The Silent Guard
Chapter One - The Pain of the Past
Senneck was dying.
Not that she would admit it to him; but Kullervo could see it. He knew if she could have, the proud old griffin would have flown away into the wild as griffins usually did, to die alone where her body would never be found. But her wings had gone stiff with age and she seemed to no longer have the willpower to say no when he offered her a warm barn to rest in.
She curled up there instead, in the straw, and Kullervo kept watch over her. The people in the village of Gwernyfed, where the two of them had settled down, quickly sensed what was going on. They had the sense to keep away from Senneck, but they visited Kullervo and quietly offered food and medicines for the only true griffin most of them had ever seen. He accepted their gifts politely and told them Senneck would soon recover, but he knew she wouldn’t. Medicines wouldn’t do anything for her now. Maybe they would have helped if she had been dying from disease, but she wasn’t. Old age had simply caught up with her.
Senneck said nothing about it one way or the other. She stayed in her barn, sleeping most of the day and eating very little. Kullervo stayed close by in case she needed him.
His niece, Flell, stayed too. But she was devoted to her adopted father and would have stayed close to him no matter what was happening. Kullervo hadn’t been sure whether she would understand but like most children, the eight year old was more perceptive than she seemed.
‘Senneck’s going to die, isn’t she?’ she asked one day.
Kullervo looked down into his niece’s small, solemn face. She had inherited a paler version of her Amorani father’s brown skin and her fearsome grandfather’s straight eyebrows, but the bright blue eyes had come from her mother.
‘Yes, she is,’ Kullervo answered at last. It was the first time he had admitted it out loud, and it made a lump form in his throat.
Flell clutched his hand more tightly. ‘Are you sure?’
Kullervo closed his eyes for a moment. ‘Yes.’
‘She’s very old,’ said Kullervo. ‘She was alive when your grandfather was young. She’s older than I am.’
‘You’re old too, aren’t you?’ Flell looked him in the face as she spoke, and an edge of desperation showed in her voice.
Kullervo chuckled. ‘I’m only thirty, petal.’
‘Is that old?’
‘Three times older than you, but not very old at all,’ said Kullervo.
‘How old will you be when you’re old?’ asked Flell.
‘I have no idea,’ said Kullervo. ‘Humans can live to be seventy, but I don’t know about myself.’
‘Yeah, because you’re not human,’ said Flell. ‘You’re a man-griffin.’
She sounded so much like her mother that Kullervo shivered. ‘Something like that. But don’t worry; I’m not going to die soon.’ The wings on his back twitched.
Flell didn’t look very comforted. So far in her short life she’d never seen anyone die, and had never lost anybody. Or at least that was what she thought. Senneck was the closest thing to a mother she had ever known, and Kullervo knew that as far as she was concerned, he was her father. It didn’t seem to matter if it was by blood or not.
Kullervo crouched down, awkward with his overly tall, lanky frame, and gave his adopted daughter a hug. ‘It’s all right, Flell. Don’t cry.’
But Flell had already started to shudder lightly in his grasp. ‘I don’t want Senneck to die!’
‘Neither do I,’ said Kullervo, ‘but everybody’s time comes eventually. Nobody can live forever.’
‘But it’s not fair!’ said Flell.
‘Life isn’t fair,’ said Kullervo. ‘It never has been. We just have to do what we can to make it fair.’ He let go of her. ‘Flell. Let me tell you something I’ve never told anybody.’
‘Okay.’ She sniffled a little, but listened.
‘I don’t talk much about my father,’ said Kullervo. ‘His name was Arenadd Taranisäii, but people called him other things as well. The Dark Lord Arenadd. The Shadow That Walked. The griffins called him Kraeai kran ae.’
‘You mean he was…?’ Flell began.
‘Yes. Once he was an ordinary man, but he died. Then a griffin called Skandar brought him back, but dead people aren’t supposed to come back. So he came back as something else, something that wasn’t human. He was immortal – he couldn’t age and he couldn’t die. He was young forever.’
‘I wish I could live forever,’ said Flell.
‘So do lots of people,’ said Kullervo. ‘Because they’re scared of dying. But my father had already died, and he couldn’t die again. He was trapped here in the mortal world, and couldn’t leave it.’
‘He did horrible things,’ said Flell.
‘Yes, he did. And he did them because he was forced to. The Night God was his master, and she told him to kill people. Including his own child.’
