amberdrake: (to hear a story no one’s telling anymore)
[personal profile] amberdrake
Because you can't youtube books, I've hand-typed the first two chapters of the first book.

This will likely be friendslocked a few days after he gets into a game.

          Chapter One

     Silence.
      Cold wind played against Skandranon’s nares—a wind as frigid as the hearts of the killers below. Their hearts pumped blood unlike any other creature’s; thick black blood, warmed when their commanders willed it—only when they flew, only when they hunted, only when they killed.
     Their blood was cold, and yet it ran warmer than their masters’. This much Skandranon Rashkae knew; he had fought their masters since he was a fledgling himself. They were cruel and cunning, these makaar, and yet the worst aspects of these manufactured horrors paled before the cruelty of their creators.
     Silence. Stay still. Quiet.
      Skandranon remained motionless, crouched, feathers compressed tight to his body. He was silent to more than hearing; that silence was but one of the powers that had made his master and friend so powerful, although it was the power that had given him his name—Urtho, the Mage of Silence. Urtho’s champions had invisibility against magical sight—to mind-scanning, to detection spells, to magical scrying. The enemies of his monarchy had spent much of their resources on foiling that edge—to no avail, it seemed—and now concentrated on more direct methods of destroying Urtho’s hold on the verdant central-land’s riches.
      Skan kept his wings folded, the leading edge of each wing tucked under the soft black feathers at the sides of his chest. It was important to be quiet and keep his head down, even this far from the encampment. The journey here had been one of long soars and kiting, and although he was in the best physical shape ever, flight muscles protested even yet. Better now to rest and watch. The chill wind rippled against his coat of feathers. This day had turned out unseasonably cold, which hadn’t helped him any—except that it kept the makaar willing to make only the most necessary flights.
      He watched them sleeping restlessly, twitching in their dreams. Did they know how transient, how fleeting, they were? How their creators built them, bred them, refined them, letting the bad stock die out by assigning them to the border? Did they know their masters designed them with short lives so the generations would cycle quicker, to reveal the defects more conveniently?
      They were, despite their horrifying appearances and deadly claws, quite pitiful. They’d never know the caress of a caring lover—they would only know the heat of imposed breeding. They knew their lot was the searing pain of a torture-weapon if they failed. They never lay in the sun with a friend, or dashed in the air with their wingmates.
      They’d never risk their lives to do something because they felt it was right. Perhaps that was the greatest pity of all; they could not be broken because they had no honor to compromise, no will to subvert.
      The makaar and the gryphons were a study in contrasts, despite the darker mages’ obvious attempts to mimic the Mage of Silence’s handiwork. If gryphons were sinuous, graceful storms, makaar were blustering squalls. The gryphons were bold, intelligent, crafty; the makaar were conditioned to blind obedience. And one need only ask Skandranon which was the more attractive; he’d likely answer, “I am.”
     Vain bird. You’ll make a lovely skin on a Commander’s wall.
      Skandranon breathed deeply behind the line of trees atop the hill; before him was the Pass of Stelvi. The coming army had stormed it, at the cost of but a few hundred of their soldiers compared to the thousand of Urtho’s garrison. Farther down the pass was the split valley which once supported a thriving trade-town. Laisfaar was now the army’s quarters, and the surviving townsfolk made into servants no better off than slaves. In the other fork the valley the commanders had stationed the army’s supplies and creatures, including the sleeping makaar.
      They might as well sleep; they did not need to fear sorcerous spying. The army’s mages had shielded the area from magical scrying, and none of Urtho’s many attempts to search the valley by spell had worked. That had left the need for study by stealth—risky at best, suicidal at worst.
      Skandranon had, of course, volunteered.
     Fly proudly to your doom laughing, vain bird, the best of the best; more suitors than sense, more wealth than wisdom, sharp claws ready to dig your own funeral pit....
      His meeting with Urtho had been brief by choice. The offer was made to send guards and mages; Skandranon declined. Urtho offered to bolster his defensive spells, as he had done so many times before; it was declined as well. What Skan asked for was enhancement of his magical sense—his Mage-sight had been losing sharpness of late due to disuse. Urtho had smiled and granted it, and Skandranon had left immediately from the Tower itself, leaping broad-winged onto the wind’s shivering back.
      That was three dozen leagues and four meals ago; a long time to cover such a distance. It was a tactical disaster for his side that the enemy’s army had advanced this close to Urtho’s Tower; now it appeared they were prepared to march on the Tower itself. The layout of the encampments showed three separate cadres of troops; the makaar had been assigned equally to two of them. And between those two was the Weaponsmaster’s coach, staked firmly and blanketed, flanked by two canvas-covered wagons.
     Hold a moment now. With a town nearby—hearths and comfortable bedding—the Weaponsmaster is staying in a tent?
      Each side in this war had Seers and Diviners, whose powers could throw secret plans, however perfectly laid, awry. A Seer waking with a powerful premonition of an assassination could thwart the attempt, for instance. The night before Stelvi Pass was taken, a Seer’s vision told of a horrible new weapon that would devastate the garrison Urtho had placed there. It was something magical, the woman had said, but was in the hands of common soldiers. That warning alone was enough to make the gryphon wary, and had made him determined to explore this valley.
      In a war of mages, the limited number of Adepts and Masters made tactical planning easier; you could study your opponents, guess their resources, even identify them by their strategies without ever seeing the commander himself. What alarmed Skandranon was the idea that the power of a mage could be put in the hands of untrained people—those who did not have the innate powers or learned skills of a mage. The units that could be fielded with such weapons would be an unwelcome variable, difficult to guard against if at all. A Master could ride onto a battlefield and call on his own powers, unleashing firebolts, lightning, hurricanes of killing wind—yet he was still just one man, and could be eliminated. But soldiers that could that would be devastating, even if the weapons were employed but once each. And if an Adept had discovered a way for the weapons to draw on the power from magical nodes—
      That was too horrifying to think of further. Skandranon had faced the Adept commander of all the troops below, the Kiyamvir Ma’ar, twenty months ago. He had volunteered for that mission, too, and had limped home wing-broken, stricken with nightmares. He had seen his wingmates skinned by the Adept’s spells, feathered coats peeled back in strips by the Adept’s will alone in full daylight, despite Skan’s attempts to counterspell. The nightmares had left him now, but the memory made him determined to protect Urtho’s people from the Kiyamvir’s merciless rule.
      Skandranon’s eyes focused on the town of Laisfaar. Urtho’s garrison had not been all human; there had been hertasi, a few tervardi, and three families of gryphons. His eyes searched the ramparts, noted the wisps of smoke of fires still burning since the attack. There were the aries of the gryphons; the ramps for visitors, the sunning beds, the fledglings’ nests....
     ...the bloodstains, the burned feathers, the glistening rib cage....
     All the usual atrocities. Damn them.
     She had been alive until very recently; she had escaped the worst of it by dying of shock and blood loss. The makaar had no love for gryphons, and their masters gave them a still-living one after a battle as a reward. Often it was a terrified fledgling, like this gray-shafted gryphon had been. The rest of the garrison’s gryphons had doubtless been wing-cut, caged, and sent to the Kiyamvir for his pleasures by now. Skandranon knew well that, unless Ma’ar was distracted by his business of conquest, there would be nothing left of them to rescue by day’s end.
      If he could, Skandranon would insure the captives would not last that long. Crippled as they would likely be, he couldn’t help them escape; but he might be able to end their ordeal.
      Before that, he had a larger duty to attend to.
      Now he moved, slinking belly-flat to the ground, catlike; one slow step at a time, eeling his way through he underbrush with such delicate care that not even a leaf rustled. The Weaponsmaster’s wagon had plenty of guards, but not even the Weaponsmaster could control terrain. The mountains themselves provided brush-filled ravines for Skandranon to creep through, and escarpments that overlooked the wagons. The encampment was guarded from attack from above by makaar, but only over the immediate vicinity of the camp. It was guarded from penetration from below by the foot-soldiers, but only outside the camp itself. No one had guarded against the possibility of someone flying into the area of the camp, behind the sentry lines, then landing and proceeding on foot to the center of the camp.
      No one could have, except a gryphon. No one would have, except Skandranon. The omission of a defense against gryphon spying told him volumes about the military commanders who led this force. The Kiyamvir would reprimand them well for such a mistake—but then, Ma’ar was the only one on their side who understood the gryphons’ abilities. Most commanders simply assumed gryphons and makaar were alike, and planned defenses accordingly.
      So Skandranon stayed in the shadows, moving stealthily, as unlike a makaar as possible.
      Time meant nothing to him; he was quite prepared to spend all night creeping into place. Even in the most strictly ruled of armies, discipline slackens after a victory. Soldiers are weary and need rest; victory makes them careless. Skan had timed his movements to coincide with that period of carelessness.
      He noted no sentries within the bounds of the camp itself; his sharp hearing brought him no hint that the commanders prowled about, as they were wont to do before a battle. Doubtless, the commanders were as weary as the soldiers and slept just as deeply.
      He spent his moments waiting committing details to memory; even if he died, if his body were somehow recovered, Urtho could still sift his last memories for information. That would only work if he died swiftly, though. Otherwise, the memories would be overcome by sensory input; thus the immediate torture of gryphon captives. Daring rescues had occurred before, and once retrieved, the gryphons’ bodies were tremendous sources of information.
      That could also be a clue to where the rest of the gryphon families were; it was also not unheard of to use captives as bait for rescue-traps. Captives’ minds were often stripped of the will to resist, the prisoners forced to give information to the enemy. That was why Skandranon held a horrible power—a spell of death keyed to gryphons—for mercy.
      And he hoped with every drop of blood that he would never be required to use it again.
      Halfway to his goal he froze as he heard footsteps approaching the stand of tall grasses where he lay hidden. The cover that had seemed adequate a moment earlier seemed all too thin now—
     Clever bird, hiding in grass. Better hope the wind doesn’t blow—
      But the footsteps stumbled, and Skan held his breath, not wanting to betray his position by breathing steam into the cold air. He froze in mid-step, right foreclaw held a mere thumb length above the ground.
      He could not see the human who approached without turning his head, which he would not do. He could only wait and listen.
      The footsteps stopped; there was a muffled curse, and the sound of hands fumbling with cloth—Then, clear and unmistakable, the sound of a thin stream of water hitting the matted grasses.
      The human grunted, yawned,; the sound of trousers being hitched up followed. The footsteps stumbled away again.
      Skandranon unfroze and lowered his claw to the ground.
      There were no other incidents as he made his way up the escarpment and slid under the shelter of a knot of wild plum bushes, to wait until dawn. He could feel the beetles and spiders of the thicket exploring their newly-arrived piece of landscape as the minutes went by. Despite the impulse to yelp and swat them, though, he stayed still. Their irritation provided a blessing in a way; something to feel, to keep his senses alert after nightfall.
      Skandranon’s tentative plan was to wait until darkness, then sneak out to explore the camp. Other warriors suspected his stealthiness was a result of Urtho’s magicking, although the elder denied it, citing the gryphon’s near-obsessive interest in dancing movements. He had often watched Skandranon mimicking human, tervardi, and hertasi performers in private. Skandranon had trained himself with a dedication he would never admit except as a boast, applying that knowledge to flight, to lovemaking, and to combat. That, in truth, was what made him quiet than a whisper of wind; no spells or tricks, just practiced grace.
     Silence alone is not enough. Urtho has learned that the hard way—we’ve lost border towns for half a generation, and only now begun doing more than simply defending our borders. Eh, well, Urtho had never intended to become Archmage. He’s more suited to crafting silver and carving figures than deploying armies.
      Such a pity that a man so kindhearted would be pressed into the role of a warlord... but better he than a heartless man.
     And I’d certainly rather be off making little gryphlets.
      That would have to wait until the world became a safer place to raise young, though. For now, Skandranon waited... until a shriek rang out from the town, echoing off the walls of the valley. Only practiced self-control kept him from leaping into the air, claws stretched to rend and tear.
     One at least still lives. I’m coming, friend, I’m coming... just hold on a little longer. Just a little. Feh, I can’t wait any longer.
      Skandranon stood and surveyed the layout of the encampment again; he’d heard screams like that too many times in his life. Not again. He spread his wings half-open and leapt, down toward the Weaponsmaster’s wagons, depending on speed to be his ally. Knifelike wind whistled against his nares, chilling his sinuses, sharpening his mind. All the sights and sounds of the world intensified when he was in motion, sizes and details of shapes all taken into account for the entire span of his vision.
     Snatch and fly, that’s your plan, isn’t it, damned foolish bird? You’re going to die the hero they all call you, for what? Because you couldn’t stand another moment of another gryphon’s pain? Couldn’t wait any longer.
      The wagons rushed closer in his sight, and their magical alarms blazed into light, waiting like barbed snares to be triggered. Were they traps, too, besides being alarms? Would they trap him? Were they the bait, not the tortured gryphon?
     Would it matter? You’re too damned predictable, Skan, too sensitive, couldn’t stand to wait. She’d die anyway, you know it, by the time you’d have gone in. Why do it?
      Colors and textures rushed past him in three dimensions, as he dove ever closer to the wagons.
     It’s because you’re not bright enough, stupid gryphon. Stupid, stupid gryphon.
      Well, death is inevitable anyway, so dying for the right reason is...
      Just as final.
      Stupid gryphon.

