Art was one of my favourite lessons at school - we got to muck around with clay and carve out lino with sharp knives and slap paint around. The masterpieces never quite turned out how I'd imagined them though! Clay would take on a life of its own or the knife would slip ... it's the same with writing. In theory the words swoop around and arrange themselves into perfect prose. In practice, they need to be beaten into place with a stick. But sometimes when you least expect it, it all comes together sweet as.
I'd love to take the credit for this, but in truth as always there's a massive debt to be paid to my wonderful friends and family who have sort of volunteered to Alpha read. You know who you are and thank you! With your help, book #3 in the Griffin Riders' Chronicles is nearing completion. It's still lacking a title and way behind schedule. There's a good reason for this, honest, and as soon as I think of it, I'll let you know. Any suggestions for procrastination welcome, as are any title suggestions for book #3.
Meantime, if you want to grab a goodie for your kindle, Jenny Worstall's fabulous romantic comedy "Make a Joyful Noise" is available to download free for a couple of days.
'Make a Joyful Noise' is the sparkling tale of a choir preparing for a very special Christmas performance of "Belshazzar's Feast".
We meet a host of characters who are mercilessly sent up by the author: Lucy the staggeringly trusting young music teacher, Tristan the lecherous anti-hero, Miss Greymitt the ageing and slightly arthritic choir pianist, Steve the handsome and trustworthy bass, Claire the shameless and scheming temptress, and singers with nothing but resonance between their ears.
Just as all does not run smoothly for King Belshazzar or the inhabitants of Babylon in Walton's music, so the characters in the novel suffer from hopeless yearnings, romantic misunderstandings and the unfortunate consequences of their own misguided actions.
All is sharply and wittily observed in a delightful mix of romance, music and humour.
(Multi talented Jenny provided musical advice for The Griffin Cryer.)
On 12 August 1914 the British Expeditionary Force (BEF) arrived in France, expecting to be home by Christmas. But the only men home for Christmas were those shipped back in wooden boxes. The massacre of Allied and Axis armies continued for another four years.
As the fictional Captain Blackadder commented. "(this) war would have been a damn sight simpler if we'd just stayed in England and shot fifty thousand of our men a week."
A hundred years have passed and the tragic loss of a generation still evokes haunting thoughts of what might have been, if only the entire leadership of the Western world hadn't been hell bent on proving who had the biggest stick.
In his latest novel "Time and Time Again." Ben Elton (co-creator of Blackadder, with Richard Curtis) revisits the war to end all wars, but in a very different genre from his previous WW1 novel, which was a murder/mystery.
"Time and Time Again" is more of a fantasy: if the protagonist succeeds in his time travelling mission, World War One will never happen. Imagine that.
I like Ben Elton a lot; talented, funny, older than me — plus he was also born in the world's most beautiful city! So I can't wait to start reading "Time and Time Again", if only to discover how Ben Elton deals with the consequences of meddling with history.
For now, I've traveled back a little less further in time, and appropriately for "poppy week" am engrossed in a World War Two diary "I Think I Prefer The Tinned Variety", written by an eighteen year old who volunteered for the Navy's Fleet Air Arm. Until he joined up, Norman Buckle had rarely ventured too far from his tiny Yorkshire village, where his father, and his father before him, were coal miners. The diary has been edited and published by Norman's daughter, Cathy Murray. Diary entries are expanded upon by Cathy, so helping to paint a very vivid picture of these tumultuous years.
On a personal note, my own family were heartbroken when our lovely Len died, a few years short of his own centenary. I always called him Lenny boy and he was the last of my great uncles and grandparents. Two years on, it's really beginning to hit home that there's no-one I can talk to for first hand memories of World War Two. I'm sure he knew just how much he was loved and cherished - but at our weekly pint at the Soldiers Return, we tended to argue politics, or chat about football. I suppose some memories are best left unspoken.
Even more heartbreaking are these statistics from the Falkland's War, provided by the South Atlantic Medal Association (2012):
"During the two-month war 255 British troops were killed. But that figure has been eclipsed by the number of Falklands veterans who have committed suicide – currently around 300." If only that wasn't so, but these statistics seem proof, if anyone needs it, that war doesn't only take life, it ruins lives.
Ben Elton isn't the first to imagine waving a magic wand and erasing war from the history books; maybe we can all imagine that -
A stone circle was sited on the lower slopes at the Western end of the Argent Hills. The mid-afternoon sun beat down on the blue granite stones, and most of Neb's fellow Squaddies sought shade in their shadows. Apart from Raul, whom Master Pike had selected as the first to attempt spirit walking.
Neb and Trelan stood guard over a slumped Raul, casting envious glances towards their classmates lounging against the stones. The stones themselves were taller than Neb and twice as wide. These were giant slabs of granite; spaced two or three arms' length apart and arranged in a perfect circle around a monolith, known as the Whispering Stone. This central point had a hollow just large enough for a child to squeeze through, though at present, Raul's head lolled against it.
The Whispering Stone Circle stood on the Wessex Way, one of the country's major ley-lines. Standing stones, and occasionally circles like this one, were positioned at strategic points along most ley-lines, which as even children knew, were invisible magnetic currents pulsing across the country. The stones' neutrality acted as a brake point. Here, those simply spirit-walking drew respite, while spirits whose physical bodies had expired, gathered strength before passing on to the next world.
Once the recruits were fully fledged griffin riders, they would patrol ley-lines, constantly vigilant against malignant spirits–or demons. However, they were also expected to experience spirit walking, at least once, for themselves.
Neb really couldn't see the point. After all, Balkind's wings would take him wherever he wanted to go. To leave a perfectly good body and send your spirit who knew where, leaving both your physical and spiritual self open to attack from who knew what (demons, his mind helpfully supplied,) seemed foolish.
