There are stories about Silas, Gus, Percy, Padmay, Mouse, Belivdere, and Felbane. I’m going to share the one about Felbane just because I like you.
The griffin Felbane stands on the cliffs overlooking the harbor of Whileaway—the largest of the Sunkissed Isles. He stands well back amid the trees, staring at the delicate line of horizon—blue on white on blue.
He cannot see the beach at this angle. He knows that if he moves forward and looks down, he will see the Fang careened on the sand towards the town to his left. People will be busy around her, scraping her hull and preparing it for the new copper bottom that has already been paid for in the dockyard. The Cormorant will be visible in that direction, too, floating a little out from the bay.
Directly below, Felbane will see white sand, driftwood, and tide pools. The tide is low. The beach will be wide, the water shallow for a long way out. He will see all of this and more if he takes a few steps forward, if he leaves the trees, if he stands on the edge of the cliff with the sun full on his face and the wind in his feathers.
At his side, his friend, the winged wolf Tzu makes a soft chittering noise and looks up at him. “They’re waiting,” she whispers.
Still, Felbane does not move. He does not know how to express himself. He is afraid that if he opens his mouth, the words that will come out will be, “I can’t.”
It has been almost a year since that terrifying day when the court-trained war griffin, Alsair, attacked him while carrying four riders out of harm’s way on Lecklock. Felbane couldn’t fight back without sending his passengers to their deaths. In the ensuing scuffle, Felbane’s wing was broken. The pain had been blinding. But he’d been lucky. If Gerard hadn’t been there, the griffin would probably have killed him.
The wing had started to heal over the summer. Felbane had flown again, but roughly, unevenly. He limped through the air where once he had soared. And it hurt. It hurt all the time.
Gerard and Silveo had found a healer for him on Mance—a trained beast-healer. Two of them, in fact, although Phineas knew more about griffins. Phineas explained that the only way Felbane would ever fly straight again was to re-break the wing and set it correctly.
Felbane has mercifully little memory of this event. He endured it in a poppy-induced haze and woke with his wing bandaged against his body. “You must not pick at the bandage,” Phineas told him. “You must not fly until it is healed. I will help you exercise your wings when the time comes.”
Felbane bobbed his head. He is obedient. He never tells them that he dreams night after night of the pit.
In the dream, it is always the first time. His captors turn him loose after months in a cage, and Felbane believes—oh, how he believes!—that he is free. He flings himself into the sky. He spreads wings that have never failed him and fixes his eyes on the boundless blue. His juvenile body uncoils in a leap that would bring him to the top of most buildings, even without wings. He flaps madly.
And he falls. He plunges hard into the dirt, bewildered and betrayed.
He hears hoofbeats. Next second, something catches him painfully around the neck. He is dragged through the dirt, thrashing and choking.
The dragging stops, and the cord around his neck loosens. Felbane gasps for air. He is hurt and confused, and the idea that he cannot fly is causing a drumbeat of terror in his skull. He opens watering eyes and sees an unknown creature pacing around him, laughing and calling to the crowd. Felbane will learn, later, that it is a centaur—a rare species from a distant land. This one makes his living in the fighting pit, risking his life for money, killing various contenders for the sport of those who watch.
The centaur and the crowd are shouting in a language that Felbane cannot understand. He is so very afraid. He jumps up and tries again to fly. This time, something curls around a hindleg and jerks him to the ground even harder.
It’s a whip. The centaur has a battle whip. He gives Felbane a casual flick across the rump, demonstrating his fine control, leaving stinging pain and a trickle of blood. He could have choked Felbane to death already, dragging him, but he’s putting on a show for the crowd.
Felbane knows that he should turn and fight for his life, but his instincts are screaming at him to fly away. There’s no roof over his head, and the sky is right there… He runs from the centaur, jumping into the air repeatedly, flapping and falling. The centaur gallops after him, wielding his whip expertly, laying stripes of blood across Felbane’s tawny fur and black feathers.
“You can’t fly, idiot,” growls the centaur in heavily accented grishnard. “Nobody wants to watch me chase you around like some scared kitten. Stand and fight, coward!”
Felbane is a scared kitten. He’s a half-grown cub, numb with the demise of his bonded family, bewildered by his nightmare journey to this place, and panicking at the loss of his most basic natural ability.