      Too late for reconsideration, though. The wagon alarm-fields loomed nearer, and Skan had to risk a spell to disarm them—the easiest was one which made them detect another place nearby, instead of the place they were supposed to protect. He focused on them, released the flow into them, diverted their field away to an open part of the camp... and they did not sound. Now his troubles stemmed from the soldiers who might still be outside—and the makaar. He might be invisible to the alarms, but he was still pitch black to anyone’s vision. A soldier of Ma’ar’s army would not wonder at a shadow that moved through the sky—he’d call an alert.
      He half-hoped for detection, since he would likely have the quarry before any spells could be leveled against him. Once discovered, he would not have to skulk about any longer... he could blaze away with a detection spell to find the gryphon whose scream he’d heard earlier. Otherwise there would be delicate searching for—who knew how long. Of course, discovery also brought such pesky distractions as arrows and firebolts and snares and spells....
      He backwinged and landed, kicking up clods of dirt next to the wagon, and his head darted from side to side, looking for spotters. None yet, but that could change all too quickly. Two steps to the back of the wagon, then under it—no one ever guards the bottoms of things, only sides and doors—and he began prying at the wagon’s floorboards, next to the struts and axles, where the mud, water, and friction of traveling always rots the wood. He was curled up under the wagon completely, on his back, tail tucked between his legs, wings folded in against his ribs, hind claws holding the wingtips. He didn’t dare rip at the canvas of the wagon’s bonnet—past experience had shown that apparently flimsy defenses were often imbued with alarm-spells. His claws glowed faintly with the disruption-spell he was using, and the wood shriveled above where his claws slowly raked, silent from the sound-muffling of his cupped wings.
      The enemy’s wagons traditionally had an aisle down the middle, and that was where Skandranon was working ... another four cuts, five, six, and he’d be able to pull the boards down under the blanket of a silence-spell. Then he’d get a look inside at their coveted prize.
      He began mentally reciting the silence-spell, calling up the energy from inside himself and releasing it around the wagon. He was careful to mold it short of touching the wagon itself, building it up from the ground. The wagon’s defenses might yet be sensitive to the touch of just such a spell. It was hard to tell anymore, so many variables, so many new traps....
      He hoped that the mages under Ma’ar’s command did not sweep the camp for magic at work. Things were going so well, so far. Skan reached up, claws digging firmly into the crossbrace, cracked through it, and the entire aisle section fell to the ground, inches in front of his beak....
     ...and Skandranon found himself face to face with a very upset, recently awakened Weaponsmaster, who was drawing something—surely a weapon—up from beneath his bedding. The weapon pointed at the gryphon and started changing.
      Skan’s right claw shot out and struck the human’s scalp and squeezed, finding yielding flesh. His thumb pierced the man’s eye socket, and inside the envelope of silence, a gurgling scream faded into the wet sounds of Skan withdrawing his talons from the kill.
      The man’s hands twitched and dropped the weapon, which was still pointing at Skandranon. It was a polished rod, wrapped in leather, with a glowing, spiked tip revealed where the leather ended. It rolled from the dead man’s fingers and fell to the ground, and the tip withdrew into the rod.
     On your back, underneath a wagon, in an enemy camp, and you kill a Weaponsmaster one-handed? No one will ever believe it. Ever. That was too close, too close, stupid gryphon.
      Someone will come by soon, Skan. Move. Get the whatever-it-is and get away. That’s all you need to do. Get away.

      Skan released his wingtips and pulled himself across the body of the slain human, keelbone scraping against the ragged edge of sundered wood. His wing-edges caught, pinning him in the opening, and he wheezed with the effort of pulling himself through. It was dim inside. Only the waning light from outside leaking through the canvas-openings provided any illumination. Around him, stacked in open cases, waited glistening objects, the same as the Weaponsmaster had held, each the size of his foreclaws.
      Each far more deadly than his claws, he was sure.
      They must be some entirely new kind of weapon, and he needed no spell-casting to know their magical origin. They exuded magic, their collective power making his feathers crawl like being in the heart of a lightning storm abrewing. Now to grab one and leave! Skan reached toward the cases, almost touching one of them, when his inner voice screamed “No!
     The Weaponsmaster had one, and he was guarding these, they may all be trapped....
      A hair-thin crackle of reddish energy arced between the weapons and his extended foreclaw, confirming his fears.
     Then there may be only one that isn’t trapped....
      He moved slowly, wings folded so tight it hurt. Up onto his haunches, then back down to all fours, until he faced the rear of the wagon. Then he reached down through the shattered floorboards, groping for the slain Master’s weapon. It didn’t make sense for Skan that the man would trap his own weapon, even if he was a mage; Weaponsmasters as a rule tended to be terribly impressed with themselves, and thought they could candle anything... Too bad, so sad, first mistake and last. What’s that, stupid bird, you’re getting cocky because you’ve lasted this long? More to do, and every second is borrowed time.
      At least, came the feel of the rod, warm to his touch despite the thickness of his scaled skin. He reared back, eyes closed to the thinnest of slits, concentrating on not touching the racks of trapped arms. He transferred his prize to his mouth, clenching it tightly above his tongue, and fell forward across the gaping entrance he’d made, stretching across it toward the untied flap of the bonnet.
     All right. What’s the worst that could happen? I touch the canvas, and the entire wagon goes up with all the energy in these things. That’d be just like Ma’ar, if he can’t have them, no one else can.... I’d better count on it.
      Skandranon bunched up his leg muscles, preparing for a massive leap through the exit, when he heard bootsteps outside, and a moment later, a shadowy figure opened the flap, cursing in the enemy’s tongue.
     Now. Now!
      In the same instant, the figure opened the canvas, and the gryphon leapt. Skan used the man’s shoulders as a vault, crushing the man’s face against the back of the wagon from his momentum. He snapped his wings open, catching the edges, as the human crumpled underneath him. Then a deafening sound exploded around them as the wagon’s final trap was set off—a crimson circle of fire spread across the ground, incinerating the human, catching the other wagon. A thrashing body was engulfed in the flame arcing from it as Skandranon gained altitude.
      The makaar roused.
     End of your charmed life, gryphon. At least now you can cast freely before you die... find her, wherever she is, accomplish that at least—
      Skan’s wings rowed the air, clutching for distance from the camp. There was one thing yet to do before his conscience would let him leave. Somewhere—his mind searched through the camp and town for where—there was one of his own kind being killed, slowly....
      He searched, and found her tortured mind as he crested the ridge. It felt as if her body had been lanced deep by thousands of needles, cut on by a hundred mad surgeons, broken by mallets, yet still she lived. There was a wrenching moment as Skan’s mind reeled from the backlash of what had been done to her, and he felt his wings fold involuntarily.
     :Kill me,: she screamed, :Stop them something—anything!:
     :Open up to me,: Skan sent to her, :Open up to me and trust—there will be pain at first, then all will be dark. You’ll fly again, as Urtho wills....:
      She halted her scream as she recognized the code sign for the death-spell. No one had made a move to block it yet—
      He pulled back from her for a bare second, trying to steady himself in his flight. He reached out again, riding the wind, then unleashed the spell, caught her mind, pulled it free of her body for one gut-wrenching second. The spell struck home and stopped her heart.
     I am sorry, so sorry... you will fly again after the dark... Then he released her spirt to the winds.
      Somewhere in the captured inn, a bound and wing-cut body convulsed, then lay still. Above the valley, Skandranon raced away desperately, unable to cry out for her, as seven makaar surged skyward to destroy him.