Raul gasped, then began to spasm, and the whites of his eyes retreated, replaced by black. But within seconds the pupils constricted back to normal size and his eyes returned to hazel. Raul blinked, turning his head slowly to look around, his face slack with wonder. 'Oh, the pretty colours have all gone,' he said, then promptly fell asleep. There were a few nervous giggles; Master Pike's hands clapped for silence. 'I think we can safely declare Raul's spirit walk a success.' He peered around, his eyes settling on Neb.
'You – Balkind's Rider! Your turn to attempt spirit walking.' He advanced on Neb, slapping the palm of his hand against Neb's forehead, steering him to the other side of the Whispering Stone. Neb tried to dodge away.
'Come now, recruit. It's perfectly safe. This ley-line is one of the most protected in the county,' Pike sneered, glancing at Trelan, who'd already protested that there should be at least one griffin here … just in case. But this time, Trelan kept quiet. After all, apart from the expected exhaustion, Raul appeared unharmed.
Neb glanced around the stone circle; the stones seemed to tower over him now and surely they were closer together …outside their protective circle, he sensed someone … or something …alerted by Raul's spirit-walk, lurked … waiting …
Recruits who had been half asleep sat upright, nudging each other and grinning at this unexpected entertainment. Someone – it sounded like Padrick – muttered 'the peasant's acting up again. What do you expect from a whore's son?'
Frowning in Padrick's direction, then at his friend, Trelan drawled. 'Heavens, Neb – you couldn't be safer – within spitting distance of a griffin sanctuary, and all us lot guarding your body.' That was common sense speaking, but Neb's gut wasn't listening. It twisted and his mind scrabbled for an out.
Something's out there … waiting …
The pressure against his forehead increased as Pike pushed harder, forcing him against one of the stones. 'Balkind's Rider! I'm not asking, I'm ordering! A simple jaunt to the Eastern edge of Argent Hills and back again.' He gave a vicious shove, and Neb crumpled to the ground. Trelan and Perry moved to flank him. With a trace of impatience, Trelan muttered. 'Just get it over with, I'm cooking to death in this heat.' Half indignant, half amused at Trelan's self-centredness, Neb steeled himself to begin spirit walking.
Neb's blood surged, racing through his veins, pounding in his ears. His vision blurred and a torrent of colours surrounded him. In a heartbeat, he would join the others – swept up in the maelstrom of spirits rushing along the ley-line. Already he could hear babbling; if he concentrated, he would begin to understand the language of trees. The spirits of all life on Ella-Earth flowed through this previously unseen, though vaguely sensed, universe. The heavy smell of rain soaked soil mixed with copper engulfed him, easier now for his spirit to escape from its fleshy prison. His inner self began to rise, but then a voice cried out.
Neb's eyes flew open, his arm struck Pike's, shoving the tutor away. 'No!' he said, shaking his head and pushing himself up. The ground swayed and tilted, Neb cradled his stomach, lowering his brow towards his tutor, aware of Trelan moving closer to lend his unspoken support. Pike's freckles glowed a sickly green then disappeared as his face flushed. 'Insolent!' he shouted, drawing back his fist and aiming for Neb's left temple.
Neb screwed up his eyes in advance of the expected pain followed by exploding stars. Instead he heard a silken rustle. He opened his eyes. Recruits were standing to attention, eyes fixed on Griffin Master Romulus.
Pike's face twisted with pain, and he clasped his right wrist with his left hand. Struggling for answers, Neb glanced towards Trelan, whose left eye flickered in a semi-wink. Trelan needn't have bothered being sly. Romulus twisted his head to watch Fletcher. The great golden griffin prowled outside the stone circle, his withers hunched, neck lowered, rustling the grass as he inhaled deeply with audible snuffles. With a circuit completed, Fletcher squeezed between two stones, then snuffled at Raul's hair. Raul stirred, murmured sleepily, then stilled again. Stepping carefully over Raul, Fletcher stretched his neck to snuffle Neb, then placed his snout against the boy’s forehead, inhaling deeply. It was a strange sensation, as though Neb's thoughts were being weighed. Breathing shallowly, he stared ahead, looking past Master Pike, towards Romulus. Romulus's good eye stared steadily back. Outside the stone circle, two of Romulus's Premier recruits, still mounted on their griffins, also stared; but at Fletcher, rather than at Neb. Finally, Fletcher was satisfied. Inspection over, he swung his head away, took two paces then squeezed himself from the stone circle again. Facing East, he crouched, then lay down, crossing one taloned foreleg over the other. His withers hunched and his neck stretched as Fletcher's bellow rang over the Argent Hills, echoing through the far valleys.
Sweat prickled Neb's brow, dripping down his temples and stinging his eyes, but he didn't dare to even blink under Romulus's scrutiny. Eventually Romulus turned to the Premiers; Norton and Andrew.
'You two – Fletcher senses something – probably a lost spirit. Up you go – patrol until sun-down.'
Norton sounded keener than Andrew, but both nudged their griffins to gambol past the stone circle, taking flight with a minimum of fuss. Under cover of the whisper of griffin wings, the recruits breathed a collective sigh of relief and Neb finally got to swipe his brow.
Still clutching his wrist, Master Pike cleared his throat. 'erm, we'll resume this lesson tomorrow,' quailing when Romulus swung his head to give a contemptuous stare, he tried again: 'erm, that is, we'll resume this lesson at a more appropriate time.' He started towards the stones' perimeter, careful to walk in the opposite direction of Fletcher.
'Master Pike, the recruits can find their own way back to camp. Wait on me.'
Turning his back on Pike, who slumped against one on the stones, Romulus addressed his recruits. 'Back to camp. Move quickly, stay together, no dawdling. Take him with you,' he gestured towards Raul, still sleeping peacefully. There was a fearsome nodding of heads, as recruits turned to obey, each of them avoiding Master Pike. They brushed past Fletcher as they exited the stones. Trelan and Neb stooped to awaken Raul, then yanked him upright. With a sheepish grin, he stumbled after Perry and the others, many of whom gave a respectful pat to Fletcher as they passed. The griffin accepted their homage, but apart from a few feathers stirring in the breeze, he didn't move, continuing to stare into the distance. As Raul passed, he kissed his hand before petting Fletcher, causing Trelan and Neb to exchange bemused glances. Later, when they asked Raul why he'd done this, he scratched his head, gave another of his sheepish smiles and explained.
