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.