     At last, the General slept.
     Amberdrake started to rise, then sank back down to his seat on the side of the General’s bed as Corani woke convulsively, with a tiny gasp. The anguish was still there, filling the room, palpable even to the weakest Empath. For an Empath as strong as Amberdrake, the impact of Corani’s pain was a blow to the heart.
     Amberdrake waited for the General to speak, while radiating warmth and reassurance, concentrating on the soothing scents still flavoring the air as a vehicle for that reassurance; the gentle hint of amber incense, the chamomile in the oils he had used in his massage, the jessamine covering the taste of sleep-herbs in the tea he’d given Corani. He ignored the throbbing pain in his own temples, his tension-knotted stomach, and the terrible sensation of foreboding that had come upon him at the General’s summons. His feelings did not matter; he was a kestra’chern, and his client—more patient than client, as was often the case—needed him. He must be the strong one, the rock to rest against. He did not know Corani well; that was all to the good. Often men of power found it easier to unburden themselves to a stranger than to a friend.
     The General’s suite was in Urtho’s keep and not in a tent in the camp; easy enough here to pull heavy curtains to shut out the light and the world with it, to burn dim, scented lamps that invoked a feeling of disassociation from the armed camp beyond the keep. The General himself had not summoned Amberdrake; the few times he had called to the camp for a kestra’chern, it had been Riannon SilKedre he had wanted—slightly inferior to Amberdrake in skill, an accomplished and well-respected female. No, one of Urtho’s aides had come to the tent—quietly, with his livery hidden beneath a cloak, which said more about the aide’s visit than the boy himself did.
     Urtho was still closeted with his General when Amberdrake arrived, but when he finally returned to his quarters, he did not seem surprised to see Amberdrake there. He was clearly distraught, and yet it had taken Amberdrake hours and every bit of his skill to persuade him to unburden himself.
     And he knew why Urtho had chosen him and not Riannon. There were times when it was easier for a man to reveal his pain to a man—and Amberdrake was utterly trustworthy. Whatever was revealed to him remained with him forever. He was many things to many people; tonight he had been something of a Healer, something of a priest, something of a simple, noncommittal ear.
     “You must be disappointed,” the General said, into the lamp-lit dimness, his voice resigned. “You must think I’m a weakling now.”
     That was what Corani said; Amberdrake, being what he was, heard what Corani meant.
     He was really saying, “I must disgust you for falling apart like this, for looking so poorly composed,” and, “You must despise me and think me unworthy of my position.”
     “No,” Amberdrake replied simply, to both the spoken and unspoken assertions. He did not want to think what the General’s collapse meant to him, personally; he must not think of it. Must not remember the messengers that roused the camp last night; the premonitions that had awakened the more sensitive and marginally Gifted among the Healers and kestra’chern from nightmares of blood and fire against the outline of the mountains. Must not think of the fact that Corani’s family came from Laisfaar at Stelvi Pass, and that while his sons had posts with the army here, his wife and all his relatives were back there. There, where Skandranon had gone. He and Gesten did not know why, or for what reason; Amberdrake only knew that he had gone off without a farewell.
     “No,” Amberdrake repeated, taking the General’s outflung hand before Corani could reclaim it, and massaging the palm and fingers carefully. The muscles felt cramped and tight; Corani’s hand was cold. “How could I be that stupid? You are human and mortal; we are the sum of our weak moments and our strong. Everyone has a moment at which he must break; this one was yours. It is no shame to need help and know it.”
     Somewhere, deep inside, he wondered if it was also his. There was pressure building inside him that threatened to break free at any moment. He was not so self-confident that he thought he could do without help. The question was, would there be any there for him? Too many battered spirits to mend—too many bruised bodies to comfort—the resources of Healers and kestra’chern alike were stretched and overstretched. That he was near the end of his reserves made little difference.
     Far too many of his clients had gone out to battle and had not returned. And Skan had been due back this morning; it had been near sunset when the aide left him in Corani’s quarters. Skan was never overdue.
     But for now, this moment, he must put his own strain aside. None of that must show—he couldn’t let it break his concentration or his focus. Corani came first; Corani must be comforted enough, given enough reinforcing, as if he were a crumbling wall, that he could function and come to heal. Something had gone wrong, terribly wrong, at Stelvi Pass. Corani had not told him what, but Amberdrake knew with dreadful certainty. Stelvi Pass had been overrun; Laisfaar, and Corani’s family with it, was no more. It would be better for them to be dead than in Ma’ar’s hands unless they’d hidden their identities and vanished in to the general population. And that was unlikely.
     Corani accepted this, as wise generals accepted all facts. Corani had accepted Amberdrake’s comforting as well. For the moment, anyway. That was another of Amberdrake’s abilities; it bought time. Time to bring distance, time to heal. “My sons—”
     ”I think that Urtho has seen to them as well,” Amberdrake replied quickly. Urtho would have seen to everything; it was his way.
     Skan—
     Quickly, he suppressed the thought and the anguish it caused.
     The drugs in the General’s tea took effect; in the dim light, Corani struggled to keep his eyes open, eyes still red and swollen from weeping. The General had fought those tears, fought to keep them properly held inside with the determination that had made him the leader he was. Amberdrake had fought his determination with a will of his own that was no less stubborn. “It’s time to sleep,” Amberdrake said quietly.
     Corani blinked, but held him with an assessing gaze. “I’m not certain what I expected when I saw you here,” he said, finally. “Based on Riannon—”
     “What Riannon gave you was what you needed then,” Amberdrake replied, gently touching the general’s shoulder. “What I do is what you need now. Sometimes neither is what the recipient expects.” He laid a soothing hand on Corani’s forehead. “That is what a kestra’chern does, after all; gives you what you need.”
     “And not necessarily what I want,” Corani said quickly.
     Amberdrake shook his head. “No, General. Not necessarily what you think you want. Your heart knows what you want, but often your head has some other idea. It is the task of the kestra’chern to ask your heart, and not your head, what you need and answer that need.”
     Corani nodded, his eyelids drooping.
     “You are a strong man and a good leader, General Corani,” Amberdrake continued. “But no man can be in two places at the same time. You could not be here and there as well. You cannot anticipate everything the enemy will do, nor where he will strike. The War thinks in its own way. You are not answerable for the entire army. You did what you could, and you did it well.”
     The muscles of Corani’s throat tightened visibly as he fought for control. Amberdrake sensed tears being forced down. Corani was on the verge of more than tears; he was on the verge of a breakdown. This would accomplish nothing, worse than nothing. The man needed rest, and with Amberdrake’s hand resting on his forehead, he was open to Amberdrake’s will.
     “You must sleep,” Kestra’chern Amberdrake said, imposing a mental command on top of the drugs. Corani closed his eyes, and this time he did not reawaken when Amberdrake rose to go.