'Fletcher appeared in my dreams. He chased the darkness away.'
© Julia Hughes. Griffin Riders' Chronicle #3 – coming soon.
Book #1 "The Griffin's Boy" is available to download free from Amazon, Smashwords & all major on line book stores. See side bar for links.
by Elvis Costello is now officially my theme song - thank you Tracey Edges, AKA "Sunday Girl" of Siren Radio. Tracey's show goes out every Sunday, and the play list is a fab mixture of old but less mainstream favs, and the latest names, while introducing new artists. Tracey's posts on Facebook especially her adventures in home improvements read like extracts from my own diary - the expander foam episode brought back painful memories! Listen in this Sunday from 9am - 11am on this link: Sunday Girl at Siren Radio.
In other news, a deadline has gone flying by. It isn't writer's block - quite the opposite - but hopefully a new publication date for the latest Griffin Riders' title will be announced soon. Watch this space - still writing the book every day!
Do griffins understand sarcasm?
Does the Griffin Master expect his recruits to cut loose when he's not there?
Is Samara Neb's girl? ... read on & decide for yourself ... At griffin riders' training camp, Neb's fellow recruits Trelan and Raul are trying to convince Neb, aka Balkind's Rider, to take full advantage of Romulus's absence.
'You've got a superiority complex, that's your problem,' Trelan stroked his pink upper lip, newly denuded of its moustache.
Neb shrugged and continued feathering arrow shafts, keeping half an eye on Balkind, who currently cruised the thermals of this dark lush ravine.
'No, he's scared!' Raul crouched to poke his face into Neb's.
'Scared of Romulus. Scardey cat, meow, meow! Don't be scared of the big bad wolf, puss,' he danced away before Neb could give him the good hard shove he deserved.
'I don't have a complex. I am better than you, and yes – I'm scared of Romulus.'
'Oooh, I knew it! Meow, meow, meow!'
Neb scowled and shied a handy pebble towards Raul's grinning face. He dodged, caught it, and chucked it back at Neb. It clattered harmlessly onto the boulder Neb was using as a perch.
'Our little scardey cat throws like a girl!'
'And you don't?' Neb jeered, selecting another feather.
Crouching beside Neb, Trelan tried a pleading approach. 'Neb, come on. Please? There's three of them – you can have the ugly one, so even if your girl Samara finds out, she won't mind.'
'Samara isn't my girl, and it isn't her finding out that worries me. Besides, what were we told about treating young maidens with the respect they deserve?'
Raul grinned 'Oh, I intend to – these girls are no maidens, and I respect that!'
He sauntered over to the cobble-stoned area outside the griffins' sanctuary, where first year recruits trundled carts and pushed brooms. With the flat of his hand, Raul swiped the shoulders of a youngster engaged in preening and grooming a pale golden griffin. 'Hurry, boy. I've got a date and can't be late!' The youngster redoubled his efforts, while Raul headed for the waterfall which served the recruits as a shower.
'Neb, cut loose for once! Romulus expects us to act like knaves when he's not here. Anyway, he's only truly happy when he's shouting at us.'
Neb laughed out-loud at Trelan's reasoning.
'I don't mind him shouting. It's being sent away in disgrace that worries me. And playing truant will get you two expelled.'
'Don't talk rot. Look around you. Everyone's taken off. We're the only ones left.'
Neb raised his eyebrows and turned to stare pointedly at the hapless first years, all stripped to their underwear and engaged in grooming, preening or mucking out. Those not engaged in sanctuary duties were stuck with the even worse chore of cleaning the recruits' living quarters: Modified caves that extended into the hillside. In winter, they froze. Hot sunny days, like today, with all windows and doors open, the dormitory sized rooms were cool and welcoming. From the lack of activity inside, Neb suspected that many first years were taking advantage of Romulus's absence by laying on their cots.
Seeing his friend's attention wandering, Trelan punched Neb's shoulder.
'First year's don't count. If Romulus expels us, he has to expel the entire Premier and Secondary Squads. Besides, he's already used up half his quota by expelling Euwan.' Trelan's eyes lit up and he moved a stack of completed arrows from the rock to the grass lapping around it and settled next to Neb, preparing to gossip.
'Did you hear about Euwan's father?'
'He died,' Neb said, rescuing the arrow stack from the shaggy unkempt grass and shoe-horning them into a leather quiver.
'He's dead all right, died of shame, if you ask me. But did you hear what Euwan and his mother are up to now?'
Drawing his lips into a thin line, Neb titled his chin to his chest, shielding his burning face with a fall of white blond hair. He couldn't bear to hear Euwan's name mentioned, and as for his mother … arriving at camp to collect a shamed Euwan, Seren had spotted Neb, whom she obviously considered to be the cause of all her son's misfortunes … Neb's ears burned at the memory of the name she'd called him.
Sensing Neb's unease, Trelan changed the subject. He drew an arrow from the quiver and examined it.
'These aren't bad. If you're staying here, make yourself useful and make me some?'
Since once they were fully fledged, griffin riders were unlikely ever to use a bow and arrow, most recruits despised archery practice, telling each other (though never Romulus) that it was a peasant's sport.
Neb frowned and glanced sideways. 'Do your own dirty work,' he said.
Trelan stroked his nude upper lip again, and grinned. 'I intend to. That's why me and Raul shaved. Girls don't like stubble rash on their soft pretty cheeks.'
He jumped to his feet just as Raul called out: 'Hey, Trelan, forget about the scardey cat. Perry's coming with us. He don't mind having the ugly one!'
At Raul's side, Perry grinned good naturedly.
Behind them, three griffins crouched, wings already inflated, hooting with impatience to be off on an unexpected adventure.