‘You?’ said Flell. ‘He was meant to kill you?’
‘No,’ said Kullervo. ‘It was your mother.’
Flell pressed herself against him. ‘He killed my mum?’
‘No.’ Kullervo smiled sadly. ‘He couldn’t bring himself to do it. Otherwise, you wouldn’t be here. But he was a miserable man. Do you understand that, Flell? He couldn’t die, but he couldn’t live either. He lost everyone. All his friends. The woman he loved – my mother. He had to stay here and watch everybody die. He was all alone. He wanted to die, but he couldn’t.’
‘That’s so sad,’ said Flell.
‘Yes it is,’ said Kullervo. ‘And do you see what it means?’
‘It’s bad to live forever,’ said Flell.
‘You can’t live without dying,’ said Kullervo. ‘To live properly, we have to get old and we have to die. You can’t really make the best of something unless you know you won’t have it forever. People weren’t meant to be immortal, and when it does happen, it ends badly for everyone. Now do you understand?’
Flell nodded solemnly. ‘I still don’t want to die. And I don’t want you to die either.’
‘Well, don’t worry,’ Kullervo smiled. ‘It won’t happen for a long time.’
Flell looked a little happier. ‘Can we go and see Senneck now?’
‘All right.’ Kullervo stood up, and they went into the barn together.
When he had first come to Gwernyfed to live quietly and bring up his sister’s child, Kullervo had been unnaturally huge – taller than any other man, and powerfully muscled. It had been a side effect of an attempt to fix the malformed magic gland in his throat and help him control his ability to twist his shape from human to griffin and back again. By now, though, that side effect had more or less worn off and he had reverted to his old gangly, awkward shape. He was still unusually tall – so much so that he had to duck to get in through the barn door – but the muscular bulk had gone. He still had a pair of feathered wings on his back, and a tail poking through the seat of his pants, but while he was in human form they were useless.
Inside the barn, Senneck lay in her nest of straw. She had thrown off the blanket Kullervo had put over her, and her head rested on her taloned forepaws while she slept lightly. When Kullervo had met her she had already been ageing, but her long, leggy body had been strong and sinewy and her feathers glossy with health. Now both fur and feathers had faded, and the feathers had gone grey around her eyes and beak. Her joints had become stiff and swollen, and her eyes, once bright blue, had dimmed. When Kullervo and Flell came in, she stirred but didn’t look up.
‘Hullo, Senneck,’ said Kullervo, raising his voice.
Senneck’s eyes opened partway. ‘Has day come?’ she asked in a husky voice.
‘Yes,’ said Kullervo. ‘It’s noon.’
‘I will miss the sun,’ Senneck rasped to herself, and closed her eyes again.
Flell went over to the old griffin, and gently petted her head. ‘Are you feeling better, Senneck?’ she asked in slightly clumsy griffish.
‘I am tired,’ said Senneck.
Kullervo sat down on an upturned bucket. ‘Maybe if you’re feeling up to it, you could tell her a bit about her great-uncle,’ he suggested. ‘You’re the only one left who knew him.’
Senneck raised her head a little, and peered at Flell. Then she looked at Kullervo. ‘Perhaps you should tell her,’ she said sharply. ‘I think it is time.’
Kullervo looked away uncomfortably. ‘I never knew him,’ he said. ‘You know that.’
Senneck snorted and laid her head down again.
‘Tell me about great-uncle Erian,’ Flell urged. ‘I want to know! Please?’
Senneck took in a slow, wheezing breath. ‘Once I had a human,’ she said. ‘I chose him to be my partner. His name was Erian Rannagonson and he was born in a place called Carrick. He was the son of a peasant female and a griffiner called Lord Rannagon, from a city called Eagleholm.’
‘What was he like?’ Flell asked eagerly.
‘He was brave and a great fighter,’ Senneck said in a flat, careless kind of way. ‘He was also a fool. But we fought together, he and I. We fought the dark griffin and his human. Tried to stop them in their conquest.’ She shuddered in another breath. ‘When Malvern fell… on that day… on that day my human, my Erian… died.’
‘How did he die?’ asked Flell.
‘Kraeai kran ae killed him,’ said Senneck, and closed her eyes again.
‘What?’ Flell looked at Kullervo.
Kullervo nodded sadly. ‘My father Arenadd killed him. But that’s not what I meant, Senneck. Tell her something real about him. About what he was like.’