     Gesten would be where he had been since dawn; at the landing field, waiting for Skandranon to return. Amberdrake left the keep, slipping unobrusively out into the scarlet of a spectacular sunset. The landing field was not far away, and Amberdrake decided to head there, rather than going straight back to his tent.
     Depression weighed heavily on his heart, a depression that was not relieved by the sight of Gesten alone in the field, patiently making preparations to wait out the night-watch.
     Amberdrake held his peace for a moment, then spoke.
     “He’s not coming back this time,” Amberdrake said quietly.
     His hertasi companion, Gesten, looked up at him with his expressive eyes and exhaled through his nostrils. He held his pebble-scaled snout shut for a long minute. “He’ll come. He always does,” Gesten finally said. “Somehow.”
     Amberdrake wished with all his heart that the little hertasi would be right this time. Skandranon had flown from the Tower two days before, and Stelvi Pass was less than a day away, flying; he had never been delayed by so much before. Gesten was going about the task of building a watch-fire for their friend, laying out colored smoke-pots amidst the kindling. It might be a useless gesture, but it was all he could really do right now, with dawn so far away. Light up a pattern of blue and white to welcome the flyer home, let him know from far away that safety was close... Amberdrake tried to help, but he was awkward, and his heart wasn’t in it. How odd, that one so graceful in his calling could be so clumsy outside it.
     “Urtho has called a council.” That much was common knowledge; no harm in telling the hertasi now. “Two gryphons came streaking in from Laisfaar straight to the Tower, and two hours after that, Urtho sent a message ordering me to tend General Corani.”
     Gesten nodded, apparently taking Amberdrake’s meaning—that Corani needed the peculiar skills of a kestra’chern. The general had been permanently assigned to the Pass, until Urtho needed him more than his home district did. For the last week he’d been at the Tower, pleading with Urtho for some special protection for Stelvi Pass and the town. That much was common knowledge, too.
     “What can you tell me?” Gesten knew very well that there was only so much Amberdrake could reveal to him. “What did Corani need?”
     Amberdrake paused, searching for the right word.
     “He needed sympathy, Gesten,” he said as he laid down a stack of oily fire fuel logs. “Something happened in the Tower that he didn’t want to talk about; and I can only assume that from the way he acted, the news was the worst. Kept talking about blind spots—he was near to a breakdown. That’s not like him. And now... Skandranon is late.” Amberdrake smoothed his silk caftan, brushing the wood chips away. He felt worry lines creasing a face even his enemies called handsome, but he was too depressed to care.
     Absently, he pulled his long hair back from where it had fallen astray. “I don’t think he’s coming back this time. I can feel it in my gut...”
     Gesten picked up a small log and pointed it up at Amberdrake. “He will be back, I feel it in my gut, Drake, and I won’t put up with your whining about ‘poor Skan.’ He always comes back. Always. Understand? And I’ll be here, with this watch-fire, until either he comes back or this army runs out of firelogs.”
     Amberdrake stepped back, thoroughly chastised, and more than a little surprised at the vehemence of the normally quiet lizard’s speech. Gesten stood pointing the stick at him a moment more, then spit at the air and threw it on the growing stack of kindling.
     “I’m sorry, Gesten.” Though he meant he was sorry about angering the hertasi, Gesten would probably take it some other way. “It’s just that... you know how I feel about him.”
     “Feh. I know. Everyone knows. You seem to be the only one who doesn’t know.” The hertasi opened the latch on the firebox and withdrew a coal with blackened tongs. His tail lashed as he spoke. “You worry about everything, Drake, and you don’t listen to yourself talking. There is no one in Urtho’s service who is better than him. No one else more likely to come back.” Gesten dropped the coal into the folds of cotton batting and woodchips between the two smoke-pots. “Even if he doesn’t come back, he’ll have died the way he wanted to.”
     Amberdrake bit his lip. Gesten thought he was right, as usual; nothing would dissuade him. Nothing Amberdrake could tell him would persuade him that the situation was hopeless; only the things Amberdrake could not tell him would do that. An he was right; Skan had died the way he wanted to. “I’ll—keep quiet, until we know.”
     “Damned right you will. Now go back to your tent. You can manage your clients without me tonight.” Gesten turned his attention to lighting the center fire, then the blue and white smoke-pots blaze into light. Amberdrake walked into the cooling night air toward the Tower and the semi-mobile city that clustered around it, stopping once to look back at the lonely figure who’d wait for all eternity if need be for the Black Gryphon’s return. His heart, already heavy, was a burden almost too great to bear with the added weight of tears he dared not shed.

     Oh, not now. I don’t need this....
     Skandranon struggled against gravity and rough air, jaws clenched tightly on his prize. His heart was beating hard enough to burst from his chest, and the chase had barely begun—the makaar behind him were gaining, and he was only now past the ridge. As if it weren’t enough that makaar were quicker than gryphons, they possessed better endurance. All they had to do was cut him off and fly him in circles. That was clearly what they intended to do. His advantage was his ability to gain and lose altitude more quickly than they. With cleverness, he could make them react, not act. At least they weren’t terribly well organized—it wasn’t as though Kili was leading them—
     Skandranon twisted his head to assess his pursuers, and spotted an all-too-familiar black and white crest—Kili, the old makaar leader Skan had taunted numerous times. Kili, who had almost trapped him once before, with a much smaller force aflight, was streaking to a pitch a thousand feet above the other six, screaming commands.
     Three gray-patched makaar canted wings back and swept into a shallow dive, gaining on him all the faster by trading height for speed. Their trajectory took them below and past him a few seconds later—and they were followed by another three. He tried to watch them all, eyes darting from one to the other, as they split off and rejoined. Why head below him, when altitude was so important against a gryphon?
     Altitude—damn!
     Instinct took over even as he realized Kili’s gambit. He folded his right wing completely, rolling sideways in midair as the elder makaar streaked past him by a featherlength. A shrill scream of rage rang in his ears as Kili missed, and Skan threw himself out of the roll by snapping his wing open again and spiraling nose-first toward the earth—and the six makaar there.
     That bastard! He had the audacity to learn from me!
     Skan clamped his wings tightly and plummeted through the massed makaar below him, seeing the claws and razor-edged beaks of the surprised makaar as a blur as he shot past. He followed dead on the tail of Kili. The chances of surviving the move were slim—he’d gambled on his swiftness and the makaar did no more damage than removing a few covert feathers.
     Distance for speed—let’s see if they can follow this.
     Kili was so very close ahead that Skan was tempted to strike at him, but he couldn’t afford to be distracted from his primary objective—to survive and escape. Already, the two flights of makaar behind him stroked rapidly to pursue, crying out in outrage. He passed the makaar leader, who predictably took a swipe at him and lost precious speed, and Kili’s recovery was further fouled by the wind turbulence of his passing underlings. The six rowed past Kili, gaining on Skandranon as he coursed back toward Laisfaar.
     Stupid gryphon, the point is to get away from this place!
     The barrier range swept inexorably closer. Skandranon narrowed his concentration to the rockface before him, and studied the erosion channels cut into the stone by ages past. His breath turned ragged through his nares as he struggled against fatigue. From the edge of his vision, he saw the other makaar winging through the Pass, cutting an arc toward the pursuit.
     They’ll see my wings flare, and assume I’m braking to turn or climb—
     Skan cupped his wings as he streaked in a straight line for the sheer cliff-face, feeling but not seeing the bloodthirsty makaar gaining on him from behind. The barrier stone filled his vision as he executed his desperate move: he folded his wings until their leading edges curled under him with a clamp and his straining body rolled into a tumbler’s somersault. He plummeted into a descending arc as lift abandoned him and momentum hurled him toward unforgiving stone.
     Gravity reversed itself; his head snapped into his chest as he fell. Numbly, detachedly, he realized the new, tiny pain in his chest was where the sharp tip of his beak had pierced it. Disorientation took him. All he could do was keep his jaws closed as his world went black, and wonder how many bones this last trick of his would break.
     Follow through—do it, bird, do it—
     He stretched his hindlegs out, and fanned his tail. Wind rushed against the lay of his feathers as he hurled backward.
     In the next instant, he was surrounded by shocked makaar, three above, three below, whose attention was locked on him instead of the rock rushing to strike them from the sky.
     It’s going to work—lucky, stupid gryphon—
     The dizzying sensations of gravity’s pull, momentum’s throw, and the rushing of blood mixed with the sound of six makaar’s screams and the crunching of their bodies against stone. Skandranon’s feet touched the unforgiving rock behind him—and he pushed off.
     The strange maneuver stabilized his tumble; gave him the chance to spread his wings in a snap and break his fall, turn it from a fall into a dive.
     Only the ground was awfully close....
     Pull up, stupid bird, pull up!
     Wings straining, heart racing, he skimmed the rock at the bottom of the cliff, so close that his wingtips brushed it, using his momentum to send himself shooting skyward again, past the spreading stain on the rock that was all that was left on his first pursuers.
     Now get out of here, idiot!
     He reversed his course, away from the pass, back toward home and safety—and looked down.
     At several hundred crossbows.
     Of course, they couldn’t see him, except, perhaps, as a fleeting shadow. But they knew he was up there, and they only had to fill the sky with arrow bolts and rocks, and one or more of them would probably hit him. A quick glance to either side showed that he’d been flanked by the two new flights of makaar; they hemmed him in, and had several gryphon-lengths’ worth of altitude on him. Kili was not in sight; he was probably up above, somewhere, waiting.
     His only chance lay in speed. If he could just get past the archers before they let fly—
     Too late.
     From below came a whirring sound; the air around him was filled with a deadly reverse-rain of crossbow bolts and slung shot. He pulled in his wings in a vain attempt to narrow the target area.
     At first, he didn’t feel pain, only impact. Out of the corner of his eye, he saw a mist of his own blood as his right wing came forward on the downstroke.
     Then it crumpled.
     Then it hurt.
     He tumbled again, only nominally under control, shrieking incoherently around his beakful of stolen weapon.
     He shuddered under the impact of two more hits; the pain came quickly this time, but he forced himself to ignore it. Once again, he tumbled out of control, and this time there was no handy cliff to push off of.
     He pulled in his left wing and rolled over completely; righted himself, still falling. He dared not try and brake completely; the injured wing wouldn’t take it. Instead, he extended just enough of both to turn the fall into another steep dive, angled away from the battle and toward friendly territory.
     Just after his wings flared, he saw Kili whistle past where he had been.
     A little farther—a little farther—
     The ground was coming up awfully fast.
     He was over Urtho’s territory now, on the other side of enemy lines, but he could not, dared not, flare his wings completely. His dive was a steep, fast one, but it was still a dive. The ground had never looked so inviting. Or so hard.
     Ah, sketi, this is going to hurt—