'Make sure Balkind doesn't follow you,' Neb called, bending back to his self-imposed chore.
'Why should we? Why should Balkind be stuck here, when this day was made for flying?' Raul called over his shoulder, then whooped as all three griffins trundled down the steep slope, Calliban's wing sweeping within a hair's breadth of Neb's head, before launching into the air. Their golden, blue and dark brown wings seemed jewel like against the ravine's dark green, then they soared upwards. Neb watched until they were mere blots against the bluest sky.
Hooting anxiously, Balkind circled Neb's rock, then landed a little too close for comfort. He gambolled over to Neb, thrusting his beak-like snout into Neb's stomach and hooted again.
Neb knuckled Balkind's sweet spot, between his ears. 'Poor Balkind, some griffins have all the fun!' he said, smiling when Balkind hooted in agreement. "Fun" was one of the many words he understood, though apparently, he'd yet to master sarcasm … though sometimes Neb wondered.
Pushing Balkind away, he scooped up feathers and arrow shafts, wrapping them in a cotton rag. Then he retrieved the quiver, pleased to see it was almost full, thinking the arrows looked top flight. If I don't make it as a griffin rider, I can always become a fletcher, then, only half jesting, admonished himself, Griffin Rider, or death! He stood, stretched and petted Balkind's snout.
'Dinner time,' he said. Hearing his favourite words, Balkind nipped at his favourite human's hair, then gambolled ahead of Neb, scattering first years in his haste to bury his snout in his dinner bowl.
Neb followed at a slower pace, knowing the first years would ply him with questions and beg him to help with their studies. As expected, four of the boldest new recruits ganged up on Neb, piping questions. Absently, he measured fodder into Balkind's dinner bowl, while telling the recruits to clear off or he would find more chores for them. They giggled, suspecting he was bluffing, but just in case, they made a run for the great outdoors.
The griffins' sanctuary jutted out over the valley like a stubby wooden pier built over air. Honeysuckle, dog roses and even grape vines twined around the structure, creating an oasis surrounded by plant growth under the wooden boarded roof. Weighed down with Balkind's water bowl handle in one hand, and an even heavier food bowl in the other, Neb headed for the rear of the sanctuary, where the fresher smell of meadow hay overpowered the more delicate floral scents. Balkind followed, snuffling happily. His sanctuary mates hooted greetings, Neb settled Balkind's food and water next to Alaska, then leaned back against a sturdy vine to watch Balkind eat with a critical eye. Turning his back on Neb, Balkind ruffled his feathers.
Balkind's dinner. Griffins only. Not for humans. Taking the hint, Neb sauntered back to the Sanctuary's mouth and propped himself against a wooden strut.
He yawned, covering his mouth, then seconds later yawned again. But he wasn't tired and surely he couldn't be bored – could he?
Hearing screams of laughter bouncing off the ravine walls, Neb peered to his left. Thirty feet above, tributaries of the River Argent tumbled over the ravine's edge, creating a myriad of waterfalls and waterslides as they cascaded towards the valley floor and the main river. The First Years slipped, slid and plunged along the waterfalls sometimes vertical course way, screeching with delighted fear.
Would it be undignified to join them?
'Ask yourself that question again, only slower,' Neb chided himself out-loud, then sighed heavily. Straw rustled, then Balkind stood behind him, resting his chin on Neb's shoulder and dribbling a mouthful of half chewed fodder down his tunic.
'Balkind!' Neb scolded. But Balkind only nibbled his ear, as if to say, yes, it's me. Aren't I wonderful? And when Neb sat down to dangle his legs over the Sanctuary's edge, Balkind grunted and sat beside him, thrusting his head into Neb's lap, demanding to be petted and stroked. Without turning, Neb knew the other griffins would be dozing, or preening each other. Balkind simply loved people and seemed more aware than other griffins of the role he was born to play. He also had a low boredom threshold, so Neb decided to stop moping and go ride on the thermals with Balkind.
'Why should we be stuck here, when this day was made for flying?' he whispered into Balkind's ear.
But they'd left their escape too late.
Master Shannon's voice called. 'I'm glad you think so, recruit. I need someone to run an errand, and since you're the only half decent rider around, you're the lucky one!'
While Neb gloated over this back handed compliment, Master Shannon, who had nursed Alaska back to health over the last few months, explained that he and Romulus agreed that some time spent at Cherub Conventus would heal the griffin's mental scars.
'… and don't forget, you're representing the griffin riders' camp. No shenanigans with the students!' Under thick grey eyebrows, his eyes gleamed with amusement. Neb stiffened to attention, but before he could protest, Master Shannon clapped him on the arm.
'I jest, young Balkind's Rider. Everyone knows you never get into trouble!' still smirking, he walked off, heading toward the kitchens.
A trip to Cherub Clifftops meant an afternoon's flight, followed by an overnight stay. He should hurry to shower and prepare for the journey, but he hesitated, lost in thought. Would Chantress Anderra have forgiven him yet for disobeying orders and stealing Balkind? Sensing his rider's unease, Balkind nuzzled his snout into Neb's hand, crooning with pleasure when Neb got the hint and scratched between the griffin's ears.
'It'll be good to see the old place again,' he told Balkind with more confidence than he felt, adding. 'And if I see Samara, well – she's not my girl. She's just a friend, who happens to be a girl.'
At the mention of Samara, Balkind put his head on one side, regarded his rider with a large emerald eye, then slowly lowered his eyelid in a wink.
© Julia Hughes, 2014.
Hi all, another rainy bank holiday Monday here in London and most of the UK - it's also the fiftieth anniversary of the Notting Hill Carnival & I bet organisers & carnival goers will create their own sunshine!
As promised, here's chapter two of "The Griffin's Fall" from our next Griffin Riders adventure - happily (in my view anyway) it works as a stand alone short story too, so however you're celebrating your Monday, find five minutes to put your feet up and enjoy this mini-flight of fantasy!
The Griffin's Fall - Chapter Two:
Events speeded up and the next few minutes blurred into just one image of Alaska crashing through the lake's surface like a white hot comet. A tremendous splash sounded as displaced water exploded upwards, leaving behind an enormous crater. The liquid crater swelled, forming waves that swept in all directions, some crashing onto shore, others smashing up against rocks. Trelan and Raul shouted across to the fisher girls to clear the water, then bounded over the rocks towards them. At the same instant, Neb hollered 'Balkind!' and sprinted forwards across the broad smooth boulder overhanging the lake. Seconds later, silvery grey wings swept at Neb's shoulder as Balkind gambolled alongside him. Seizing a handful of neck feathers, Neb vaulted onto his griffin's back. Balkind catapulted himself from the rock and Neb's lower stomach tilted, signalling they were airborne. Glancing to his left, he saw Fletcher swooping down in a semi-circle towards the centre of the lake, where a white griffin floundered, churning up so much white froth it was difficult to see between griffin and water. Later he would learn that Alaska, hearing Solly's call, had dived towards the youngster, only to collide mid-air with Thunder-Child. That's when Perry had screamed. Thankfully for Solly's sake, Thunder-Child was the heavier and more determined griffin, and continued to flap towards a clearing of soft springy grass, just beyond the boulders' cluster.
Perry would describe again and again how Alaska had squawked, then plummeted into the lake. Griffins detested being wet at the best of times. During heavy rainstorms, some even refused to fly. And of course, waterlogged feathers made flying impossible. Neb thought they probably had seconds to somehow wrench Alaska from the water. Balkind's wings scythed through the air, shooting towards the stricken griffin and Neb's heart sunk.
They were too late. Alaska's wings beat against the water, but though they were fully outstretched, only a third was visible. The griffin's head was also mainly underwater, with only Alaska's pink hairless snout poking from the surface. His nostrils flared, trying to suck in much needed air. But without help, his lungs would never inflate again.
Balkind hooted with distress, Fletcher's wing beats filled Neb's ears. Turning his head to the left, he saw the Griffin Master's mount swooping down on Alaska. Grim faced, the Griffin Master was reaching behind his back to draw his sword.
'No!' Neb shouted, and shifted his weight to the left. Balkind immediately responded, dropping his left shoulder and almost swiping Fletcher's head with his wing. Fletcher bellowed and veered to the left. The Griffin Master was forced to grab at Fletcher's wings. 'Damn you, boy!' he cursed, as Fletcher scribed a semi-circle, preparing to bear down Alaska again, for the Griffin Master to end his suffering. A lead weight settled in Neb's stomach and he signalled Balkind to follow on Fletcher's tail.
'Please, Griffin Master Romulus, sir, please – is there nothing to be done?'
In answer Romulus roared. 'Keep those griffins under control. Heed me, or be sorry! Bid them stay!' After a second of confusion, Neb realised Romulus addressed the watchers on the shore. The young griffins flapped their wings and hooted anxiously, a red cloaked recruit stood at each one's head, trying to calm their mounts. Romulus signalled Fletcher to fly higher and widen his circle of approach. He shouted back over his shoulder, to Neb. 'Will Balkind glide on command?' Neb's mind scrambled over the question, what did Romulus mean to do? Whatever, so long as the old man's sword remained sheathed, Neb would glide his heart out – as would Balkind. He nodded vigorously, then shouted 'Yes!'
Romulus waved his right arm in a wide arc. 'Circle to the right. Turn in on my signal. Watch Fletcher. Mirror Fletcher – glide towards Alaska – only grab the right wing. You understand me, boy?'
With a last determined nod, Neb swiped at his face and sobbed out-loud. They had a chance: Alaska had a chance.
Romulus was the Griffin Master for a reason. Fletcher seemed to hover mid-air, waiting for Balkind to circle and then straighten, for a dual approach towards the stricken griffin. 'Don't mess this up, there's no second chance,' Neb muttered to himself, running a hand along Balkind's fluffy neck feathers. He glanced over towards Alaska. The animal had stopped struggling, which was good, but only someone who knew what they were looking at would recognise the broad margin of white, seemingly froth drifting on the water's surface, as being the outer edge of a griffin's wing span. Neb had to steel himself not to cut across too soon. Forcing himself to breath evenly, he imagined his left leg as an iron rod, around which Balkind had to pivot.
The pink hues of the lake's water turned Balkind's reflection a pinkish silver. As they swept past the band of fisher-girls, their faces too were brushed with an unnatural pink. A few of the surrounding boulders were almost blood red, maybe their colour leaked into the lake … or perhaps the lake has washed over them … Balkind flew past the other recruits, still turning, turning, and Fletcher came into view again. Neb jammed his knees against Balkind's flanks; The Griffin Master pushed Fletcher into a smaller tighter circle and as though they'd rehearsed this a thousand times, Fletcher and Balkind peeled out of their circles and as one, shot towards the broad line of white flotsam, which was all that showed of Alaska.
'Glide, Balkind, glide,' Neb ordered, pressing his legs forwards and ramming his knees under Balkind's wings. A sudden stillness pinged at Neb's ears; Balkind's wings seemed somehow to enlarge, at the same time they flattened, and Balkind glided noiselessly, with barely any loss of speed.
'Watch Fletcher, mirror Fletcher,' Romulus's voice came from far away. Yet when Neb looked to his left, Fletcher's golden wingtips butted against Balkind's silver grey. Then Neb's eyes widened. Fletcher folded his right wing, moving in closer to Balkind. Romulus noticed Neb's surprise. He grunted, and repeated a sweeping movement of his hand along an imaginary wing. "Can Balkind glide on command?" The Griffin Master had asked, never mentioning it was possible for a griffin to glide on one wing. If Neb hadn't seen it with his own eyes, he wouldn't have believed it possible. He glanced forwards, mere minutes now before their one and only attempt at grabbing the sunken griffin by its wing edges. If Balkind folds his wing, we're in with a real chance – this could work! Neb thought, and with nothing to lose, swept his hand along Balkind's left wing.