In a burst of nerves and desperation, he flings himself at the stadium wall and manages to get his paws over the lip. He’s about to scramble into the first row of seats. Shelts are scattering. Two hunti with spears are hurrying forward.
Before they can strike him, the centaur’s whip curls around Felbane’s body again and jerks. Felbane sets his claws in the wooden lip of the stadium wall. He turns in mid-air as the centaur pulls him free.
The centaur is standing too close to the wall. He has no time to correct. He must have forgotten that even terrified juvenile griffins have beaks like knives.
Felbane’s beak buries itself in the centaur’s neck. The centaur screams, but not for long.
That is how Felbane makes his first kill in the fighting pit, how he earns the right to live for more than a single event. His captors soon put a harness on him to prevent even the clipped-wing flapping that had brought him to the top of the stadium wall.
For the next red month, Felbane continues to forget that he cannot fly. He tries instinctively to open his wings in moments of fear or anxiety. He jumps into the air and falls. He dreams of flying. He wakes straining against the harness.
The straps chafe Felbane bloody at the beginning. He is lucky, though. He develops calluses and not blisters, bald spots and not blood poisoning. They never take the harness off. Not even at night. Not even when Felbane is sick or injured. Not even when his owners think he may die. They let out the straps twice as he grows, but by the time a tall grishnard galley slave steps into the pit, no one has adjusted Felbane’s harness in almost a year. He has not opened his wings in two years. He has almost forgotten that he has them.
Felbane has forgotten other things, too. The harness might as well have been a muzzle. Words bring blows and hungry days spent in darkness, so he has stopped using them. Felbane eats only what he kills in the pit—whatever pieces he can gobble before he’s driven back to his cage. He thinks only of his next fight, his next meal. He fights other beasts, mostly, and they are not clever. They are hungry and vicious, like Felbane. Sometimes, he is presented with shelts to fight. They think they are clever, but Felbane knows their ways. He is valuable now, with patrons who bet on him, so his opponents are rarely given good weapons.
But when Gerard steps into the pit and tries to talk to him, Felbane knows something is different. Most opponents do not speak to Felbane, except to hurl taunts. When Dakar jumps into the pit, Felbane becomes worried. No one has ever jumped from the stadium wall before. She should be injured. She isn’t. This is new, and nothing new is ever good.
Gerard keeps trying to talk to him. When they manage to vault onto his back, Felbane thinks he is about to die. Gerard is still talking, but Felbane does not register the meaning. It has been so long since he’s heard grishnard. “Felbane, I’m cutting through your harness. There, it’s done.”
And then Gerard says the words that penetrate Felbane’s confusion and fear. “You can fly.”
Felbane understands. He understands, and he is angry. This is the cruelest of cruel lies. He remembers jumping and falling. He remembers straining against the unforgiving harness. The centaur’s mocking voice whispers in his head. “You can’t fly, idiot.”
Felbane jumps and twists, intending to fling the grishnards off his back. Something gives when he jumps—something unexpected. He sucks in a breath to shriek or roar, and it is a deeper breath than he has taken in a long time. Something is different, and new things are always bad. Felbane is afraid.
And yet he jumps again. His instincts prompt him to push—push with the wings he does not have, the wings he has not had since he was a half-grown cub. He is astonished by the height of his own jump. The harness flops around him.
The crowd is roaring—an angry sound. Pain explodes under his right foreleg. A javelin. He is going to die. They are going to kill him.
“You can fly.”
The pain of the javelin under his leg is excruciating. Another javelin will soon follow, and this one will pierce his heart.
“You can fly.”
Felbane fixes his eyes on the blue as he has done hundreds of times before in this pit. And, for reasons he does not fully understand, he tries. He really tries. One last time.
His wings fling pieces of the harness in all directions. Black and gold feathers fill the air—feathers that have grown long again, unclipped.
For three glorious seasons, he flies. His weakened muscles grow strong. He flies with Tzu, with Dakar, with other griffins.
And then he doesn’t. Because his wing is broken. He is broken. Of course he is. Because he knew—knew—it was too good to last. The dressing reminds him of the harness. He has not dreamed of the pit since his first nights of freedom, but now he dreams of it over and over, straining to open wings that are bound.
