They Who Ride on Gryphons
Conrad had killed the king. A viscous puddle slowly swelled at his feet, pressing against the toes of his boots. A man raised a sword and hurled himself towards the king's prone body with a guttural shout. Sunlight blinked on the steel as the point came down, and Conrad grasped the assailant's sword arm, wrestling him from the lifeless monarch. In his fury, the man delivered two more blows that hacked through the king's already rent and battered armor before Conrad could grapple him away.
"Prince Derek," Conrad panted, still winded from his previous fight, "the men are watching. What honor are you showing them by attacking a dead man?"
"I am not to be lectured about honor!" Prince Derek snarled through spittle-foamed lips. "My father sent me to destroy him and crush his kingdom! Stand aside!"
"King Colin's orders have been fulfilled; the army of Farstov has been routed, the capital has been taken and now the King of Farstov lies dead," Conrad said in a firm but quiet tone. "Mutilating the body will not serve your father's orders."
Prince Derek responded with a virulent glare and Conrad knew the hot-blooded young royal was about to upbraid him - merely King Colin's Knight Champion - for rebuking a Prince. As the Prince began to form his response, another voice rang in the gore-spattered hall.
"Go on! Let the princeling fresh from his mother's teat show his men how bravely he can fight a corpse!" Conrad still held the Prince's arm, but he looked to see a door standing open. On their side of the door stood a girl. Conrad guessed her to not be more than thirteen years, but she startled him in her defiant tone and her bloodied armor. She grasped a reddened sword in her hand and stared across the distance not at Conrad, but at Prince Derek. Yes, he recalled now: King Dray of Farstov had a young daughter.
"Why do you stand? You attacked my father so boldly a moment ago - after your knight already earned the glory by fighting him in combat," the girl continued with a mirthless smile that contrasted violently with such a childish face - a childish face streaked with bright smears of blood. A hot pain rose in Conrad's chest, but he struggled to press it back. By the sacred talons, he thought and turned to his liege.
"My Prince," he said. "Let me handle this. There are some things that are not for you to do." Such as the killing of little girls, he added to himself. For a moment, he thought to signal to one of the soldiers. He could then turn away, tell himself it was not his hands stained with her blood. No, she must have seen me kill her father. And she is a warrior. I owe her this.
"Ready your sword," Conrad ordered as he drew his blade and stepped forward. A self-satisfied smile formed on the girl's lips, but Conrad could see fear now coalescing in her eyes. The sword and armor of a warrior, the eyes of a child who had just lost her father. Conrad set his jaw and stepped closer. A moment's hesitation and she could get past his armor. After all, that was blood on her sword: she had already survived at least one fight.
His back to the Prince, Conrad did not see the young man's gesture. In tandem, three soldiers detached themselves and came up on the girl, grasping her arms and wrenching away the sword. She slammed her boot into one soldier, but the others twisted her arms behind her back with enough force that Conrad saw pain flare into her eyes and drive away the fear.
"Release her!" Conrad said. "She deserves to die fighting. I will not slaughter her like some farm animal."
"No, Conrad," the Prince said as he placed himself at the knight's side. "If she dies fighting, that will only inspire the people we are trying to destroy. My father said to kill the king, he did not say what to do with his whelp."
"Do you have any idea what you are saying?" Conrad said in a strangled whisper. Terrible form to argue with his liege before common soldiers, but by the gods! this young idiot could not reason tactics worth a tinker's dam. "When the heirs die, the kingdom dies with them! I can assure you her father would not have spared you had he invaded first."
"I am not sparing her, Conrad," Prince Derek responded, not caring to whisper. Then to his soldiers: "Bind her with shackles. She comes to the royal city with us."
Conrad needed no military training to translate the roiling fury in the girl's narrowed eyes. "Your knight is right," she called to Prince Derek. "The royal house of Farstov does not break easily. You will regret not killing me."
"Princess," the young prince mocked, "there is no Farstov."
"I am not a princess," she answered and raised her chin. "With my parents dead, I am the Queen."
Conrad sighed and shook his head. That is exactly what I mean.
Prince Derek gave the grin of one too gorged upon the day's victory and too raw to understand that one day's triumph can build the road for another day's defeat. "No, you are now a slave." He turned to Conrad, who felt that hot pain driving through him again. You cannot be that stupid. Surely your father did not sire a pup this dumb. "I give you as a slave to the man who killed your father." No, it would appear he had. "Well done, Champion," Conrad heard the Prince addressing him, then felt a congratulatory slap against his armor. "Enjoy your reward."
