Chapter 5: Fledgling
After being turned away at the village, the pair headed west again, making for Llinos’s valley. They made good time, arriving well before the first snow. Almonihah was glad to see Garekh again, and he had a long list of questions for Llinos.
The winter passed quickly, much as the last one had, with Almonihah learning more of the natural world and the teachings of Naishia, as well as practicing more of his Ranger skills. He was getting to be a decent shot with a bow, and Zrathanzon had him start practicing with a (practice) sword in each hand. He said that Almonihah could someday be a very accomplished swordsman with his natural ambidexterity.
The snows lingered late into the spring that year, so they left the valley later than they had the past year. This time Zrathanzon took Almonihah north through the foothills for a little while after leaving Llinos.
As they were heading north, Zrathanzon suddenly stopped and motioned his pupil to be silent.
“Look,” he murmured in Draconic, pointing at a small cave opening in a nearby cliff face.
Almonihah peered at the cave, trying to figure out what the Ranger was referring to. Then he saw something move in the cave opening. He could just make out a feathered head with a rather sharp-looking beak.
“Probably a mother griffon watching over her eggs,” Zrathanzon whispered in explanation.
Just then the head turned in their direction. With a loud shriek, the griffon took to the air, heading straight towards them.
Zrathanzon said something angry in Draconic that Almonihah didn’t quite understand. “Get back into the woods!” He said urgently to the younger half-dragon.
The two hurried back into the woods, but the griffon seemed quite determined to find them, even landing and chasing them on foot. Even though it wasn’t as fast on the ground as in the air, it still seemed to be gaining on the pair.
With another angry word, Zrathanzon grabbed his bow, whirled, and in one smooth motion drew, nocked, and fired an arrow. It struck the griffon right in the forehead, dropping it almost instantly. After it was still, Zrathanzon sighed and motioned to Almonihah.
“Hate to do that,” He said. “It was my mistake for letting her see us.” He was quiet for a moment as they reached the dead griffon, then continued, “We should see if she had any eggs. We might be able to save her kids, even if I had to kill the mother.”
They made their way to the base of the cliff in which the griffon’s cave was. After taking a good look at it, Zrathanzon told Almonihah to stay behind while he climbed up. It took him a lot of effort and time, but the Ranger made it up to the cave, then disappeared inside it. A couple of minutes later, he came back out, his backpack bulging out a bit more than when he had gone up. He made his way back down the cliff face a bit more quickly than he had gone up.
“Only one egg,” he commented to Almonihah when he reached the bottom of the cliff again. He pulled the egg out of his pack carefully as he spoke. It was certainly much larger than a bird’s egg, being perhaps a bit larger than Zrathanzon’s head. “That’s a bit strange. Usually griffons lay three or four at a time. Now, we’ve got to figure out what to do with it…” he trailed off as he thought.
Almonihah frowned in thought as well. “Are we going to hatch it?” he asked after a moment.
Zrathanzon slowly nodded. “If we can. Griffon eggs can be a bit tricky to hatch, even if you don’t remove them from their original nest. It’s what we’re going to do after it hatches that worries me. Griffons are more intelligent than most people give them credit for, but griffon hatchlings can be… difficult.”
Almonihah looked at his mentor inquisitively. “Have you tried raising one before?”
The Ranger chuckled. “Can’t fool you, can I, kid? I have tried once before…”
“It didn’t work so well?” the younger half-dragon asked after Zrathanzon had been silent for several moments.
The half-gold dragon simply shook his head, his lips quirking upwards a bit at a memory. Then he sobered. “I can’t say I was ever planning on trying again… but it looks like I may have to.”
“So… what do we do first?”
“First…” Zrathanzon replied thoughtfully, “We’ll need some kind of nest for it. It probably won’t take long to hatch—griffon eggs usually hatch fairly early in the spring—but it’ll be a few weeks more before the hatchling can travel. So we need a good campsite.” He paused for a moment in thought, then continued, “There’s a good one just a couple hour’s travel east of here. Let’s go set up camp, and then we can figure out how we’re going to do this.”
It did, indeed, take them only a couple of hours to reach the campsite Zrathanzon had referred to , a small clearing beside a stream that had one of the old fire rings Almonihah recognized from other campsites they had used. After they set up camp, the Ranger instructed his pupil to gather various materials for constructing something of a nest for the egg, while he worked on keeping it warm. Each time Almonihah returned with more nest materials, it seemed the older half-dragon was trying some other way to keep the egg warm.
