brief description of the trial.
She hissed. ‘No! This is an outrage!’
‘Yeah,’ said Bran. ‘I got no way of showin’ I’m innocent, so I’ve asked for trial by combat. I gotta fight a wild griffin in one of the fightin’ pits. Today. If I win, we go free.’
‘No,’ Kraeya rasped. ‘I will not allow you to do that. You will die.’
‘I got no other choice,’ said Bran. ‘If I don’t fight I’m dead anyway.’
‘Then I must help you,’ said Kraeya. ‘Let me out of this cage and I shall fight beside you.’
‘That is not allowed,’ Isleen’s partner Arak interrupted. ‘You had no involvement in your human’s crime. You cannot fight this battle for him.’
‘He is my human and it is my right to defend him,’ said Kraeya. ‘If you force him to fight this wild griffin alone, he will die.’
‘Kraeya, it’s all right,’ said Bran. ‘I can do this. I’ll be all right. I promise.’
‘Come,’ said Arak. ‘You have spoken now and it is time to go to the fighting pit.’
Kraeya slammed her beak against the bars. ‘No! You cannot do this!’
Bran felt himself being pulled away. ‘It’s all right, Kraeya. It’s all right. Everything’s gonna be fine.’
Kraeya did not listen. She continued to bite and snarl at her prison, trying to break free and go to her human’s side. A pair of guards came running from elsewhere in the building and did their best to subdue her, prodding her with long spears to make her move back from the bars.
Bran tried to stay and calm her down, but his own guards wouldn’t allow it. They turned him around and forced him to walk back out between them, with Arak and Isleen bringing up the rear this time.
‘What’ll happen to her if I die?’ he asked once they were out of earshot.
‘She will be set free,’ said Isleen. ‘She would be free now, but we can’t risk her trying to interfere.’
‘Right,’ Bran muttered. Kraeya might be set free, but without him she would be lost. A griffin who lost her human was disgraced; little better than one of the wild griffins, who had no rights at all. It could well be that Isleen was lying, and that Kraeya would instead be kept here and used in the fighting pits like the other captive griffins.
Bran gritted his teeth. He wouldn’t let that happen. He’d fight for her as well as Laela.
Now his guards took him back to the fighting pits, through a large locked trapdoor and into an underground passage which led to a room lined with racks full of weapons. In the far side of it, a barred metal gate led into the largest of the fighting pits.
Here, at last, the guards removed Bran’s shackles. Isleen stepped forward, and gave him back his sword.
‘Here,’ she said. ‘As promised. As you were told earlier, you may choose any other weapons you want from this room. These two men will stay with you and wait in here until after the fight. Arak and I will watch from above. If you survive, we will be ready to set your partner free immediately and I will give you this.’ She held up a roll of paper. ‘A pardon, signed by Eyrie Master Ruel and the Master of Law. It will lift all crimes from you.’
‘Got it,’ said Bran. ‘Thanks.’
Isleen gave him the briefest of smiles. ‘Goodbye and good luck, Branton Redguard.’
We’ll post up Part 15 next Friday 1st June!
K.J Taylor is the author of the Fallen Moon Trilogy: