*Presented here complete, a historical Ontyre tale taking place in the elfin homeland of Mythwyll located in western Ontyre.
M’Ameth, follows her brother to a dangerous, uncertain destiny atop a steep peak pursued by the certain death she’s already witnessed.
For M’Ameth, who committed a serious transgression as a child, grief is an additional weight to carry.
M’Ameth rubbed legs growing numb. It didn’t help. Nothingness encouraged surrender. Maybe it was better to stop and cry forever while lingering screams opened wounds in the most vulnerable places inside. Remembered cries were hollowing her out.
Maybe it was better to remain empty.
“Come now, you’re slowing down. It isn’t far to the top.”
The memory images gave way to L’Wreel beside a stunted pine, his hands on his hips. For a big brother of twenty years he was more patient than most, even for an elf. For him, she could manage a smile, even if she was cross. Well, maybe a meager smile. After all, he tolerated her mischievousness.
And he’d always protected her.
She wiped at sweat collecting on a dirty brow. It became ash-like muck on the back of her hand. She smeared it on her tunic. “You’re legs are longer and far more used to climbing peaks than mine. I’m but twelve years.”
L’Wreel grinned. “And it is but a little mountain. Little more than a hill. Quite perfect for one your size.”
“But I’m tired.” She swept her hair aside. Was her light hair now black with ash? She set her feet and twisted towards the valley.
The sharp rebuke brought her back around. Too fast. Her feet shifted on the needles underfoot and balance took flight. She lunged for a sapling. It bent, but didn’t snap.
His big hand wrapped around her arm and lifted her to the saddle between tree and slope. Always he was strong enough for them both. He was authority. She was irresponsibility. “There now.” His smile flirted with sinking and returned. “We must reach the summit before another summer storm moves in.”
She fought her long hair again. There’d not been time to…
No, she couldn’t think about that or he might become cross.
“I don’t understand. Why must we reach the top? Won’t they…?” She closed her eyes and her shoulders pulled in tight. They were coming. They had to be coming, and they’d never give up.
Despite all that happened she didn’t want to die. Was that selfish?
Before her eyes had fully teared, L’Wreel crouched before her. “Hey, we need to focus on reaching the top for now. Then you’ll understand.”
He grasped the end of her sleeve and wiped her cheeks. “Do you remember the rhyme I taught you long ago?”
Sniffling, she sought the safe place where pleasant memories dwelt. It was still there, but crumbling where tears leaked inside and rotted the floor. What did she know about fixing what was broken? What did she know about anything?
He melodramatically feigned disbelief. “You mean you can remember more than one?”
She chuckled. “Of course.”
His laughter was taut mirth, the hand tousling her hair lingering as if memorizing the texture of her locks. She flashed a pouty scowl and removed hair from her eyes again. “Okay, how about the one about the gryphons.”
“But, I’m forbidden to sing it.”
“I don’t mean for you to sing it, but merely recite it for me. Do you remember that one?”
Eyes narrowed, her lips spreading in a thin grin, she rolled her eyes. “Of course, I remember it.” She cleared her scratchy throat. “Gryphon gray/gryphon brown/a gryphon caged/is never bound.”
“Very good.” He gave her a wink, her heart skipping a little seeing his handsome features raise in seeming prideful cheer. His was the face that commanded attraction and respect. She was memorable for her failings.
All the girls watched L’Wreel. He made the smartest ones giggle. The breeze played with his hair. His broad shoulders were the envy of unicorns. He knew all the peaks and valleys and had crossed all the rivers. He represented adventure. He made her proud when she did little to make herself proud.
“It’s still forbidden. I shouldn’t have said that much.”
“What about the second verse?”
“Ah, the second verse?”
L’Wreel shook his head and chuckled. “Yes, the second verse.”
She diverted her gaze. It shouldn’t be uttered, even if she could remember it. And the urge to look back, to face the horror, was swelling into a force too real. His grip tightened on her arm as if he recognized the longing.
“Okay, this is enough of a rest. You can work on recalling the second verse while we climb.”
She rolled her eyes again. “I knew you’d say that.”
His wide back, a bow and quiver draped across it, dominated the way ahead as he resumed the ascent. She followed, watching him. His strength meant they might survive.
L’Wreel’s misfortune was having to care for a whimpering little sister. Sibling elves were rare and what brother wanted one around all the time, especially a levelheaded older brother?
She breathed deep. So high, the air was more crisp—and it was clean.
It was told that on a clear day the great ocean was visible if you were high enough, as L’Wreel often was. Could they reach the top before the gray spread overhead and blocked the sight?