Once they had built up something that looked like a large nest, Zrathanzon carefully placed the egg in it. Then he sighed.
“I think we’re going to have to do this the same way griffons do. Body heat.”
The next couple of weeks were something of an interesting experience. Laying under a blanket curled up with a griffon egg on a makeshift nest was certainly not something either of them had ever expected to do. In time, however, Almonihah noticed the egg wobbling, and then cracks starting to form.
“Zrathanzon! I think it’s hatching!” He called out.
The Ranger, who had been fletching some arrows, came over, took one look at the egg, and ordered Almonihah to grab some of the meat they had prepared for exactly this occasion. By the time he had retrieved the meat and returned, there was a small beak poking out of the egg, busily working to remove the rest of the eggshell. Zrathanzon just silently nodded at Almonihah as he returned, then started carefully pulling bits of shell off to help the hatchling out.
Before long, the hatchling griffon was free of its shell. It didn’t look like much—a bedraggled mess of damp feathers and fur. It couldn’t have been much more than a foot long. Zrathanzon carefully picked up a small piece of meat between two fingers and held it out in front of the hatchling. It considered it for a moment, its amber eyes focusing on the food in front of it. Then it rather eagerly snapped at it.
Perhaps a little bit too eagerly.
Zrathanzon said something rather angry in Draconic that Almonihah couldn’t quite understand as he snatched his bleeding finger back. After a few moments of muttering more Draconic under his breath, the Ranger muttered, a bit louder (though still in Draconic), “At least we know what to call him.”
“What?” Almonihah asked, his attention still focused on the griffon.
“Varack’Nara,” was the Ranger’s terse response.
Almonihah grinned a bit. Varack’Nara was Draconic for “Razor Beak”.
Zrathanzon glanced at Almonihah’s grin. “Why don’t you try it?” he said, a little bit jokingly.
“Okay!” Almonihah seemed surprisingly excited at the opportunity given what had happened to the last person to feed the griffon.
Zrathanzon whispered him some instructions, and he carefully selected a piece of meat and carefully held it in front of Varack’Nara—just a little bit further away than the older half-dragon had. The hatchling considered the proffered meat carefully, and then just as carefully bit into it with his beak . Almonihah let go of it, and the little griffon gulped the meat down.
Zrathanzon observed the whole proceeding with an expression of mingled amusement and disbelief. “Maybe you should be the one to feed him,” he said.
As Zrathanzon had predicted, it took a couple weeks before Varack’Nara was ready for traveling, and even then they had to travel slowly—not in the least because a close eye had to be kept on the griffon. While he seemed perfectly fine with being raised by two half-dragons, it was clear that the hatchling had a lot of griffon in him. Hatchling griffon, to be precise. Which meant he had something of an instinct to pounce on anything smaller than him that moved.
Varack’Nara grew quickly as the trio slowly meandered their way east. While Zrathanzon indicated that it would take him two years at least to reach full adult size, he also said that most of that growth happened during the first year. Almonihah seemed a little bit envious of this, given that his own growth was a bit slower even than a human child’s, but as the days turned into weeks, it was clear that Varack’Nara was going to be as much a friend to him as Garekh was… at least when the hatchling was older.
By the time the summer came, the little griffon wasn’t quite so little any more. He was more the size of a pony. And if possible, he was even more of a handful. While he wasn’t quite so likely to go pouncing on mice that he had seen out of the corner of his eye, Varack’Nara seemed to compensate by being even more curious about everything else.
“There are times I wonder how they manage to survive childhood in the wild,” Zrathanzon commented to Almonihah in Draconic, after a particularly close call with a pit fisher.
Almonihah just grinned in agreement.
It wasn’t much longer after that when Zrathanzon started trying to teach the griffon how to fly. It was a rather interesting sight, to see a wingless half-dragon instructing a griffon on how to get off the ground, but surprisingly enough, it seemed to be working, if only because Varack’Nara could understand the Common Tongue. As Almonihah listened, he realized just how much his mentor must have watched the various animals of Draezoln go about their daily business. Then he thought of a question.
“Zrathanzon, why is it that Varack’Nara can understand the Common Tongue? It’s not like we taught it to him.”