There was no earthly reason for Balkind to obey, but with a smoother action than Neb had hoped for, Balkind tucked his left wing to his flank, shifting closer to Fletcher, so close, they really were one griffin, a griffin blessed with four strong front legs and talons. Neb had a moment of dizzy delight – then quickly sobered. They were almost upon Alaska. His pure white body shimmered beneath the water in a grotesque parody of a griffin in flight. Though Neb's heart beat galloped, actions seemed to slow. He watched Fletcher's front legs unfurl and stretch, talons hooked and open ready to snag at Alaska's left wing. Neb kicked forwards, indicating to Balkind to do the same. Please, Romulus, please get this right. Because if the Griffin Master fouled up, at best Alaska's rescue would fail; at worse, they were all doomed. Too high, they would miss their target. Too low, and the metallic pink waters flashing by inches beneath Balkind's undercarriage would claim them all … only seconds to go now. He sensed Balkind's fore legs stretching, stretching. Balkind's head and neck also stretched; straight, perfectly aligned with his body and wings. The usually mischievous griffin gave off an air of determination. Neb glanced left, at the Griffin Master, and Romulus grimaced. 'If this doesn't work, get Balkind out of here – fast,' he ordered. Giving a sharp nod to show he understood, Neb turned to face front again. Gliding silently was unsettling, but all he could do now was sit still, and pray the contact Balkind and Fletcher made with Alaska's wing edges would be enough. Pray too Alaska isn't already dead.
Neb sat very still, poised to shift his weight in harmony with Balkind's movements. There was a soft jolt, followed by a loud slurping of water. Fletcher and Balkind grunted at the same time and their flight stuttered. Automatically, Neb's hands curled around the furl of Balkind's wings; placing a firmer pressure on the left, keeping it still, at the same time, he shifted his pelvis forwards, pushing his heels against Balkind's flanks. 'Steady, steady,' he murmured. Sensing movement, he looked to his right. The very rear of Balkind's wing seemed to ripple. The griffin's shoulders hunched and his neck dipped as he strained with all his might to keep momentum going. The slurping sound increased. Looking between the triangle of Fletcher's and Balkind's outstretched necks, Neb saw fountains of water cascade upwards as Alaska's wings, lifted by two pairs of steel like talons, emerged from the water. His head lolled onto his neck, but his snout was free of the water. They'd made contact! But they still had over two hundreds yards before making shore. Two hundred yards of flying in perfect symmetry; two hundred yards of not knowing if Alaska lived, or was already dead.
'Breathe, please breathe,' Neb whispered. Romulus glared over at him, then looked straight ahead again, his sight fixed on the horizon. But Neb knew that Romulus also willed Fletcher on, willed Balkind on, and most of all, willed Alaska to breathe.
Neb's body ached with tension; poor Balkind, struggling to drag the equivalent of waterlogged mattress using only one wing, while keeping perfect time with Fletcher, must be exhausted. A chilly cloak of condensation covered Neb's skin, Balkind's feathers also glistened with damp. But moment by moment, inch by inch, the shore line drew nearer. Barely fifty feet from shore, Alaska regained consciousness and immediately began to struggle, throwing his head from side to side, thrashing water into his rescuers' faces and drenching them.
'Pack it in!' Romulus ordered, but without his usual force. Obviously, the old warrior felt even more bone weary than Neb.
'Hush now, hush now, Alaska, nearly there, nearly home,' Neb soothed in a sing-song voice. Both Romulus and Fletcher grunted, but Neb continued to croon, and thankfully, Alaska stopped struggling. The lake's heavy stench of rotting vegetables and bad drains coated Neb's throat; not all the soap back at camp would be enough to wash the smell away. Still Balkind's muscles quivered under the strain of his burden, made double by the constricted movement of his solo wing, and Neb's own muscles ached in sympathy.
Finally, they made land. Alaska's forelegs scrabbled and he shook his upper body, with his rear legs and tail still in water. With an untidy flap of his right wing, Balkind toppled onto his side, and Neb rolled from his back. In time to see Fletcher stretch his wings and make a more dignified hop over Alaska's head, and crouch for the Griffin Master to dismount. Alaska dragged himself from the water and pushed himself into a more natural looking crouch. All three griffins panted heavily, in between shaking their feathers and twisting their heads this way and that to preen. Neb slapped water from his own clothes, then buried his face in his hands, before dragging them through his hair. He glanced over to Romulus, squatting with his hands between his knees, carefully examining Alaska. Neb walked over on unsteady legs, and collapsing to his knees, said. 'Thank you, sir.'
Romulus's head turned; he studied Neb as though seeing him for the first time. Then one side of his face lifted in a lopsided grin, and he laid a hand on Neb's shoulder. 'Nay, lad. Thank you.' Still with a hand on Neb's shoulder, he sat down. Neb half sat, half tumbled, to sit beside Romulus on the gravelly shore. With the old warrior's hand still draped over his shoulder, Neb watched in wonder as the griffins continued grooming and preening their feathers back into place. His gaze returned to Balkind: I don't care how difficult Balkind is to ride; because he's also the cleverest, fastest, and bravest griffin on Ella-Earth.
As though reading his thoughts and agreeing with him, Romulus slapped at Neb's shoulder, grunted and stood.
'Time to go and tear the skin off of that fool Euwan. You stay here. When Alaska's fully recovered, I want you to walk those two griffins back to camp. Understand me, boy?'
Neb also stood, and bowed his head. 'Understood, sir.'
Camp was a good two hours' march from here, but if Romulus so desired, Neb would walk to the ends of Ella-Earth for the Griffin Master.
© Julia Hughes 2014.
Taken from "The Griffin's Flight" to be published 25th September 2014. Book #1 "The Griffin's Boy" is free to download from Amazon, Smashwords and all good virtual booksites.