Of course, the elders said many things. They also said home existed on a virtual island, what with the great ocean to the west, the massive gulf to the north, and mountains to the east and south.
Her shoulders sagged.
Who would share such instruction in the future?
Cruel fate never shared anything good. She heard angry elders say such harsh words when they didn’t know she was near. How she’d wilted listening to them tell of thieving, murdering men stealing the southern elf lands.
Was it cruel fate, then, that forced her to flee Glitter Wood and climb a steep mountain amidst the Ean Thros? There might be a view of fertile Logouve Wood’s logouve groves in southern Mythwyll, but did it matter? Those were no longer elf lands.
When the woods were lost, so too were the elves. Elders often said that, too.
She leaned on a waist-high rock and hung her head. He’d given her a simple task to perform as a distraction and she was failing. “A gryphon not free…” Those words were the key to the simple poem’s remainder.
Freedom. Soaring above the clouds. Mountaintops bowing beneath. Glitter Wood’s comforting forests lining the grassland avenues connecting the largest logouve trees. All of it stretched tight over the Mythwyll landscape.
She straightened, her land-bound self escaping. True freedom spreading the arms wide, fingertips cutting paths through the puffy white. The heart lifting—
“You’ve stopped again!”
“You were daydreaming. I can tell because you adopt your bird stance when you do. Sometimes I think you think you’re flying.” He shook his head, chuckling. “Who daydreams while climbing?”
“I do, if you must know, but it’s nothing I’ll share with you since you’re being mean.” She stuck out her tongue.
L’Wreel rolled his eyes and climbed. “Well, hurry up. We’re nearly there.”
Flying was a fanciful refuge, but it wasn’t real. Couldn’t be real. Not since she’d broken the rules. Not since she’d done without permission what only a select few were chosen to do. Always her mother reminded her of the transgression.
If she hadn’t been but six years at the time the elders would have banished her. Her mother also said that. Harsh words for a mother to say. M’Ameth said their mother’s sternness appeared after their father died helping protect the southern elves while she was still an infant.
Her mother was too often gruff, but she missed her anyway. She’d have to go on missing her because she was gone. Not gone. Dead.
Chest heaving, she twisted around. The valley. Home. Her eyes stung and her lower lip protruded. No…
Tragedy swept back into her mind and she wept before the sight.
The valley beneath the choking smoke needn’t be seen. The imprinted images were more than enough. Fire and death. She’d escaped, thanks to L’Wreel, but there was no outrunning the haunting slaughter and destruction. It wouldn’t matter how far she ran or how high she climbed. It’d cling to her. Whisper in her ear.
Smoke would forever burn her eyes and choke her throat.
M’Ameth sank to her knees and gagged.
Those she loved hacked to death. Elders. Children. Friends. Loved ones.
Everyone running. People falling. Blood spilt. Screaming and crying. The land beneath her feet spinning atop a world out of control. It wasn’t supposed to happen. Danger was the occasional wolf or bear, not crazed, enraged humans.
She’d fallen, her fingers clutching at damp soil, unable to release. Forever tears scorched her vision.
Raising her hands, she’d sought to ward off the blow meant for her. It became her mother’s instead. The hulking raider from the south shoved her mother’s body aside and faced her, his brute weapon in his massive hands.
Human men never had enough, always wanted more. Humans didn’t cherish, didn’t share. They took what others treasured and they spoiled it for all.
An arrow appeared between his eyes. Still she remained unmoving. Her mother’s blood soaked into the land that was no longer theirs.
Big hands pulled her backward, away from the carnage, away from the hundred others waiting to share death…
In the present, her screams punctuated the memory. In the present, arms before her face, she warded off threatened blows while her mother died again and again.
On the hillside, L’Wreel wrapped her in his arms. “It’s okay, little sister. You’re safe. A tarnished memory stirred.”
“I don’t want to be safe, not when….when…”
“I know, but one day you’ll think different. One day there’ll be a purpose greater than the pain.”
What did that mean? How could there ever be a good great enough to counter unrelenting grief? Unforgiving sobs strangled her words and she gagged on the bile. “They’re dead. Mother, she’s…”
He set a hand over her heart and lifted her chin. Only he ever looked directly at her plain features, her crooked nose. “She’s in your heart now where she’ll live on for as long as you live, and you will live. You must live to keep her alive. Do you hear me?” She squeezed her eyes tight and nodded. “The way is easier now so near the top.”
“Have you remembered the second verse?”
“The second verse?”