[ Chapter Two: HERE ]

          Chapter Two

     Amberdrake could not sleep; weary as he was, there was no point in lying awake and watching the inside of his eyelids. He wrapped a blanket around his shoulders, and made his way down the dark aisles between the orderly tent rows to the landing field.
     As he came out into the open, away from the lights of the camp, he saw that the sky to the west was a haze of silvery light from the setting moon; it could not be long now, a few hours at most, until dawn. Gesten waited patiently beside his fire, as he had waited all night. Amberdrake had left the last of his clients to join the little lizard, but Gesten was clearly not in any mood to talk.
     The hertasi tended to be silent when something affected his emotions. Amberdrake shared that tendency. In his case, it was due to long self-training; for both of them, it was to preserve the illusion of immutable and eternal stability.
     It was Amberdrake’s duty to convey an impression of serene concern—for Amberdrake’s clients were always damaged in some way these days. Sympathy worked better than empathy, more often than not.
     Clients didn’t want to know their kestra’chern had problems of his own.
     Since he could not be rid of them, he mustn’t let them show, not even for a moment. It was part of the burden of his advocation, and though he’d come to accept it, it still caused a dull ache like a sympathy pain.
     Sympathy pain. Yes, that was exactly what it was like.
     The depression had worsened with every rumor, every bit of camp gossip. Skan had never been this late in returning from a mission; even Gesten must know by now that he wasn’t coming back. He had often joked about how Skan always came rushing back at top speed from a mission; that he couldn’t be back to his rewards and admiration fast enough.
     By now the news had leaked out of a terrible disaster at Stelvi Pass, worse than any defeat Urtho’s forces had faced before. The reaction was not panic, but Amberdrake wondered if there was anyone in the ranks who guessed at what he already knew; that the garrison had been overrun and wiped out completely. As the night grew colder, so did Amberdrake’s heart, and wrapping his body in a spiral-knit blanket over his silks didn’t help at all.
     Gesten still hadn’t spoken. Finally, he could bear it no longer. Without a word, he left his place beside the watch-fire and walked away into the darkness, looking back over his shoulder at the little spot of light and the patient figure hunched beside it. His heart ached, and his throat threatened to close with tears he feared to shed—feared, because once they began, he was not certain he would be able to stop them. Tears for Gesten—and for Skan. Wherever he was.
     Waiting out in the darkness for someone who wasn’t going to come home wasn’t going to accomplish anything. The war went on no matter who grieved. Amberdrake, like so many Kalad’a’in, had long been thinking of the war as a being of its own, with its own needs, plans, and hungers. Those who chose to obey its will, and those who found themselves swept along in its path, had to go on living and pursuing their dreams, even if it did feel as if they were constantly trying to bail a leaky boat with their bare hands. The skills Amberdrake possessed would be needed regardless of whether the war raged on or ebbed; people would always feel pain, loneliness, instability, doubt, strain. He had long ago resigned himself to the responsibility of caring for those who needed him. No—caring for those who needed his skills. They didn’t necessarily need him, they needed his skills. It was that realization, too, that chilled his heart and had caused him to leave the smoky-white pyre.
     Gesten had only his duties to Amberdrake and to the Black Gryphon, and Amberdrake could do without him for a while. Gesten clearly intended to keep his watch no matter what Amberdrake required of him. Amberdrake, on the other hand, always had his duties. And right now, he felt terribly, horribly lonely. After all, once you’ve given up a large slice of yourself to someone and they’re suddenly gone—how else could you feel? He’d never had a magical bond to the Black Gryphon, nothing that would let him know with absolute certainty if Skandranon were alive or dead. So he only had his reasoning and the known facts, and they pointed at the loss of a friend. A trusted one.
     He neared the camp.
     He entered the lighted areas of the camp, fixed a frozen, slight smile on his face, and checked his walk to ensure it conveyed the proper confidence and the other more subtle cues of his profession. There were few folk awake at this time of the night—or rather, morning—but those few needed to be reassured if they saw him. A frowning Healer was a bad omen; an unhappy kestra’chern often meant that one of his clients had confided something so grave that it threatened the kestra’chern’s proverbial stability—and since Amberdrake was both those things, anything other than serenity would add fuel to the rumors already flooding the camp. And for Amberdrake to be upset would further inflame the rumors. As long as he was in a public place, he could never forget who and what he was. Even though his face ached and felt stiff from the pleasant expression that he had forced upon it.
     Urtho kept an orderly camp; with tents laid out in rows, every fifth row lighted by a lantern on a perching-pole, anyone who happened to see Amberdrake would be able to read his expression clearly. It must look as though nothing had changed in the past few hours.
     And yet, before he could do anyone any good, he was going to have to deal with his own sorrows, his own fears and pain. He knew that as well as he knew the rest of it.
     He strode into the Healers’ bivouac, his steps faltering only once. There was a distant part of him that felt ashamed at that little faltering step. He attributed that feeling to his tumultuous state of mind—hadn’t he soothingly spoken to others that there was no shame in such things? Still....
     Help was not far off—if he asked for it. It was his right, of course. He was entitled to counsel and Healing, and all of the skills of his own profession if he wished. He had taken comfort in such ways before and had given it many times. And though a small internal voice might echo words of weakness from the walls of his mind—tell him to just hold it in, not to succumb to the strain, he was not too proud to ask for that help. Not at this point, not when he was a mass of raw nerves and trembling on the edge of a breakdown. He had seen the signs of such things too often to not recognize them in himself.
     In tents and shacks he passed, small lanterns or lightstones illuminated solitary figures. They carved surgical instruments or sewed torn clothing and bandages. The surreal acoustics of the still night made an old Healer’s work-time whistling seem louder than it should be, as he cut and assembled arm slings by lantern light, apparently oblivious to the world outside his opened tent. On perches by the surgery tent, messenger-birds slept with their heads tucked under soft-feathered wings, with kyree sleeping soundly in front of them. The soft jingling of hanging harness and tackle sounded like windchimes from a tranquil garden. How odd that such poignant moments could still occur even in the middle of upheavals.
     Healer Tamsin and his lover and coworker, Lady Cinnabar, were on night duty for the next ten days or so. He should be able to find them inside the surgery tent. There, past the Healers’ and surgeons’ tents, on the little rise ahead of him called “Healer’s Hill,” stood the common tents being used for infirmaries and treatment centers. Several of the tents had been used, in happier days, to hold Kalad’a’in celebrations, and had the capacity of housing a hundred or more. Their colors had been allowed to discreetly fade over the years since their current uses were anything but festive.
     Lights in the central tent, and shadows moving in side it, told him that someone, at least, was there. He pushed aside the flap and moved quietly inside, and found Tamsin and Cinnabar bandaging a middle-aged land-scout, surrounded by tables bearing the debris of a thorough patching job. A mercenary; Amberdrake caught sight of the badge on his shoulder and recognized the wolf-head of Pedron’s Wolves. Urtho was very careful about the mercenaries he hired, and the Wolves had a particularly good reputation. Even the gryphons spoke well of them.
     Even Skan had spoken well of—
     Sketi, Drake, you’re fixated. It’s a downward spiral, and it’s got to be broken—before you are.
     He sagged against a tent brace and hid his face in the shadows as he lost control over his expression. He wanted to be within sensing distance, but he also didn’t want to be obrusive. He shielded as much of his grief as he could, but these were fellow Healers, Empaths—and the closest friends he had.
     Next to Gesten and Skan....
     Tamsin didn’t look his way, but Amberdrake sensed his attention, and in the next moment he said to the mercenary, “You’ll do well enough, fire-eater. What you need now is some rest. Limit your activity to complaining for a few days. Here’s your green chit for days off.” He signed the wooden square with a silver-rod and handed it off. “Three days, and six more at light duty.”
     Now Tamsin looked up, as if noticing Amberdrake for the first time, and added quietly, “I think I have a friend in need of a little help himself at the moment.”
     The merc looked up, caught sight of Amberdrake standing in the shadows, and grunted. “Thankee Master Tamsin. I ’spect you’ll send me the charge, eh?”
     Tamsin laughed at the tired old joke, and the mercenary shuffled off, passing Amberdrake with a nod, and pushed through the tent flap into the warm dark beyond. Amberdrake laid himself down on the cot the scout had just vacated, disregarding the binding of the silk caftan against his body as he rolled over. He threw his arms over his eyes, hand bunched into a fist. A fist was a sign superstitiously avoided among the Healers as being bad luck, but his mind was not on wards and omens. He heard the sounds of hands being washed and toweled dry, and instruments being laid back in trays. Minutes passed without a word, and the after-Healing cleanup was concluded. He heard a curtain being drawn around them for privacy.
     “The rumors about Stelvi are true—the truth’s probably worse than you’ve heard,” he said to the waiting silence. “And Skandranon didn’t make it back.”
     He felt one hand lightly touch his cheek; felt someone else take his hand. Both touches released the flood of grief he had pent up within him and, lost in the dark waters of mourning, he couldn’t tell which of the two was touching him. Focus wavered in his mind. It didn’t matter which of the two touched him where; what mattered was that they did. He welcomed them both.
     Tears threaded their way down his face, soaking the hair at his temples. The knot in his throat choked further speech.
     “Don’t mourn for one who might still be alive,” Tamsin chided gently. “Wait until you know—”
     But they both knew that if Skandranon were able, he’d have made it back by now or somehow have sent a message. Tamsin made a swallowing sound, as if he had stopped himself before he said anything stupid.
     “I think it’s the fact that we don’t know,” Lady Cinnabar said as Amberdrake fought for control. “Drake, we love him too, you know—but we’ve seen too many times when people we’ve given up on as lost made it back. Skandranon—”
