The Surabi villa and its surrounding estate was my whole world and, one where I was loved and accepted unconditionally. I suppose in hindsight I might add that I was a pampered and oft-indulged curiosity, but who am I to complain? After all, I was the only griffin anyone knew. Within five summers I filled out, growing from the size of a housecat to that of an overly large wolfhound, though far more streamlined. Being of the tribe of Ravenkin, I was black and glossy, my eyes beady and my beak a sabre made for stabbing.
Although I knew I should try and indeed could fly if I put my heart and mind to it, I didn’t. Sure, I managed a brief burst of speed followed by an ungainly hop into the air, to glide for several feet, but I never put more effort into it.
Frankly, the idea of the earth falling away beneath me frightened me beyond all belief, and by that stage I’d certainly read enough from the Surabi family library to know that not all alchemical beasts could fulfil their composite natures. I had no desire to find out whether I could overcome the earth’s call. And, besides, Anwyn wasn’t built to fly, and my place was by her side.
At eighteen she was considered old—too old to still be considered marriageable—but she insisted that none of the young men her father proposed, were any good. In private she confided her very real fears that these men sought her hand only to merger their businesses’ interests.
* * * *
“I don’t like him,” Anwyn whispered to me.
We were in the botanical gardens attached to the Temple of Zenu, Goddess of love—and warfare.
Benedictus was deep in conversation with a pair of young men who’d approached him here, of all places, to discuss a recent shipment of barbarian prisoners of war.
Of course I wouldn’t reply to her, not here where there were perhaps dozens of curious ears to overhear our conversation, but I cocked my head and gave a soft snort. Anwyn’s smile was wan. We’d discussed numerous times how she wanted to eventually take over her father’s estate and not hand it over to some upstart who’d expect her to produce an heir almost immediately. I also knew she was afraid—very, very afraid—of giving birth.
The men laughed at some remark Benedictus made, and a small flock of fireflits took wing, obviously startled by the disturbance. Anwyn sighed and seated herself on the edge of the fountain. Above her, Zenu poured endless stream of water from one of her bowls, and a fireflit alighted on the goddess’s head, chirped once then spread its membranous wings, half-ready to take to the air again.
“If only we didn’t have to deal with these men,” Anwyn murmured. “They make me so tired. So full of bluster.” She absently stroked my head.
I sighed and closed my eyes, content to feel the sunlight on my plumage the shivers of Anwyn’s touch. This was enough for me, to know that we were together—a well-trained griffin and his mistress.
“Must you fawn over that creature so?” Benedictus stood before us, his face slightly flushed. His friends were departing and it was clear, from the way he stood with his arms folded over his chest, that something annoyed him.
Anwyn got to her feet, and a prickle of her annoyance communicated itself to me. I couldn’t help it—my hackles rose and I growled, low and deep in my chest.
Benedictus glared at me. “That thing’s too big and dangerous for a woman to consider a pet. It belongs in the circus.”
The sharp crack of Anwyn’s palm on Benedictus’s cheek made me jerk but when he swung back an arm to strike her, I moved fast. With a suddenness that surprised even myself I rose on my hindquarters, gripped the man by his shoulders and shoved him over, my beak inches from his face. His fear was a powerful intoxicant and he lay there, dazed, for a few seconds until he gathered his scattered wits. I could so easily...
“Silas! Heel!” Anwyn cried.
I obeyed, but I did not let my hackles down, nor did I stop growling, my wings half unfurled so as to include my mistress within the arc of my protection. The bastard! He must not touch my lady.
Benedictus lay there frozen in fear and, judging by the sharp stink in the air, had soiled himself.
Anwyn placed her hand on my head. “Enough now, Silas. I don’t think he’ll try to harm me again.” Her voice shook, however, and her fear and shock thrilled through her. And something else—power. We knew, without speaking, that when we were together, no man might challenge her.
Slowly Benedictus picked himself up. His friends of earlier were nowhere to be seen. If they’d turned to witness this altercation, they’d now proved themselves true fair-weather friends by making themselves scarce. He was on his own, and he knew it.
“I’ll make sure that you and that beast are destroyed for this!” he said, shaking.
“You’ll do no such thing,” a woman said behind us.
We turned to see one of the priestesses. She was an older woman, her iron-grey hair braided with amethysts and strings of pearls, her eyes clear as she regarded us.
“I saw and heard everything, Benedictus, son of Batravian. No one will gainsay a Priestess of Zenu in her own sanctuary. You have dishonoured the Goddess by raising a hand to a woman here. Leave now and do not consider any retaliation. Indeed, if you are wise, you shall seek to make some amends. Our temple always welcomes gifts and you appear to require some indulgences from the gods when it comes to matters of the heart.” Although she smiled, none of the humour reached her eyes.
I hadn’t thought it possible for Benedictus to grow paler, but he did. His mouth opened and shut a few times but no sounds came out. Then he gathered his stinking toga to him and scuttled from the courtyard.
The woman turned her gaze toward us and I was immediately struck by the sense of grace and power she possessed. I went down on my belly before her, and laid my head by her feet. This felt like the most natural gesture ever. Similarly, Anwyn bowed her head and went to her knees before the holy woman.
“Rise, my children,” the priestess said, and I felt a light touch to my head.
Tears shone in Anwyn’s eyes. From what I knew of human customs, the priestesses rarely, if ever entered the courtyard to mingle with supplicants. If anything they might send their handmaidens to minister to visitors, but never one of the holy ones themselves.
“Your holiness, I thank you,” Anwyn said as we rose to our feet.
The woman smiled and raised a hand in a dismissive gesture. “It’s nothing. Come, we shall refresh ourselves with something to drink. I would like to see for myself this griffin that’s been the talk of the city.” She gathered her stola and arranged her palla—which shimmered with the feathers of peacocks, and inclined her head so that it was clear we must follow her up the stairs and into the sanctuary.
Anwyn and I shared a brief look before we obeyed. We did not see anything particularly special or out of the ordinary about me being a griffin. As far as I was concerned, I ate and shat just like any other creature. But by the same measure, we weren’t about to decline an invitation to visit with the servants of a deity either.