Copyright © 2001 by David Bateman
Artwork copyright © 2001 by Stephen MacNeil
Eagle’s Nest was always cold, it didn’t matter what time of year it was, frost was the greatest commodity the Keep exported. A common saying ran about the kingdom that an Eagle’s Nest dawn held no warmth. The peaks rose above the imposing fortress swallowing the high granite walls. They faded through the morning mist as the echo of guardsmen’s boots marked time in the lonely morning. The sun had not climbed over the highest mountains but it’s glow turned the low clouds into golden fleece.
As the Keep’s inhabitants slowly roused themselves one of them was already hard at work. A slight figure ghosted through the morning mist, its’ moccasin-encased feet crunching softly in the glistening frost. The rhythm of her movements was subtle and secretive. The few early risers on this rest day would never have seen her, but the griffon sentry, on the tower heights, chuckled softly in it’s riders mind as he watched, curiously.
“What is it Tsansae?” the lean figure dressed in green and brown leaned lethargically against the immense golden griffon.
It seems we have a little visitor this morning. The griffon’s mind voice chuckled.
“Really. Well what is it? Let me see.” The griffon’s rider concentrated and looked through eyes far more acute than his own. “Well? What do you think Tsansae, thief or runaway?”
She’s cute! Now be quiet, I’m watching. The griffon flipped its long feathered wings along its tawny furred hindquarters.
“Ok, ok, I wouldn't want to spoil your fun.” The rider laughed, patting his griffon affectionately.
The figure below moved swiftly across the icy cobblestones into the long morning shadows. It shifted the hood of its dark blue cloak slightly and the finely chiseled features of a young girl showed briefly. Short, tousled hair in shades of auburn and black rode above liquid pools of deep, velvety brown masquerading as her eyes and a wicked gleam laughed delightedly at her own daring. Her cloak concealed the rest of her body, but not even that could hide that she was a tiny creature, easily half a head shorter than anyone her age ought to be.
She sidled along the cold stonewalls of the Keep apartment wing counting shuttered windows until she reached a particular iron bound shutter. A delicate, strong hand slipped out from the depths of the cloak and slipped a razor thin knife between the crack of the shutter’s center and she gently lifted the bar on the other side. One smooth motion flipped the bar up, opened the shuttered windows and gracefully somersaulted her into to the room in time to catch the bar before it could clatter to the floor.
“Rather talented, isn’t she?” The rider quipped, fingering his small-flanged mace.
Shhh! I’m trying to watch. She’s more fun to watch than your fey drake when you’re drunk. The griffon teased its rider.
The griffon reached out to the girl’s mind with empathy and brushed gently as feathers over crystal. She was so unfamiliar yet vibrant and his presence hovered by her, watching.
“Really?! Well, then do keep an eye on her. Do you think she’d be good for the Eire?”
She’d do just about anywhere. Yup. Now quiet and watch.
Inside, the girl quickly closed the window and placed the bar on the floor quietly. She stood for almost a minute, eyes adjusting to the darkness, and began to pad across the dining room. In the dim light of the Keep she wasn’t even a shadow. She moved quietly up the stairs to the second floor. There was measured purpose in her movements leading her to a predetermined location.
“Now wait a moment. Just how can you be watching her now? She closed the window.” Indignation filled the rider’s voice as he queried his griffon.
I asked Scamper to follow her in. Now. Shhh! Tsansae’s long tail flipped impatiently.
“You what?!!!! You sent my fey dragon in with that little thief.”
“Aye!” He smacked his forehead and settled onto his griffon’s massive claw. “What did I do to deserve an over curious, conniving griffon like you?” He laughed.
Unaware of the little scaled spy, the girl edged up to one of the door’s on the second floor and putt her ear to the cold wood. Satisfied there was no one in residence she pulled a small needle-like object out from the leather bracer on her left wrist. She deftly placed it into the doors lock, toying and teasing the mechanism until a faint click was heard. With a brilliant smile of triumph, she eased the door open and slipped into the dark room.
A massive oak cabinet, engraved with trees and vines with a glass mirror in the center door dominated this room. It was incredibly valuable in it’s own right, however the young girl was not here for anything that might truly be missed, not that she could hope to move such a huge edifice, she just wanted the fine silks that the wooden vessel contained. With patience only stones know, she opened the first drawer. A soft gasp escaped her lips as beautiful layers of woven silk caressed her eyes. She quickly stuffed several layers into a satchel concealed in her voluminous cloak and cinched it closed.