     “Has never failed a mission in his life,” Amberdrake cried, half in anger, half in grief. “If he didn’t—if he couldn’t—”
     The rest was lost in tears, as he finally stopped trying to control himself and simply let himself weep. The cot creaked as two weights settled beside him; one of them kissed his forehead, the other embraced him, and he buried his face in the proffered shoulder as a wave of compassion and reassurance spread from both of them.
     “This is too much!” he sobbed bitterly, as whoever was holding him rocked him a little, like a child. “Waiting here, waiting to see who comes back in pieces—who doesn’t come back at all. Not being there when they’re hurt and dying.”
     “We know,” Tamsin murmured, a world of sorrow in his own voice. “We know.”
     “But you don’t know the rest of it—rewarding the ones who survive, when inside I cry for the ones who didn’t.”
     There was nothing they could say to that.
     “I’m sick of detaching myself!” he burst out, in another flood of tears. “They come to me to forget their pain, but when am I allowed to mourn?”
     There was no spoken answer for that, since they were the answer. They simply held him while he wept, held him and tried to give him the little comfort they had. Finally, after he had cried himself out in their arms, he was able to talk a little more calmly.
     “Drake, you’ve heard it all before,” Cinnabar said as Tamsin got up to retrieve a damp cloth for Amberdrake. “But I’ll tell you again; we are here to help you, just as you help others. You’ve been bearing up through all this better than anyone else. No one has ever seen you lose control but you don’t have to be superhuman.”
     “I know that,” he said, exhausted by his bout of emotion. “Gods, that’s exactly what I just got through saying to someone else tonight. But I’ve never felt like this before. It’s Skandranon this time—he was my constant. I always knew he’d be all right, that it was safe to love him because I never thought I’d lose him. He never comes back with anything worse than a lost tailfeather.”
     Cinnabar smoothed Amberdrake’s damp hair back from his forehead with the cool cloth, cool as winter skies, as the ache in his heart struck him once again. “Now—just losing him—I can’t bear it. It hurts too much!”
     Early morning sounds, muffled by the cloth and canvas of the tent, punctuated the talk. Wasn’t it too early, yet, for all of that? Maybe time had simply gotten away from them. Maybe that was the next lesson in all of this—that no matter how Amberdrake felt, all would still go on without him. Still....
     Tamsin settled on the other side of him as Cinnabar captured his hands in hers.
     “There’s nothing I can say that you don’t already know,” Tamsin said quietly, “You have a harder task than we—a double burden. We have flesh to make whole again; you have hearts and minds to heal as well. The only comfort I can offer is to say you aren’t alone. We hurt, too. Skan is our friend, and he—”
     The noise outside didn’t settle into the dull murmurs of daybreak. Instead, it kept rising.
     It sounded, in fact, as if a small riot was approaching the surgery tent. A pang of what have I done now? struck Amberdrake in his self-pitying state, but left when reason returned a heartbeat later.
     Amberdrake pushed the cloth away from his eyes and sat up—just as a pain-filled shriek ripped through the pre-dawn air, shattering his eardrums, and ensuring that all three Healers had their full attention taken by the noise outside.
     “What in—” Tamsin leapt to his feet, Cinnabar beside him, just as the tent flap flew open and the mob shoved its way inside.
     In the center of the mob was an unholy mating of gryphon and brush pile, all liberally mired in mud. Amberdrake would not have recognized it as Skandranon, except for the black feathers and the incredible vocabulary of half-delirious curse words.
     He rolled off the cot and to his feet, as Gesten directed the litter team—for there was a litter under all that mess—to get what was left of the gryphon up onto one of the surgery tables. The hertasi looked around for a Healer; spotted Tamsin and Cinnabar, and Amberdrake behind them.
     “You’ll do. Here!” Gesten snapped.
     Gods, if he ran the army....
     But the three Healers had begun their work before he spoke; Tamsin getting the clattering trays of surgical instruments, Cinnabar calling for their assistants, and Amberdrake pushing aside the litter bearers to get at the injured gryphon, heedless of anything else.
     Amberdrake touched the Black Gryphon and felt Skandranon’s pain as if it screamed through his own nerves, striking him like a hammer blow to the forehead. This was the drawback on working on so close a friend. He shielded somewhat, automatically, but that pain also told him what was wrong, so he dared not block it all out.
     As Cinnabar’s assistants scraped and washed the mud from the tangled flesh and cut branches away from broken limbs, Amberdrake took Skandranon’s pain deeper into himself, warning the others when they were going to cause more damage by moving something. He could feel his mouth agape as he sucked in halting breaths; felt his eyes widen in double-Sight, his mind split between seeing the physical and Seeing inside. It seemed an eternity before they got Skandranon’s body free of the remains of the tree he’d crashed into, another eternity before they got him washed down so that they could see the external injuries clearly.
     Wordlessly, the other two left the wings to Amberdrake and concentrated on Skan’s legs and body. Amberdrake was one of the few in camp who knew the gryphons’ anatomy well enough to Heal wings to be flightworthy again. Muscle, tendon, bone, vein, all were dependent on each other in living bodies—yet in an avian’s body this seemed doubly true. Alter this and balance and weight distribution and control surface and a hundred other things would change.
     The right wing had a crossbow wound, still bleeding sluggishly. The left was broken in several places. Amberdrake directed Gesten to put pressure on the bleeding bolt wound. Gryphon wing-bones tended to knit almost as soon as they broke, like a bird’s, and the sooner he got to the breaks, the less likely that he would have to rebreak anything to set it properly.
     Skandranon whimpered a little and coughed, until a fourth Healer, still sleepy-eyed and robed from bed, came to stand at his head, and with one hand on either side of the huge beak, willed the gryphon into slumber. Skandranon’s throat gurgled as his beak parted.
     The wing muscles relaxed, and Amberdrake went to work.
      He eased the shattered fragments of each broken bone together, then held them in place with his bare hands while his mind forced the bits and pieces into the right order and prodded them into the process of knitting, all the while drawing away the fluids that built up around the damage. When the bone started healing, he called for splints and bandages, wrapped the section of wing tightly, and went on to the next, pausing only to wipe the drying blood from his hands before it caked so thickly it interfered.
     “Drake?” Gesten said, barely making a stir in his concentration.
     “What?” he asked shortly, all of his attention focused on getting the final bone to draw together.
     “I think you’d better hurry.” That was all the hertasi said, but it was enough. He left the splinting of the final bone and the binding of the wing as a whole to one of the assistants, and came around to Gesten’s side of the table.
     He knew with a glance why Gesten had called him; the sheer dead weight of the injured wing was so great that the bolt wound was tearing open, and the great wing vein was perilously close to the site of the wound. A fracture under that pressure could simply break wide open and sever the vein as it went.
     Quickly, he directed Gesten under the gryphon’s wing, to take some of the strain off, and reached out to hold the wound closed, being careful not to pinch. He closed his eyes and concentrated, Seeing the injury, examining it with his inner sight, brining together the torn muscle fibers, rejoining bleeding veins, goading it all into the process of Healing at a rate a thousand times faster than it would naturally, and providing the energy the body required to do so from within himself. Infection threatened; he burned it away ruthlessly. He strengthened the rest of the muscles, taking some of the strain off the injured ones. When they threatened to cramp, a finger’s touch soothed them. He found smaller broken bones, wounds and cuts that he had not noticed in healing the larger ones. He dealt with them all, searching out dangerous blood clots and filtering them from the bloodstream, until the wings had been wrapped in a binding of energies that would, in time, allow Skandranon to fly again.
     Skandranon moaned and coughed weakly, as if something were caught in his throat. His breathing steadied as the fourth Healer pushed him back into slumber, but he was taken by a fit of coughing again that caused everyone near to hold onto him tightly. Amberdrake was peripherally aware of Tamsin putting his arm down Skandranon’s gullet while an assistant held the beak open with a metal bar, and then the badly wounded gryphon wheezed, shook, and fell into deep sleep again.
     The assistants administered fortifying herbal and mineral infusions of all kinds in to the gryphon while Amberdrake set Skandranon’s fractured forearms and splinted his foreclaws.
     Finally, it was over, and he swayed away from the table, letting the assistants do their mechanical labor of bandaging and bracing. He saw that Tamsin and Cinnabar had already finished; Cinnabar was telling the litter bearers where to take Skan, and Tamsin had disappeared. The early morning sun shone brightly through the walls of the tent, making them glow with a warm amber light.
     The tables and floors were a disaster. Blood—how could a flyer hold so much blood? he thought—and cut-away feathers pasted bits of bark and leaves to the floor. On the table, a length of a crossbow bolt lay amid the other debris, next to something that was relatively clean—a leather-wrapped handle of some kind, perhaps a broken sword. That must have been what was blocking his throat, Amberdrake thought numbly. How would it get there...?
     Amberdrake blinked once and staggered back.
     “No, you don’t!” Gesten left Skandranon’s side to go to Amberdrake’s, getting under the kestra’chern’s arm and bracing him upright. “It’s bed for you, Drake. Skan’s going to be fine—but you’d better lie down before you pass out!”
     “I think you’re right,” Amberdrake murmured, actually finding a chuckle somewhere. Skan’s going to be all right. He made it back. That was all that really mattered, after all. The cold place inside him had warmed; the emptiness erased. Skan made it back.
     With Gesten’s help, he tottered off down the slight slope to the kestra’chern’s portion of the camp, just beyond the Healers’. He was so tired, he hardly noticed when he was guided into his own tent, except that the bright light of the morning sun dimmed, and the cool, fresh air took on a tinge of incense and body-scent. That was when he pulled away from Gesten, staggered to his bed, and collapsed across it. He managed to position himself the right way, but after that, he knew nothing more.