How could he think about such trivial matters now? Better that she pound out bitterness upon his chest with her fists. It wouldn’t work, though. Not with L’Wreel. He wouldn’t give up distracting her. He wouldn’t surrender her to that dark place urging her to seek refuge within. He was stubborn. They were a stubborn family.
They were a family. The awful men destroyed that, too.
“But mother…the rhyme is about gryphons. You’re going to get me in trouble. The elders said no songs, not even rhymes.” The moment, already six years past, reappeared. Her mother shaking her and demanding to know what she’d done. She was screaming. She’d never screamed until that day. “I’m not supposed to. It’s forbidden to me.”
“I think we can make an exception.”
“Others could have been hurt.”
He held her face in his hands. There was sternness in his features. Tension pulled on the tendons in his neck. Yet, higher, the glistening in his eyes was the love he’d always shared. “You’re twelve years now. It’s different. Besides, now I’m the elder and it’s my decision.” He winked. “What have you remembered?
She shrugged. “Same as before. Gryphon gray/gryphon brown/a gryphon caged/is never bound.” Caged meant not free. How could she ever be free again? Life was cruel fate. There shouldn’t be tears remaining, but one slipped past her lashes. “They’re all…”
He squeezed her arms. “What about the second verse?”
He wiped her eyes, eyes that were nothing special. “Well, you keep working on it.” Again his gaze strayed.
L’Wreel smirked. “Have I not always kept you safe?”
“Then you shall remain safe.” How certain he was, how much older he seemed than the day before.
“You will never leave me?”
“I will never leave you. Now, come on.” He continued upward, her left hand disappearing within the tight grasp of his right. It was easier to carry her own weight when he held her hand.
He released her when the view became a landscape beyond what she’d imagined when he told of his wanderings. Taller mountains rose to the east and west, the flanks on some sheer, the crowns upon others colored white even during the warmest months. Great birds carrying her heart drifted on the currents the thickening clouds stirred.
How long since she blinked? She didn’t want to miss an instant.
Gryphons inhabited such heights, though they were rare creatures. They were also big and scary. That was firsthand knowledge.
The wind whipped and settled and whipped again. It was as if the thunderheads were working up their anger. Distant rumblings became quaking in her limbs.
Life did remain after the slaughter. The mountains were life.
Several hundred feet ahead, the true summit celebrated the view. Pine gave way to moisture in the air. The last, stunted trees fell behind, allowing even little girls to behold the larger world. The remaining slope was gentler and urged approaching the crown where the answers to great secrets were promised.
She took a step and winced. Thin footwear was better suited to the soft turf beneath the forest canopy than the loose stones underfoot. The heights, it appeared, weren’t a soft place for children. The heights were a hard place for the likes of L’Wrell, who was their master. He was the rock outcroppings sheltering the fragile tufts of grass against the harsh wind.
L’Wreel stretched out his legs and she ran to match the pace. Still turning her head this way and that, she collided with him when he came to an abrupt halt. The mountaintop was below her feet. The evils of the world wavered and disappeared.
There were mountains standing taller to the south, the gaps between them alpine windows. Beyond, a vast, green expanse dotted with bright logouve groves stretched to the horizon, the forest broken only where a wide, blue strip cut a path. Her hand went over her mouth. Could it be? The mightiest river in Mythwyll, the Slu’ma Water? It appeared as if a great serpent in the grass, yet even it bowed before the soaring Ean Thros and turned eastward.
The view disappeared when L’Wreel crouched before her and set gentle hands on her arms, hands that made him the finest marksman among their dwindling people. “I need you to do something for me.”
Their gazes locked. His hands clasped before his mouth. Seemingly he was choosing his words with care as if he were an elder. L’Wreel wet his lips. “I need for you to sing.”
M’Ameth shook her head, the motion slow. It wasn’t possible he’d make such a request. “What?”
“Not just any song, but the ancient song you once sang beside the brook.”
“No. I cannot. It’s forbidden. To summon a gryphon, even by accident, is forbidden unless the elders sanction it. I could have caused the other children to be—”
“But you didn’t.”
“Do you have any idea what a rare gift you possess? The real reason they didn’t banish you was because they recognized that gift.”
“Was afraid. It was understandable. You were only six. Children shouldn’t be able to wield the ancient gift of song because they’re not yet old enough to control its power, but you did it anyway. You’re old enough now to understand the precious treasure that is your gift.”
“But, sing?” Why climb a mountain to sing such a song, unless…? Her eyes widened and the increasing wind stung them. She shook her head. “No. I’m not old enough. I’m not chosen. I’m untrained. It’s forbidden. You said yourself the danger—”
“That was then, little sister.” He brushed her hair from her eyes and displayed the gentle smile that melted hearts.