“Silks? All that wealth in that room and all she grabs is silk?” The rider blinked in confusion.
I told you I liked her. The griffon snickered in his mind.
“Well, well, well. I guess this is going to be an interesting morning”
The girl glided, quietly to the door, slipped through and closed it gently. Turning to creep to the dark stone stairway she heard a muffled thump followed by a groan from behind one of the doors. In the shadowed confines of the hooded cloak, curiosity warred with common sense across the delicate terrain of her young face. She slipped to the door pressing her ear against the cold, smooth wood.
“Where is the gold old man?” A harsh voice demanded.
“I don’t have it. I swear, my ships were lost at sea.” A pained, whimpering voice responded.
“Really?! I don’t recall hearing about any unfortunate losses in the past weeks. What are we to assume? Well?!” A menacing pause was followed by the sound, not unlike celery hitting stone, and yelp of pain. “I think you’re lying to me you insufferable goat”
“No. It’sh the truth. I would’n lie to you.” The voice was slurred and panicky.
“You had best not be lying to me. Just to be sure, why don’t I let Angelo show you just what could happen if you can’t seem to find those gold pieces.” There was a slight pause. “Break his kneecaps Angelo. He doesn’t need to walk to do his job.”
“You got it boss!” A gravely, thug like voice responded.
Her leg arched around as she spun her body and a small foot slammed into the door with surprising force for a girl so tiny. The door was not latched and shot open faster than anyone expected, especially the figure on the other side. Heavy oak hit him solidly in the back of the head and he fell with a sick thud of bone on rock. Before the other assailants could react the cloaked figure cartwheeled into the merchant’s bedroom. Her heel found the collarbone of the next closest thug and the sound of breaking wooded heralded the snapping of bone as she completed her acrobatic maneuver. The two remaining men turned to menace her with clubs embedded with jagged obsidian.
“Well, well, well, what do we have here?” The leaders voice held it’s firm, threatening tone, but there was a distinct hint of annoyance. “Some gypsy, slut I take it. What in Farhak’s Name do you think you’re doing?”
“Finding out just how many morons it takes to threaten an old man?” Her sharp soprano snapped like a weapon.
“You picked the wrong house to steal from you little gypsy whore. You’ll get a good price on the block. Get her Angelo!”
Angelo moved, club swinging in his meaty hand. He was easily a foot taller than she and almost twice her weight. The leader kicked the old merchant into unconsciousness and moved to flank the girl.
“Oh peach pits! Looks like she’s gonna get her fish in the fire.’ The griffon rider said, hopping on the back of his golden beast. “Come on we gotta rescue her.”
Well, rescue isn’t the word I would have chosen, but this should be fun. The griffon giggled into his riders mind.
“Is there something you’re not telling me Tsansae?”
Nope. The griffon cracked his feathered wings wide and launched off the tower heights, sailing down to the keep.
Angelo pulled back his club and swung a blow that would fell a tree, but the girl was never there. She dove rolling on her shoulder past the hulking man and shot her heel out into the side of the behemoths knee. There was a sick crunching sound as he fell like a giant Kalesville cedar. The girl was up on her feet and facing the leader before he could move.
“You little bitch! I’m gonna tame you before I beat you to a pulp, then I’m gonna sell you to the nastiest whoremaster I know.” He growled.
“Promises. You’ve got the imagination of a yak and the looks to boot.” She laughed. “I’ll make sure not to hit you in the head, it’s definitely not a vital organ.”
“What? Shut up you little whore.” He roared and charged her, club held high.
As the club descended, she rolled backward, bringing the top of her foot up between his legs and squarely into to contact with a soft tissue mass that gave way with satisfying ease. He staggered away gasping, reflex saving him from the stunning force of the girl’s blow. She was already to her feet and he could see triumph in her eyes and he hated her. She had crippled and disabled all his men, made him look like a fool and nearly emasculated him. He was going to pay her back in spades.
The gypsy balanced herself and felt the change in her opponent’s movements. The next attack would be measured and dangerous. Her luck was running out. He moved in with pained but practiced surety of a street fighter, his club whirling about with blurring speed, suddenly whipping out at her face. She jerked backwards, the wind from the club just kissing her face, and started to lose her balance. Actions born of reflex, not conscious thought, carried her into a backwards handspring and her foot caught his chin as he pursued the girl.