"So be it," the girl said - Conrad had shut his eyes in exasperation, and he could not see her expression, though he imagined it was not a humble one. "At least he had the honor to strike my father in equal combat."
Ignoring the baited words, Prince Derek began to walk from the once lavish hall, pausing just long enough to instruct Conrad, "Do not kill her or free her, otherwise, do with her whatever you like."
Despite himself, Conrad snorted.
The neighboring kingdoms feared the country of Etgress for three reasons: King Colin's iron determination, his uncanny military tactics, and his gryphons. Conrad figured until that bloody afternoon, the girl had not seen one of the legendary gryphons which carried the King's elite knights into battle. She had maintained a noble and disinterested silence since the soldiers led her from the castle, but now she openly stared at the curious creatures: head and forequarters of an eagle, body of a lion. Their sun-colored eyes blazed against gold-brown feathers. The animals preened and strutted as they awaited the orders of their knights. Extinct in all other regions, the gryphons were carefully bred and maintained by only the most trusted of King Colin's knights.
Conrad would not be flying back on his war gryphon. He wanted to keep an eye on his new "reward", so old Geft would be riding all the way back to the capital on a wagon. Conrad hoped the gryphon would bear the indignity with minimal fits of temper.
"They're amazing," the girl breathed. Then she turned to Conrad and asked, "You ride one?"
"Yes," he said. As a point of fact, he owned four, but there seemed little sport in bragging to a chained girl.
"Will I get to see him?" The innocent hope in her voice did not match the chains or the blood or the now-empty sword belt. Conrad gave an inarticulate grunt, ordered the soldiers to keep a strict watch on her and then strode off to check on the condition of the knights he commanded. Gods, he wanted to punch Prince Derek in the guts.
Not until that night did Conrad realize that he had never asked the girl her name. He would not keep calling her "the girl", so he crossed to where she lay under the watch of three guards with her back to the camp. Stepping toward her, Conrad understood why she had turned away. Still grasping for whatever dignity she might maintain, the girl was crying quietly with her face pressed against her arms. She stopped as he knelt down.
"You must be cold," Conrad said and unfastened his cloak to set over her. She managed a muttering of thanks. "Did you get food?" A nod. "Something to drink?" Another nod. "I suppose we never did proper introductions." That came out poorly. As though they were supposed to have shaken hands and traded names. When he was killing her father? Or perhaps when the Prince was giving her to him as a slave?
"I am Avis," she said and sat up, wiping her eyes against the backs of her hands. "And unless I am mistaken, you are Sir Conrad, King Colin's Knight Champion."
"Then I suppose I should warn you that so long as I live, I am the Queen of Farstov. I will never be your slave." The defiant tone returned.
Conrad bit back a smile before she noticed. "No, I don't suppose you will. Whatever Prince Derek may call you, once we have returned to Etgress, I intend to train you as my squire."
Now she grinned knowingly. "You know I will never be loyal to Etgress," she said, "but you believe there is a chance I may be loyal to your household."
"You are quite . . . astute," Conrad replied, mildly startled as he searched for the proper word.
"The heir to a kingdom ought to be," she said pointedly.
"That manner of talk will get us both into a lot of trouble."
"Then you had better hope your king Colin lives a long time, or you will find Farstovians reclaiming what is theirs." This she said as simple fact without defiance.
"Go back to sleep, Avis." He settled the cloak back around her and went to spend some time in thought with Geft. Prince Derek indeed had made a terrible mistake.
"You shouldn't let her be around your gryphons like that, sir. She'll try to kill them one day."
Conrad looked long at the stable master before replying, "That's not how she is. She has no grudge against the gryphons." Against others, yes; but not the gryphons. He watched Avis stroking the head feathers of a spirited female while offering it a handful of chopped meat. The girl laughed as the large animal's thick tongue flicked across her open palm, searching for every last taste of the offered treat.
"Don't be greedy," Avis admonished, running her hand over the beak. "I know you get fed plenty enough."
Conrad remembered her unexpectedly innocent display of wonder when she first saw the gryphons a season before. She had approached Geft with gentle poise, talking soothingly to the old war gryphon. For that moment, the hot fire of defiance had vanished, and Geft approached with outstretched beak to sniff her face. Conrad wondered at her boldness that she did not even flinch with that savage beak so close to her, but she had held and her reward had been Geft's affectionate shove of his head against her, nearly knocking her to the ground. Conrad had stepped up then and steadied her as Geft insisted upon being fussed over. She had indeed fussed over the gryphon, laughing as the fierce-eyed creature nuzzled against her.