The griffin's wings stroked through the skies as a swimmer strokes through water; pushing each new wingful of air behind them, then reaching for the next, steadily climbing higher and higher. The boy clinging to its back gulped and peered over the griffin's right wing. Far far below, Lake Opus appeared like a puddle. Its surrounding craggy volcanic rocks were smears of black, with a red cluster of pinpricks on the Southern Shore barely visible, but he knew his fellow recruits watched. He looked to his left. Also just about visible, but shadowing the inexperienced rider and his griffin, the golden outline of Fletcher, the legendary mount of Griffin Master Romulus.
He'd never flown this high before, but was he high enough? His heart hammered inside his chest and he gulped again, screwing up his courage. His future depended on the next few moments and the reactions of his griffin. His heart hammered harder, painfully, and it took all his conscious will to drag his right leg over the griffin's back and perch sideways. His right hand still clutched at wing feathers, but under his left hand, the griffin's velvet pelt was slick with sweat. He moaned. The thermal they'd been riding on vanished without warning, as thermals do, and the griffin lurched to its left. The boy caught his breath and knowing it was now or never, before he could think again, pushed himself from the griffin's back.
He was falling – shooting towards the ground – which rose up faster than he could have imagined. His stomach also rose and he gasped, desperate to inhale, but he was dropping too fast – much too fast – the words formed in his mind: Catch me, catch me, oh for heavens' sakes – with a tremendous effort of will he forced the words from his mouth 'Catch mmeeeeeee!' but the wind snatched the thin treble scream away as though he hadn't spoken. The ground was so close now. Barely seconds until he crashed and every bone in his body would shatter. I'm going to die! he thought. He wanted desperately to call out to his griffin again, but his stomach merged with his ribcage, filling his chest with bile. A blast of chilly air struck and the lake's waters filled his vision. Drown! I'm going to drown! At least death won't be painful. Accepting his fate, his mind cleared and he screeched out the first word he had ever spoken. 'Maaammaaaaa!'
Seconds later, iron bands gripped at his upper arms and he screamed again.
A voice from above spoke. 'Stop screaming, boy. I've got you.' The boy's feet rippled the lake's surface as Fletcher flew him towards the rocks and safety. His stomach's contents lurched upwards again, this time burning their way up through the sensitive tissues of his throat and the boy's breakfast splattered over the lake.
'Good catch, Fletcher!' The smallest of the recruits, Perry called, as the Griffin Master guided Fletcher, with Euwan still dangling from his talons, towards the shore and safety. Fletcher's talons uncurled and Euwan tumbled into a heap on a nearby boulder. He immediately curled into a ball and began sobbing. Puzzled, Perry glanced towards his fellow recruits. The six would be griffin riders were spread out over a cluster of broad smooth boulders, jutting up from the earth to rise about twenty feet above the lake, like a pod of beached whales. This was officially their first "Fall and Catch" lesson. Unofficially – even unintentionally – at least three of the six recruits that made up Romulus's Secondary Squad had experienced the terror – and exhilaration of being snatched from a free fall by their griffin's talons.
On a neighbouring boulder, Perry's best friend, Solly, shivered as he listened intently to Balkind's Rider, Neb. The other two recruits laughed openly at Euwan, and Perry frowned at them. As the first to practise "fall and catch", Perry had also felt a hot shameful flush on being snatched to safety at the last moment by Fletcher. The other recruits, including Euwan, had laughed at him too, but Perry had dusted himself off, and as Solly was doing now, paid close attention to Neb's advice, and made a second, successful attempt. Perry's blood still thrilled from the excitement of being snatched from the air by his griffin, Moonshine. Smiling faintly at the memory, he ran a hand along Moonshine's black and white feathers until he reached the griffin's velveteen pelt, and scratched at Moonshine's sweet spot. Moonshine closed his eyes and clucked with pleasure. Balkind hung his grey snout-like beak over Moonshine's shoulder, hoping to be petted too. Perry obliged, then before any of the other griffins could nudge him with demands to be petted and scratched too, he hopped skipped and jumped across to Solly and Neb's boulder.
Still shivering, although only the lightest of breezes blew from the lake, Solly continued to listen to Neb's last minute instructions.
'Remember, keep talking to Thunder-Child, don't fly too high, just high enough. When you jump, make your call loud and clear,' Neb finished up, petting Thunder-Child's dark blue flank, just as Fletcher swooped overhead. Without bothering to land, the Griffin Master shouted. 'You! Thunder-Child's Rider! Up you go!'
'Fall well,' Perry advised his friend. Too excited to speak, Solly nodded, and grinned. After readjusting his red cloak over his shoulders, he leaned over to tuck his trousers into his boots, causing tendrils of light brown hair to fall over his face. He smoothed his hair back behind his ears, then had to readjust his cloak again.
'Thunder-Child's Rider! Stop preening yourself and mount-up!' Romulus bellowed, and although Fletcher was already fathoms high and half way across the lake, Solly cringed as though the Griffin Master had shouted into his ear. With a wry smile, Neb patted Thunder-Child's flank again and stood back, allowing Solly to mount. 'Catch well,' he said, and Thunder-Child hooted, as though acknowledging Balkind's Rider.
With a look of determination on his young face, Solly signalled to his griffin and Thunder-Child inflated his wings. Stretching his wings to full span, Thunder-Child gambolled forwards and launched himself from the boulder's edge to soar over the lake's waters. Perry's head tilted upwards to watch his friend. Neb clambered across the neighbouring boulder to join Trelan and Raul. Having grown bored with jeering at Euwan, the two older recruits were now skimming stones across the lake, hoping for some attention from a group of village girls, who in turn were casting fishing lines into the lake. Neb prodded Raul with his toe. 'Alaska's still fooling around up there,' he pointed towards a patch of white that could have been mistaken for a cloud, only it moved too fast, and seemed to be circling the lake. Raul shrugged, and skimmed another stone. It sank after four bounces and a faint jeer floated across the lake from the girls.
'It's Solly's first "fall and catch", he needs to concentrate on his own griffin, not Euwan's,' Neb explained, ignoring Raul's scowl.