Zrathanzon kept his eyes on the griffon, which was still struggling to get airborne. “Because everything that has half a brain can. He could speak it, too, if it wasn’t for the beak.”
Of course, that answer just opened up another question. “Why is it that everything can understand it?”
Zrathanzon was silent for a moment, then shrugged. “I’m not really sure,” he admitted. “If you asked a priest of Mashano, they’d tell you it was their god’s gift to the world. They might even be right, though it may have been more his gift to the humans rather than Draezoln.”
Just then, Varack’Nara managed to get off the ground… for about five seconds. His landing left much to be desired, though it did get a bit of a chuckle from Zrathanzon and a bit more laughter from Almonihah. Zrathanzon went over to the griffon, checked him over, then reassured him that, despite how much he hurt (and his plaintive screeches certainly seemed to indicate his landing had been painful), he was just fine. Then he proceeded to give him some tips on how to avoid a repeat performance.
It took a couple more days before Varack’Nara managed something that could really be called a flight, but once he got the hang of it, it seemed he spent more of the day in the air than on the ground. Almonihah watched with undisguised envy as his friend cavorted in midair. It seemed, as he watched, that he could almost feel the wind whipping his frill around, and feel his wings pumping to pull himself higher into the air, and see the everything on the ground below getting smaller as he climbed…
He blinked and shook his head a bit. He was surprised at how vividly he could imagine flying. Then again, it hadn’t really seemed like daydreaming. It had been more like… a memory.
Zrathanzon glanced over at the younger half dragon, gave him a bit of a knowing grin, then turned his attention back to the path they were walking.
They walked in silence for a little while longer. Varack’Nara glided down and landed next to them as they entered a clearing, his sides gently heaving as he caught his breath from the exertion of flight, and a cheery twinkle of pure joy in his eye. Almonihah looked at the griffon jealously, until his expression turned suddenly thoughtful.
Zrathanzon had a pretty good idea what his little pupil was thinking. “He’s not going to be strong enough to ride until at least next spring,” he said to Almonihah.
Almonihah grinned a bit sheepishly at the acuity of his mentor’s insight into his thoughts, but said nothing.
The rest of the year passed quickly. Varack’Nara’s growth seemed to slow somewhat as the year wore on, so that he was about the size of a small horse by the time they made their way back to Llinos’s valley. Zrathanzon had started to get the griffon accustomed to the idea of carrying weight on his back, and he’d also started to give Almonihah some pointers on riding a griffon. He insisted, however, that it would still be at least until spring before he could actually try doing it. While the young half-dragon was quite eager to try, he somehow managed to obey his mentor’s instructions.
Llinos didn’t seem to have changed much from the first time Almonihah had met him, but it was obvious that Garekh was much less of an eager puppy than he had been that first winter. While he was still obviously glad to see Almonihah and curious about Varack’Nara, his greeting was more of a sedate trot up to the visitors rather than the eager leap and licking that had greeted the young half-dragon many mornings two years ago. Varack’Nara, however, was still obviously young, curious, and energetic, which was enough to make many of the other animals in the valley just a bit nervous.
There seemed to be a change in the things Llinos was teaching Almonihah, as well. Whereas before he had spoken mostly of herb lore and the various creatures of Draezoln, interspersed only sometimes with mentions of Naishia, now the druid spoke often of the sacred places of the wilds and the magic of nature. While Zrathanzon had continued teaching him of the various gods, Almonihah had continued to express particular interest in Naishia, so he suspected that the Ranger had mentioned something to Llinos. Truthfully, he didn’t mind. Perhaps it was just because of his way of life for the past few years, but he felt that something about the wilds was special, even sacred. The teachings of Naishia seemed to resonate with this sense, more than the what he knew of the philosophies of the other gods.
While he did have the patience to wait for the spring, Almonihah couldn’t quite hide his anticipation of riding on Varack’Nara. Even though he enjoyed his time in the valley as much as he had in previous years, the fact that he was waiting for spring made it seem to pass slowly. The riding lessons from Zrathanzon only made his anticipation keener.
Almonihah noticed that sometimes, when he returned from spending time with Llinos, Zrathanzon was working with some leather and other materials. When he asked what was being made, the older half-dragon would simply answer, “You’ll see.”
Finally, the days started to get warmer, and the snows started melting from the ground. Soon, Almonihah, Zrathanzon, and Varack’Nara left the valley for the year and headed back east.