Senneck gave an irritable groan. ‘His eyes were blue, and his fur was yellow, and he had large front paws.’
Kullervo nodded again. ‘I saw the carving on his tomb.’ He smiled gently at Flell, who was listening with fascination, and added, ‘I think you inherited those lovely eyes of yours from him as well as your mother.’
Senneck had already started to drift away again. ‘He was a fool,’ she rasped again in a distant, confused kind of way. ‘He did not think before he acted. But he was my human.’
‘Shhh.’ Kullervo shushed her and gently stroked her neck. ‘It’s all right now, Senneck. You can rest now.’
Senneck stirred. ‘Do not patronise me,’ she said, and went to sleep.
Flell giggled. ‘She’s so bossy.’
‘Always was.’ Kullervo smiled to himself. ‘We should stay here and keep an eye on her for a while.’
‘All right.’ Flell pulled herself up onto a beam and perched there in her favourite spot. ‘I want to know more,’ she said. ‘Tell me more about the war!’
‘Not now, Flell,’ said Kullervo.
She pouted. ‘Why not?’
‘Because I said so.’
‘Then tell me more about Uncle Erian,’ said Flell. ‘And mum as well, and my dad, and…’
‘All right, all right!’ Kullervo laughed. ‘What else did you want to know?’
‘Everything!’ Flell said eagerly.
Kullervo frowned and absent-mindedly plucked a stray feather off his arm. He’d never kept anything secret from the child; she knew the names of her parents and the rest of her family as well, and he’d answered all the questions she’d asked over the years. But so far she hadn’t asked one question in particular, and it was the one question he didn’t want to answer – and would answer if she asked it, and truthfully as well, no matter how painful it might be. He had made a vow, years ago, that he would never tell another lie as long as he lived, and especially not to the only family he had left. But sometimes the truth hurt.
She hadn’t asked, though, so he told her what she already knew.
‘Your mother’s name was Laela Taranisäii,’ he said. ‘She was the Queen of the North for about two years, after our father Arenadd went away.’
‘And my father was from Amoran,’ Flell supplied.
‘That’s right,’ said Kullervo. ‘Prince Akhane from Amoran. Senneck and I went all the way to Maijan to find him, because your mother needed his help. And when we brought him back to Malvern, she decided to make him her co-ruler, and she had a child with him. You, of course. Laela named you after her mother, Flell.’
‘Flell was Erian’s sister,’ the younger Flell added.
‘That’s right,’ said Kullervo. ‘My father Arenadd was in love with her before he became the Shadow That Walked. But he didn’t know her child was his own.’
‘Why not?’ asked Flell.
‘Because when you die and come back, you forget who you were,’ said Kullervo. ‘I think that’s how it works.’
Flell looked thoughtful. ‘If my mother was Queen, does that mean I’m a Princess?’
‘Yes,’ said Kullervo.
‘And your father was a King, so you’re a Prince!’ Flell added.
‘I suppose so,’ said Kullervo.
‘Don’t princes and princesses live in Eyries?’ asked Flell. ‘With crowns and treasures and things?’
‘Sometimes they do,’ said Kullervo. ‘But Eyries aren’t as nice as they sound, and crowns and treasures aren’t any use to anyone in the end.’
Flell didn’t look convinced, but Kullervo expected that. Some things you had to learn for yourself before you could believe them, and Flell was only a child after all.
They sat in silence for a while, watching Senneck sleep, and Kullervo thought about the past. It had been more than ten years since he had met Senneck. More than ten years since the day he had discovered his power to shape-shift, and had flown North in search of the family he had always dreamt of. He had found his half-sister, and a home of a kind, but nothing had been the way he had hoped or expected.
He looked around at the rough, simple wooden barn in the rough and simple village he called home now. Once he had lived in an Eyrie, and he had ruled his own Kingdom for a day. Now he was the elder of Gwernyfed, helping people with their troubles and doing what he could to treat illnesses and injuries. Some might have called it a sad outcome for someone who was more or less royalty, but Kullervo knew what suited him and made him happy, and it wasn’t the life of a ruler or an ambassador. Gwernyfed was better.
But now Flell was getting older and asking harder questions, and he wondered how much longer she would be contented to stay where she was. Another child might have been happy to accept her lot in life, but Flell was a Taranisäii, and Taranisäiis had never had simple lives, or accepted anything easily.
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