'You really do have a one track mind,' Raul said, but he got up, dusted his hands together, and ran his finger tips across his upper lip, as if checking that his wisp of newly emerged facial hair hadn't disappeared. Then he jumped over to the boulder where Euwan huddled. Over the past year, Neb had gained a grudging acceptance from his fellow recruits, at least those in his own squad. Apart from Euwan, who refused to speak to him.
'Neb says you should cry your griffin down,' Raul said. Whether he'd planned to annoy, or he'd genuinely forgotten Euwan hated Neb's guts, the result was the same.
'Tell the nameless one I don't take orders from bast… him!' Euwan jumped to his feet and glared towards Neb. Ignoring him, Neb tipped his head back and shielded his eyes. Like a white shadow, Alaska hovered around fifty feet above his sanctuary mate, Thunder-Child. What happened next would haunt Neb's dreams for weeks to come. Afterwards, some of Romulus's recruits argued that Alaska somehow reasoned that catching Solly would make up for the griffin's failure to catch his own rider, Euwan.
Others argued that it was a griffin's instinct to snatch at a falling rider – any falling rider, and Solly had just been horribly unfortunate. Whenever these arguments started up, Neb's lips would tighten, and he'd refuse to comment. Euwan had been sent home in disgrace.
If it had been up to Neb, the punishment would have been far greater.
But on that breezy Spring afternoon, Euwan's disgrace and Neb's nightmares were all in the future. Solly and Thunder-Child had made a half circuit of the lake. They weren't too high, close enough for Neb to see Thunder-Child's talons stretch and contract: it seemed Solly was following Neb's advice, readying Thunder-Child to be prepared to catch. But they flew high enough for Fletcher to provide a safety net, should the young griffin fail in his first attempt to catch his rider. Thunder-Child swept around the far side of the lake, picking up speed and height as he rounded the lake's furthest point and caught sight of his sanctuary mates. Neb watched as a bundle fell from Thunder-Child's back and heard Solly's voice carry clearly across the waters.
The griffin angled its snout like beak ground-wards, folded its wings and swooped down, down, down. A huge smile spread over Neb's face. Although from here, it seemed Thunder-Child's undercarriage was about to collide with Solly, Neb knew differently. At the last moment, the griffin's wings unfolded, its fore legs angled forwards, and its talons gripped around the padded leather armlets of Solly's tunic. With a victory hoot, the young griffin soared upwards. Neb, Raul and Trelan laughed out-loud at Solly's squeak of 'Down, Thunder-Child, down!' Being dangled inches above the lake's surface was far preferable to dangling from a griffin's talons fathoms high in the sky.
'Hooray! They did it!' Perry cheered, jigging from one foot to another, and an echoing cheer rose from the village girls. One even waved.
'See that? She waved at me!' Raul clutched at Trelan and waved back vigorously, before draping an arm around Neb and Trelan's shoulders. Screwing up his eyelids, Raul pretended to peer closer at the group of girls. Their brightly coloured dresses fluttered in the breeze and were entirely unsuitable for fishing, but marked the group as young and definitely female, although from here, no individual features were visible. That didn't stop Raul's high spirits. 'Don't think much of your two,' he said, punching first Neb then Trelan.
Trelan stroked his own wispy moustache, and glanced sideways at Neb. 'Our young friend already has a girl, isn't that right, Neb?' he smirked, then put his tongue in his cheek.
If Neb denied this outrageous statement too hotly, he'd be teased. Deny too coolly, he'd be teased. A sudden vision of Samara didn't help. Even in his imagination, her eyes held a mocking laughter. The soft skin behind Neb's ears prickled as he struggled for the right tone of careless denial, and he almost felt relief when a scream rang out.
Neb glanced towards Perry, who tottered on the boulder's edge and pointed urgently into the sky. Following his panic stricken gaze, Neb also looked up and across the lake. With one voice, Neb, Trelan and Raul shouted:
'Solly! Look out for Alaska!'
From "The Griffin's Flight" (working title only) to be published Autumn 2014.
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Just a general muse to amuse myself - mainly 'cos I've got a free house and am determined to practice the art of procrastination. I'm becoming quite skilled at it!
Seriously though, something that's given me pause for thought for many weeks now is the relationship between books and films. And behind (nearly) every good film is a great book. Without a writer's - or script writers' - imagination, the vast majority of films wouldn't exist. Yet as someone recently pointed out, films are more commercially valuable than books: People will pay more to watch a film than they're willing to pay for a stonking good read. But are films better than books? Once an actor; say for argument's sake: Tom Cruise, pulls on Jack Reacher's trousers (or breaks open a brand new packet of Jack Reacher's underpants) then Jack Reacher is forever fixed in the public image as a man who resembles the actor, Mr Tom Cruise. Which isn't a bad thing, but immediately, imagination is curtailed. Some fans of Lee Child's nomadic hard hitting gun slinging loner took to the internet to protest: This wasn't how they'd envisaged Jack Reacher, and no doubt some even boycotted the film, preferring to keep their own image of Jack Reacher alive. Yet any movie goer who has yet to read Lee Child's series is going to see Tom Cruise as Jack Reacher.
I don't dislike films, although in my youth, I got dragged along to the South Bank to watch too many "art-house" movies, with a friend who was also a film critic. Thankfully, he wasn't the type who insisted on discussing his work, and didn't even mind if I fell asleep during the film. (It was dark, and the actors had long intellectual conversations in intense but low voices.)
I enjoy a good action packed movie; preferably one with car chases, explosions and the good guys winning. Even more enjoyable are those movies that nudge a little lever in your imagination and spark curiosity. But given the choice between watching someone else's interpretation of a fictional or factual story, or reading the printed words and painting my own internal images, for me, a book has more value than a film. The director of a film decides every last detail, a skilled author has learned to trust their readers' imagination to fill in the gaps. In my mind, that's a invitation to become part of the adventure.