He tells himself that he is very lucky. The ocelot kittens are entertaining company. Tzu comes to visit him, and they talk of hunting together in the Sunkissed Isles as though he will ever fly again. Dakar visits him. Silveo comes almost every day, even when he is very busy. Gerard introduces Felbane to the castle griffins on Holovarus. One of the females is even friendly with him. Felbane has never had a mate. She seems impressed by his size and unconcerned about his broken wing, which will not be passed to her young.
Felbane is lucky. He knows he is lucky even if he never flies again. He has been reconciled to his land-bound state once before in much worse circumstances. His mind accepts it as an ordinary griffin’s might not. He has known since he was a cub that the sky was lost to him. His three seasons in the air were a gift—a pleasant dream.
The dressing has been off for two yellow months now. Phineas has helped him exercise his wings—first daily, then twice a day, then three times a day. Felbane is obedient. He flaps when instructed. He does not argue or try to fly.
Phineas finally gives him permission. Still Felbane does not try. He says he will try tomorrow. He says this for six days. Phineas is growing concerned. He suggests that Felbane go to the top of the cliff and fly down. He won’t have the strain of taking off that way. It will be an easy first flight. He can just glide if he likes.
Felbane says that he will, but he doesn’t. When Tzu finds out, she goes visiting around the ships. Next morning, there’s a whole group of people politely asking when they should come down to the beach to watch. Felbane glares at Tzu, but she looks at him with her big bat eyes and behaves as though she doesn’t understand. “You have promised we will hunt together,” she says.
Felbane considers telling her that he has killed any number of things on the ground. But he doesn’t say it because he is too nervous. She walks with him all the way up to the cliff overlooking the beach. When he hesitates under the trees, she says nothing. After a while, she starts to groom.
Felbane looks at the blue sky framed through the jungle canopy ahead, at the sunlit edge of the cliff. “They’re waiting,” whispers Tzu at last.
Felbane says nothing.
“Does it hurt?” asks Tzu softly.
Felbane thinks for a long moment. “It hurts to try and fail.”
Tzu hops onto his shoulder. She weighs practically nothing. She begins grooming his ears. “You will not fail.”
Felbane sits down on the path. “I know I am lucky.”
Tzu gives a snort of laughter.
“It is enough.”
“No, it isn’t.” She answers so quickly it surprises him.
Felbane didn’t really expect her to understand what he means. It is enough to be loved and safe and fed. It is greedy to ask for more.
“You can fly,” she whispers in his ear.
Felbane shakes his head. He remembers jumping and falling over and over, landing in the dirt more times than he can count. The pain of failure was always worse than the pain of the fall. No sky. No wind. Just the dirt. The centaur whispers in his mind, “You cannot fly.”
But he did. He did for three seasons.
Feeling light with terror, Felbane walks to the edge of the cliff. The ground is so far down—so much farther than the edge of the stadium. His eagle eyes catch a rapid movement. Belvedere, Mouse, and Dakar are crouching beside a tide pool. Theseus is belly-deep in the water. He’s caught something. The children jump up, waving madly, when they see Felbane. He is sure that Dakar would like to fly with him, but she needs to keep her secrets here, so she probably won’t.
Phineas and Arton are on the beach not far from the children. The remaining ocelot kitten is with them. Felbane catches sight of Gerard and Silveo, walking in the direction of the Fang. They stop and wave, calling encouragement.
Tzu leaps off his head—flapping round and round in the clear, sea air. “Come on!” she shouts. “It’s perfect! Come on!”
Felbane’s heart is hammering out of his chest. He stares at the sky. Not for me, not for me, not for me. The centaur is laughing in his head.
Gerard’s voice from long ago: “You can fly.”
Felbane stares down at his friends, then out at Tzu, flapping in wild circles, pushed by the wind, but unafraid. Felbane could carry her—faster and smoother than she could ever fly herself, because she is a bat and not a griffin. He could…
Felbane opens his massive black and gold wings and fixes his eyes on the blue summer sky, on his friend calling to him. He feels the sun on his face and the wind pushing against the great sails that are his wings.
He jumps. And flies.
This story occurs during the summer following the events in Jager Thunder. The events likely occur during the Cormorant novel, which had not yet been written when this story was created. You can listen to the whole collection here.