Both combatants backed away. He shook off the tap to his jaw and she regained her composure. Outside they could both hear the sounds of people reacting to the scuffle and a griffon landing. Neither had time for words as they closed into lethal range. The leader swung his club, the girl easily ducked. He suddenly reversed the momentum and brought the wicked implement back around. She didn’t have time to react. Jagged obsidian smashed into her left shoulder. Shock and pain flood through her as warm blood flowed down her arm. A feral growl escaped through clenched teeth and she danced away from his furious onslaught of blows.
The club sang towards her again and she whipped her voluminous cloak around his weapon arm, pulling as hard as she could. He fell forward, off balance; he knew she could finish him with one move. Desperately he yanked out his precious dagger and drove it into the gypsy’s leg. She growled in pain and staggered back.
He had her and his mouth twitched in sadistic glee as he rose to finish her. Startled, he took a step back as she pulled the dagger out of her leg with fierce grin on her face. This girl was insane. There was pounding coming from the door down stairs. He circled, cold sweat replacing the hot of exertion. He had no more time. Sprinting to the second story window he threw his body at the wooden shutters. They parted with a splinter and with reflexes that startled even him he grabbed the stone roof gutters and swung to the roof.
Grinding her teeth against the pain, the gypsy girl moved to follow him. A groan from the side gave her pause and then her pain demanded notice. She slid slowly to the floor as people started thundering up the stairs. A bright chirrup and shining scales disappeared out the broken window. The cloth merchant stirred and sat up, blinking at her. She smiled. He frowned.
“What in the Pits of Mortali are you doing in my house?!” The merchant demanded.
“Just saving your life, or at least keeping you from being crippled.” She blinked.
“How much did you hear?” He asked with fear trotting the edges of his voice.
“Just the juicy bits.” She grinned wickedly.
“Think it’s funny do you?!” The merchants menaced. “Guards! Guards! There’s an assailant in my room!”
“You bastard!” She hissed. “I save your worthless hide and this is how you repay me?!”
“Guards!” He yelled again.
“Help!!!! Rape!!!!” She yelled at the top of her lungs.
“You little bitch!”
“Now lets see who they believe.” She ripped open her tunic.
The first person into the room was the griffon rider. He took in the situation and smiled, she’d given far worse than she’d got.
I told you.
“What the meaning of this?” He demanded.
“Nothing. Nothing. Just get this girl out of here.” The cloth merchant waved hurriedly.
“Young lady, may I escort you to a healer?”
“If you insist.” She glared at the merchant and the griffon rider in turn.
Affecting an air of complete indignation, the girl limped to her feet and took the arm of the griffon rider. They left the disgruntled merchant on the floor, along with the three crippled or unconscious assailants, to be cared for by the guards. As they left the stone confines of the Keep a great feathered head peered at the young girl, eyes glinted a brilliant gold. She peered at the great beast with easy familiarity and gently patted it on the beak.
“Yours I presume?” She quipped, gesturing with a fine boned hand.
“Yes, or should I say I am his.” He said with a smile.
See! I told you I liked her, but we have to give her back. The griffon pouted.
“Why?” The rider said toying with his long braid of shaggy brown hair.
Others are saying she belongs to an Eire.
“Talking to your griffon, eh?” She said.
“Oh, sorry. He tells me you belong in the Eire.”
“Oh no you don’t. I’m a gypsy, just ask them.” She stated, pointing at an onrushing mob of brightly clad men and women.
“Sorry kid, but there are griffon riders that stake a greater claim.”
“Really?!” The sarcasm was unmistakable. “Well, they can go stuff themselves with coal for all I care. I am a gypsy.”
The first of the motley rabble reached them and started speaking over each other, not a word could be understood. Finally an old woman forced her way to the forefront, coming face to face with griffon rider and gypsy girl. Bright eyes peered through her winkles and she smiled.
“Dear Kaharay. Tis’ time for you to return to your destiny young one.” Her voice held volumes of wisdom.
“No! You can’t be serious! I don’t want to go back, you are my family.” The girl pleaded.
“Little Kaharay, you can not fight fate.” She smiled and her face nearly disappeared in wrinkles. “I promise, fate will bring you back to us.” She hugged the little gypsy gently.
Kaharay laid her head gently upon the old woman’s shoulder and closed her eyes. She was right, she always. It was time to go. Back to the home she hated, to the people who hated her, but at least she had her silks. She grinned through the pain and let the griffon rider help to the big golden beast.
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