“But I’m not an adult. I’m your little sister. I’m still a little girl.”
“No. You’re on the brink of becoming a woman, and may yet be one before this day has seen its last. It’s time you let them hear you sing.”
“All the world and the greatest of the beasts within it.”
“No. Please.” She turned her face away and he grasped her arms. If he felt the shaking he’d know she was still a frightened child. What could be the purpose in performing a summoning when there wasn’t a rider ready for bonding? Already she’d committed a great wrong once before. “The wind, the storm, my voice is meager. It won’t carry.”
“It’ll be enough. I know it will.”
“Try. Please.” Her heart constricted. L’Wreel never used pleading words. “I don’t wish to frighten you, but our time grows short.”
“Or the storm. It’s dangerous to be in such a place.”
She shivered. The storm was preparing to unleash its fury and she was wasting time. He was too kind to tell her, but he would if she continued to act like a child. “I…I can try.”
He winked. “That’s all I ask.”
The view reappeared when he stepped around and behind her. Chest heaving, she gaped anew—
No! The task, she had to focus on the task. She opened her mouth, but no sound came.
L’Wreel rested his hands on her shoulders and squeezed.
She slowed her breathing as an elder once taught all the children, but the tragic images sought to intrude through the open door that was memory.
Eyes closed, she opened all her senses. No drops were falling, but the thin air was laden with rainfall and the smell of it was rich. Too, the air was glacial air, a thicker chill containing the moisture of the ancient world. She wet her lips. Tasted it. It was the dream that knew no time of day.
L’Wreel squeezed again and eased his grip.
She sang. She sang the song she should have long ago forgotten. Instead, after a faltering start, the moment was as it was when little and she dared utter words forbidden to children. The long ago pronunciations and cadences ushered forth from a place deep within.
The words slid over her lips, as welcome as her mother’s most delicious berry cakes passing in the other direction. Her lungs expanded to capture more force and her voice climbed through the storm clouds. It was the old song, but carving a new memory in a land-bound heart that knew there was more. She pulled back her shoulders and raised her chest.
The song granted permission for her voice to ride the currents and the currents couldn’t keep pace.
L’Wreel pulled her back to his protective embrace and her voice faltered.
A crack! sounded in the clouds and she cried out. Lightning struck a distant point to the west and a tree exploded. Boulders tumbled into the valley. Wind stoked flames and carried the smoke. The air sizzled and danced over her skin as the first raindrop struck her cheek.
And it all paled against a dream realized.
Out of the clouds, a great beast with an impossible wingspan swept towards her. It was magnificent, but they must run. The goddess Lyra knew she’d done an awful thing and now their punishment descended to strike her down. Why did L’Wreel hold steady when they must flee?
The gryphon landed on the point she’d vacated a moment before, thrust out its chest, and released a cry rivaling thunder’s mightiest hammer. Half growl and half shriek, it suppressed the storm and ripped through her brain. Her hands went over her ears. Its talons and claws scratched the rock and shards flew. It lifted its chest again, the second cry cutting the first’s echo.
Their moment to flee was gone. It was too late.
M’Ameth’s knees buckled, but strong arms rescued her dignity. It took several attempts to swallow. The wind was swirling in her open mouth and rendering it a place devoid of rain, as some said existed.
His hand pressed against her back. “You must approach it, but slowly.”
“Me? It…it’ll eat me!”
“No. It’ll ignore you and leave or it’ll allow a bond.”
“Trust me. You need do nothing more than approach. The gryphon will do the rest. Remember the second verse.”
The second verse? How could she remember verses at such a moment? “L’Wreel?”
“Time is short.” He reached around and set a hand over her heart. “I’m always here.”
Released, she forced a foot forward, but the leg seemingly became logouve heart, the hardest wood known. Land tremors created within spread up and down the wooden limb. Sweat broke across her brow despite the chilling gale.
The great animal’s scrutiny was unyielding, worse than the elders dealt when she’d broken the rules. How could she manage trembling limbs and walk? Would it disapprove if she crawled instead? What if the beast attacked her for daring to meet its eagle-like stare? Though smaller than the one other gryphon she’d seen, it still dwarfed her.
Or was it smaller because she’d grown? It wouldn’t matter when it feasted on her.
The talons in front dragged on the rock and it cocked its head, its gaze locked on her every move. White and black plumage across the chest gave way to gray fur. Its presence emitted power it might be possible to touch.
If she was brave.