     Amberdrake felt Skandranon’s pain and frustration as he awoke. Even after—how many?—hours of needed oblivion, there was a dull ache in Amberdrake’s body in all the places he’d helped Heal in Skandranon’s body the night before. In all the places that Amberdrake didn’t have a direct analog to—the wings and tail, especially the wings—there was an ache. It was an aftershock effect that Healers knew well and had to live with; in the case of the wing pain, it bunched in Amberdrake’s shoulder blades and upper arms, like a bruised muscle cramping to the bone.
     Amberdrake had awakened feeling as if he had run for days carrying a full pack; as if he had worked for two days without a rest—
     —in short, as if he had served his full roster of clients, then Healed a gravely injured gryphon.
     Gesten—loyal, competent Gesten—had drawn the sleeping-curtains to block as much light as possible from reaching the exhausted kestra’chern and was, no doubt, away from the tent clearing Amberdrake’s schedule of responsibilities.
     Amberdrake pulled the blankets from himself and stood up, steadying himself on a ring set into the oversized bed frame. He washed quickly and gulped down a meal of meat strips and flatbread, then pulled on the caftan and belt Gesten had laid out for him. By his clothes was a roster-sheet of appointments for the day; all but one had been crossed out, and that one was not due for another two hours.
     Amberdrake stepped out from the spell-quieted canvas of his multiroomed tent into the afternoon daylight of the camp. Messenger-birds shot past, brightly colored, calling their descending chittering cry, while smoke from the cook-fires scented the air they flew through. Three laughing children rand by, wearing the green and yellow ribbons of their parents’ cadre, chased by a playful kyree with a bright red ball in its mouth. This was the way life should be. Amberdrake stretched, then ran a hand across his chin and cheeks as he squinted into the light; time to shave again before serving that client. A thorough general grooming was in order after he insured that Skandranon was healing properly. Being immaculately groomed always made him feel better.
     He threaded his way through the shacks, forges, and service huts to the great tent where he’d left the Black Gryphon languishing that morning. In the daytime, the camp was far more inviting, despite the tension that was apparent everywhere you looked.
     Assistant Healers and surgery aides surged past Amberdrake as he stepped inside, all intent on taking care of small administrative tasks and stocking supply shelves while the luxury of time was theirs. Casualties could course in like and overwhelming wave at any moment, so spare minutes had to be spent in preparation. The war hadn’t left the Healers much time to rest; they (and the grave diggers, body burners, and clergy) had few hours of leisure time. That was the nature of a war, after all. It ate spirits and bodies. It fed like any other creature.
     War forced individuals and species together in ways no peacetime situation could duplicate, and some of the oddest friendships—even loves—came out of that. Amberdrake’s affection for Gesten was natural, given the long association that hertasi had with the Kalad’a’in. Only the war and the needs of the fighters for support personnel had prevented Amberdrake from acquiring an entire troop of the little lizard-folk. As it was, he had to share Gesten’s services with Skandranon.
     But the bond between himself and the Black Gryphon—that was something that would never have occurred in peaceful times. The gryphons were literally unnatural—creations of Urtho, the Mage of Silence—and they would never have been found near the rolling plains that the nomadic Kalad’a’in called home. At least, not in Amberdrake’s lifetime. He had heard Urtho mention some kind of vague plans he’d had, of planting them in little aeries in some of the wilder parts of the mountains, creating yet another population of nonhuman intelligences, as Urtho’s predecessors had done with the hertasi and kyree. But that plan, of course, had come to nothing with the onset of war among the Great Mages.
     Urtho had tried to stay out of the conflict, with the result that the conflict had come to him. Amberdrake wondered if he sometimes berated himself for waiting. There had probably been a point early in Ma’ar’s career when Urtho could have defeated him easily, had he not stayed his hand. But who could have known that war would have come to roost in Ma’ar’s willful head? Urtho couldn’t be blamed for not bottling up the Kiyamvir long ago.
     There were little joys amid all the pain, and some of those joys could come from the bindings of affection that just sprang up, like wildflowers in a battlefield.
     Amberdrake sighed a little. He loved Skan as much as if he and the gryphon had been raised in the same nest, in the same home, but he wondered now if Skan felt anything more than simple friendship. It was hard to read the gryphon; the raptorial features reflected emotion in far more subtle ways than, say, a kyree’s mobile face. And Skan was—well, Skan. He often kept his deepest feelings to himself, covering them with jokes and pranks—or complaints and feigned irritation. If he felt affection for someone, he was just as likely to mock him as praise him.
     Caring for the gryphon certainly had its drawbacks.
     Amberdrake made his way quietly and unobtrusively through the rows of smaller tents housing the recovering wounded. There was a special section for gryphons; an array of tents with reinforced frames, built to be used for traction, to keep any of the gryphons’ four limbs or two wings immobile.
     He spotted Gesten leaving one of the tents just as the hertasi saw him. Gesten looked uncommonly cheerful, all things considered; his eyes twinkled with good humor and he carried his tail high.
     “His Royal Highness has one demon of a headache, and he says he’s too nauseous to eat,” Gesten reported. “Cinnabar says that’s because he’s got a concussion, and His Highness irritated his throat with the thingummy he stuffed into his crop, and since I couldn’t get him to eat anything, she wants you to try.”
     Amberdrake nodded. “What was that thing he tried to swallow?” he asked. “It kept intruding on my dreams last night.”
     Gesten ducked his head in a shrug. “Some magical weapon Urtho sent him after,” the hertasi said indifferently. “There was a big fuss over it after I got you to bed—half the mages in the Tower came looking for it when Himself found out Skan had been carried in. One of ‘em woke Tamsin and tried to dress him down for not reporting it right away.”
     Amberdrake noticed the careful use of the word “tried.” “I take it that Tamsin gave him an earful?”
     Gesten chuckled happily and bobbed his head. “It was a pleasure and a privilege to hear,” he said with satisfaction. “It was almost as good as you do when someone gets to you.”
     “Hmm.” Amberdrake shook his head. “So, it was some kind of mage-weapon. Well, I suppose we’ll never know the whole truth of the matter.” It occurred to him that this “weapon,” whatever it was, may have been the reason that Laisfaar had been taken. Or it might have been the single factor that made its loss possible, which made it imperative for Skan to have found one and gotten it back so that Urtho’s mages could create a counteragent.
     If Skan knew that, he wouldn’t reveal it. The less anyone knew, the better, really. It was terribly easy for a spy to move through Urtho’s camp—precisely because Urtho’s people as a whole were far less ruthless than their counterparts on Ma’ar’s side of the conflict. And camp gossip, as he had seen last night, spread as quickly as flame in oil-soaked tinder.
     Amberdrake had long since resigned himself to the fact that he was going to overhear and accidentally see a million tantalizing details that would never make sense. That, too, was in the nature of his profession.
     “Anyway, if you can get His Grumpiness—”
     “I heard that,” came a low growl from the patient from behind the tent flap.
     “—His Contrariness to eat something, I can get the place ready for your next client,” Gesten continued smoothly.
     Amberdrake chuckled, “I think I can manage. For one thing, now that I know his throat is irritated, I can do something about that.”
     “Don’t strain yourself,” Gesten warned as he pulled back the tent flap to go inside. “He isn’t your only charge. And he isn’t even paying.”
     That last had to have been added for Skandranon’s benefit. The gryphon only raised his chin off his bandaged forearms a moment, and said with immense dignity and a touch of ill temper, “I ssshould think thisss sssort of thing came underrr the heading of ‘jussst rewarrrd for a missssion sssatisssfactorilly completed.’”
     “I would agree with you,” Amberdrake said absently, noting that Skandranon was pointedly rolling his sibilants for “emphassisss.” Skandranon’s diction was as crisp as any human’s, when he wanted it to be. Amberdrake extended his finely-honed senses and found nothing more amiss than healing bones, healing wounds, and—yes, a healing concussion.
     “How’s the head?” he asked conversationally, letting his awareness sink into the area of Skan’s throat and crop, soothing the irritation caused by the foreign object Skan had (inadvertently?) swallowed. It was something of a truism that a gryphon could not store anything in the crop that was bigger than he could successfully swallow, but that did not mean that the object in question would be a comfortable thing to store. Particularly if it was angular and unyielding as Amberdrake thought he remembered.
     “The head isss missserable, thank you,” the gryphon replied with irritation. “I ssshould think you could do sssomething about it.”
     “Sorry, Skan,” Amberdrake replied apologetically. “I wish I could—but I’m not a specialist in that kind of injury. I could do more harm than good by messing about with your head.”
     He exerted a touch of Healing energy—being careful not to overextend himself; he hadn’t needed Gesten’s warning on that score. He’s run himself into the ground once already; if he did it again, he was asking for trouble, and it generally took two or more Healers to fix what a stupid Healer did to himself. In a moment, the heat that meant “soreness and irritation” to Amberdrake faded and died from Skan’s throat, and the gryphon swallowed experimentally.
     “Well, I suppose you aren’t going to go away unless I eat something,” Skan said, without a sign of any kind of gratitude,. “So I’d better do it and get you out of here so I can sleep.”
     Amberdrake didn’t make any comment; he simply held out hand-sized pieces of fresh, red meat for Skan to swallow whole. Like all gryphons, Skan preferred his food to be fresh killed, as fresh as possible, although he could and would eat dried or prepared food, and actually enjoyed breads and pastries. Gesten had left a large bowl of the meat chunks; Amberdrake didn’t stop handing them to the gryphon until the bowl was empty, even though Skan looked as though he would have liked to take a piece of Amberdrake’s hand with his meal.
     Amberdrake tried not to let his feelings get hurt. He’d seen this kind of thing often enough in other cases of those who had been extremely active and had been forced by injuries to depend even a little on others. Skan had been completely immobilized by his injuries, and couldn’t even use his forelegs. Add to that the pounding of his concussion-headache, and he really wasn’t behaving too badly, all things considered.
     But on the other hand, Amberdrake was a friend, and Skan was treating him in ways that he wouldn’t have inflicted on an indentured servant.
     Some of this must have shown on Amberdrake’s expression, for just as the last strip of raw meat went down Skan’s throat, Gesten returned, took one look at the two of them, and proceeded to give Skan a lecture on gratitude.
     “You’d think that the smartest gryphon in Urtho’s army would have a mudcake’s sense, wouldn’t you?” he railed. “You’d think that same gryphon might recall Amberdrake putting his wings together for him until Drake fell over with exhaustion! You’d think that same gryphon might possibly remember that Drake would be feeling phantom pain this afternoon from all that Healing. But no—” Gesten snorted. “That takes common sense, and common courtesy. So when Drake isn’t sitting here right by the tent, waiting for a certain gryphon to wake up, that gryphon pouts and thinks nobody loves him and then acts like a spoiled brat when Drake does show up even before he’s had a shave.
     Skan couldn’t possibly have looked worse, but his ear-tufts, which had been lying fairly close to his head, now flattened against his skull. And the gryphon looked chagrined.
     And penitent.
     Silence followed Gesten’s lecture, as the hertasi gave Skan his “you messed up” glare, and Skan sighed.
     “Drake,” the gryphon said softly. “I am sssorry. I have been verrry rrrude. I—”
     Amberdrake knew this mood. Skan was likely to keep apologizing for the next candlemark—and perversely, getting more irritating and irritable with every word of apology.
     “Skan, it’s all right,” Amberdrake said hastily. “You haven’t been any ruder than some of my clients, after all. I’m used to it.” He managed a weak chuckle. “I’m a pretty rotten patient myself when I’m sick. Just ask Gesten.”
     The hertasi rolled his eyes, but said nothing.
     “So don’t worry. We’re just glad you’re back, however many pieces you came back in.” Amberdrake slid his hand in among the neck-feathers and scratched places where he knew Skan had not been able to reach—and would not for some time.
     The gryphon sighed, and put his head back down on his bandaged and splinted forelegs. “You arrre too patient, Drrrake.”
     “Actually, if I don’t get him moving, he’s going to be too late,” Gesten interjected, apparently mollified by the apology. “You’ve got a client, Kestra’chern. And you’re going to have to make up for the fact that you had to cancel out all your morning appointments.”
     “Right.” Amberdrake gave Skan’s neck a final scratch, and stood up, brushing out the folds of his robe. “And I’d better shave and clean up first. How much time have I got?”
     “Not much, for the grooming you need,” Gesten replied. “You’d better put some speed on it.”