She raised a hand in defense.
It cried out as lightning streaked across the churning background and her right knee buckled.
Clouds in ever-darkening shades rolled over themselves and each other. Thunder battered the mountainsides into falling stones. The other knee folded and she knelt. Shaking violently, she bowed her head.
An unseen force assaulted with unrelenting pressure not unlike the electricity in the air. She squirmed and winced. It probed. It sought a weakness. If it touched her thoughts it’d know she wasn’t worthy.
The gryphon would eat her or the lightning would descend and turn her to ashes. Death would come as it already had for those she loved.
No, it was too much for L’Wreel to ask. She must flee.
Her defenses broke.
The unseen force swept in, flooding her inner landscape. Air fled her lungs and bent her over. The lungs refilled in a rush and her body jolted.
The world changed. Her sense of self grew—to include another.
Tears ran. Not grief. Something brighter like spring rain. The strength the climb stole returned. She stood, her steps to the magnificent creature endowed with newfound grace. It nuzzled and she wrapped her arms around its neck. She ran a hand over feathers transitioning to coarse fur. Could she ever let go?
“You are dear to me, now and always.” The wind drowned her words, but they were heard. The silent acknowledgement warmed her inside.
A name formed in her mind. Spha.
Big hands thrust her onto the gryphon’s back. She dug her fingers into the fur behind the feathers and cast a glance at the precipice on the mountain’s southern side.
Wind lifting her hair, she turned to L’Wreel. Why did he wait? They were saved. With a gryphon beneath them they could go anywhere they wished. Perhaps far enough to forget.
L’Wreel stared at her as if memorizing her features. Where there should be excitement there were tears. Never had she seen him cry.
The escalating storm forced her to yell. “What’re you doing?”
He surveyed the gryphon and shook his head. “It cannot be. He’s too young. Two would be too much.”
“No!” Behind him a score of angry, murderous men were emerging from the trees, their steps faltering upon spying the gryphon. Sharp, bloody weapons were raised in their hands. She shook her head with short, jerky movements. “No, he can try.”
“And we’d all perish in the effort, for I’ve no doubt he’d give his last to save you, as he always will.”
“Then he can fight them.”
“There are too many with bows. I’ll not sacrifice him—and you.” He touched her arm and smiled. “But, then, you know that.”
“I have a few tricks in my destiny yet. Your destiny begins now.” He forced a smile. “Remember the second verse.”
“No! I don’t want to—”
“He’s bound to you, but only so long as your heart recognizes his freedom.” He glanced over his shoulder and back.
“Please don’t do this.” She sobbed. “You said you’d never leave me!”
He set his hand to her heart anew. “And I never will. We are one, you safe and me in your heart. I’ll never leave you, but for us both to survive you must leave me.”
“I…I cannot. Please—”
“You must, and you will. You’re strong. You’ll thrive. Believe in yourself, as you should. I, who should have been watching for threats, was selfishly exploring the wilds instead. I failed Mythwyll and our people, but you will not.”
“What? That…that can’t be…”
“Mythwyll is dying, the elves with it. Except for you, our hope. He’ll take you to Forstava, to the ora’ean. They’re related to the elves. Remember that you bring what they can’t resist: your gift of song. For that, if nothing else, they’ll accept you. Their northern mountains, the A-mlu Thros, are where all gryphons originate. You’ll be a true leader there.”
He squeezed her hand and retreated. She shifted to escape the beast’s back, but the gryphon lifted to the sky, the land falling away.
Eyes burning, she griped the animal tighter. Below, L’Wreel was releasing arrows at the approaching killers. A lightning bolt flashed, barely missed Spha, and the mountaintop disappeared in a burst of dirt, broken stone, and burning brush, the haze hiding all from view.
“No!” She gripped tighter the gray fur beneath her hands. The animal banked right and for an instant the lost home that was forever childhood appeared. The smoke filled back in.
It’d allow no more memories be seized.
The gryphon climbed, outrunning the storm. Mountains larger than those surrounding her past slipped beneath on the animal’s northeast track, on its way to Forstava and the ora’ean, on its way to the A-mlu Thros.
Her eyes dried and she raised higher, her back straight. Her hair fluttered in the breeze. The clouds, unable to keep pace, fell behind and the sun appeared, its warmth caressing her face.
The burning in her heart continued. It would always burn, but maybe there was a special place to store the fire. She released one hand and held it to her heart. They were all there. She was alone, but not alone.
The words returned…
a gryphon caged
is never bound.
a gryphon free
binds to you.
©March 2017, Christina Anne Hawthorne