     A little later, Amberdrake wondered why he’d bothered. This was not one of his usual clients, and he had not known what to expect, but he could have been a wooden simulacrum for all the man looked at him.
     He was a mercenary mage, one of the hire-ons that Urtho had taken on as his own allies and apprentices proved inadequate to take on all the mages that Ma’ar controlled. While he was probably a handsome man, it was difficult to tell that at the moment. His expression was as rigid and unreadable as a mask; and his needs were, to be blunt, basic.
     In fact, if he wanted what he said he wanted, he need not have come to Amberdrake for it. He could have gone to any of the first- or second-rank kestra’chern in the cadre and spent a great deal less money. The illusion of grace and luxury, relaxation, pampering—and the inevitable: a kestra’chern was not a bedmate-for-hire, although plenty of people had that impression, this mage included. If that was all he wanted, there were plenty of sources for that, including, if the man were up to it, actually winning the respect of someone.
     Amberdrake was tempted to send him away for just that reason; this was, in its way, as insulting as ordering a master cook to make oatmeal.
     But as he had told the General, as every kestra’chern must, he had learned over the years that what a client asked for might not be what he wanted—and what he wanted might not even be something he understood. That was what made him the expert he was.
     When a few quiet questions elicited nothing more than a growled order to “just do your job,” Amberdrake stood up and surveyed the man from a position of superior height.
     “I can’t do my job to your satisfaction if you’re a mass of tension,” he countered sternly. “And what’s more, I can’t do it to my satisfaction. Now, why don’t we just start off with a simple massage?”
     He nodded at the padded table on the brighter side of the chamber, and the mage reluctantly rose, and even more reluctantly took his place on it.
     Gesten appeared as if Amberdrake had called him, and deftly stripped the man down and put out the oils. Amberdrake chose one scented with chamomile and infused with herbs that induced relaxation, then began with the mage’s shoulders. With a Healer’s hands, he sought out and released knots of tension—and, as always, the release of tension released information about the source of the tension.
     “It’s Winterhart,” the man said with irritation. “She’s started pulling away from me, and damned if I know why! I just don’t understand her anymore, but I told her that if she wasn’t willing to give me satisfaction, I could and damned well would go elsewhere for it.”
     Amberdrake surmised from the feelings associated with the woman’s name that “Winterhart” was this fellow’s lover—or at least, he thought she was. Odd, for that kind of name was usually worn by one of the Kalad’a’in, and yet he seldom saw Kalad’a’in associating intimately with those of other races.
     “So why did you come here?” Amberdrake asked, prodding a little at the knot of tangled emotions as he prodded at the knotted muscles. “Why not someone—less expensive?”
     The man grunted. “Because the whole army knows your name,” he replied. “Everyone in our section will know I came here this afternoon and there won’t be any question why.”
     Very tangled emotions, he mused. Because although the top layer was a desire to hurt by going publicly to a notorious—or famed, depending on your views—kestra’chern, underneath was a peculiar and twisted desire to flatter. As if by going only to the best and most expensive, he was trying to say to Winterhart that nothing but the best would remotely be a substitute for her.
     And another layer—in doing so he equated her to a paid companion, thereby once again insulting her by counting her outside his personal, deeper emotional life. Still, there was that backhanded flattery. Amberdrake was not a bedmate for hire, he was a kestra’chern, a profession which was held in high regard by Urtho and most of the command-circle. Among the Kalad’a’in, he was the next thing to a Goddess-touched priest. The word itself had connotation of divine insight and soul healing, and of friendship. So, then, there was that wishful thinking—or again, the desire to impress this “Winterhart,” whoever she was.
     There were more mysteries than answers no matter where he turned these days.
     “You do know that what happens in this tent depends upon what I decide is best for you, don’t you?” he asked, just to set the record straight. If all the man wanted was exhausting exersize, let him go elsewhere for it.
     Amberdrake was massaging the man’s feet, using pressure and heat to ease twinges all through the body, without resorting to any actual Healing powers. Amberdrake had detractors who thought he worked less because of his power to Heal flesh and soothe nerves. His predecessors had used purely physical, learned skills—like this massage—for generations, driven by sharp senses and a clear mind. In his role as kestra’chern, he used his Healing gifts only when more “convention” skills were ineffective. Still, one did compliment the other, and he would use the whole of his abilities if a client warranted it. So far, though, this merc hadn’t warranted it; he hadn’t even warranted the kind of services he would get from a perchi. This was still at the level of batner-and-pose.
     “Well... urrgh... I’d heard that—” He said it as if he hadn’t quite blieved it.
     “If you aren’t satisfied with that, I can suggest the name of a perchi or two, accustomed to those of rank,” Amberdrake ventured. There was no point in having the man angry; he was paying for expensive treatment, and if he felt he hadn’t gotten his money’s worth, he might attempt to make trouble.
     “What you do... ah... isn’t important now, is it?” the mage replied shrewdly. “It’s what Winterhart thought you did. You are required to keep this confidential, that much I know, so I’ll let her use her imagination. It’ll probably be more colorful anyway.”
     Amberdrake was tempted at that point to send the man away. He was right; what he was planning was also very cruel to his lover.
     Assuming she didn’t deserve it; she might. He could have no way of knowing.
     Amberdrake sighed. There was still his professional pride. He decided to give the man his money’s worth—and to make certain that, as it progressed, as little of it as possible was what the client had anticipated.


—- The Black Gryphon, by Mercedes Lackey and Larry Dixon. Chapters One and Two, complete, pages 14 through 66 of the paperback edition. Typed up by Aroihkin; no profit made off doing so... and if you want more, go buy the book! It's quite good.

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