No. She would not hurt the gryphons. With them, she forgot her masquerade of defiance, her determination to save a beleaguered people.
In a low tone, the stable master continued, "Sir, she's probably trying to win their confidence. Why, if they let her walk straight up to them-"
"That is enough," Conrad interrupted with a tone of river ice about to break. "It is not your place to decide who I trust with my gryphons."
"Sir Conrad," the stable master began again, but at the narrowing of the knight's eyes, the protest ebbed away.
"She would kill me before she would kill one of the gryphons," Conrad said. "Now find something useful and stop slandering my squire." The stable master gave a laconic shrug, sighed and walked back towards the paddock.
"Is it strange?"
"Is what strange?"
"Why, being the squire to the man who killed your father!"
Conrad paused with a pint at his lips. Honestly, did nobody teach their squires discretion? Still, he wanted to hear clearly Avis's response to the other squire. So he set aside his pint and melded with the revelers twirling and laughing nearby.
"It was war. It was not as though he knifed him in a tavern brawl."
Avis shrugged when she said it, but Conrad knew well Avis's intelligence and he knew also that as the only child to a king, her social training had been second-to-none. For six years Avis had been Conrad's squire, but he doubted she could look at him and not see her father's blood upon his sword.
She excused herself then and rose from the squires' table, moving calmly but with purpose towards the twinkling night. Conrad allowed himself a satisfied smile. Even innocent and jocular questions could be twisted and plied at a noble's ball as deftly as the dancers losing themselves in the music's pulse. Well done, he thought. But other dangers lurked along the fringes of such revels, and though he knew Avis's quality as a warrior. . . . She was still the queen of a conquered nation and she never forgot to carry herself as such. He followed her.
Conrad knew that Avis would go someplace where those she saw as usurpers would not be spilling forth possibly damning questions. He went to the paddock where the gryphons nested with their young, and found her watching a couple of awkward-limbed cubs going for a last gambol before returning to their nests of tufted paddock grass for the night.
Squires did not wear their armor to these manners of functions, and the moonlight caressed the silhouette of the young woman, setting the threads in her dress shimmering and the loose wisps of hair glowing. Even in a moment of pensive thought, her regal heritage blazed through in the proud set of her shoulders and the imperious tilt of her chin, and Conrad caught his breath.
"Where would you be today, had King Colin not invaded?" he mused softly. "Would you be queen now? Would you be leading an army in Etgress to put a sword point through our King? Would you put that same sword through me and never think of it?" That last question wandered his mind many a night as he lay in bed with the world dark all around him. He knew she would not kill him in his sleep, but when they sparred, her strikes came with force and precision and a strange fury rose into her eyes. He accepted that one day she probably would kill him. It bothered him to think that when that day came, she might do so with indifference to his memory.
At the sound of his footsteps whisping through the tall grass, Avis turned and a dagger sparked moonlight in her hand.
"Had I been an assassin, I wouldn't have made near as much noise," Conrad said.
"It's intoxicated fools that concern me more," she replied and sheathed the dagger. It might have been moonshine and shadows, but as Conrad came to stand beside her, did he see her smile? Perhaps not, for her gaze rested fixedly upon the sleeping gryphons.
"You've never asked for your own gryphon," he said and joined her watch over the paddock.
"Would it matter if I did? King Colin was no idiot. He would never have granted a gryphon to an enemy queen who refuses to admit she was conquered." Now her eyes came back to his. The past few years had eroded much of the vehement defiance, but what remained was honed to a deadly precision, as if the years had stripped away all that was talk and left only that which was real, and that realness still worried him.
She continued in a precise voice, "King Derek may acquiesce, but I want him to forget about me for as long as possible. He has my permission to remember me on the day I avenge the dishonor he did my father."
Conrad wet his lips and began with deliberation, "Avis, you know King Derek did not kill your father."
"My father's death was not his dishonor," said Avis. "He was a warrior and had said he hoped to die in battle. It is what I hope for myself. I should imagine that is your hope for your own end. What he had not expected was for a king's spawn to begin slashing upon his body - especially when that little cur would not hazard his own life."
"I think we have discussed this far enough," Conrad said. "I will remind you that 'that little cur' is now King and I am his Knight Champion."
"Who calls you by that title: you or Derek? When was the last time he summoned you for help or for advice? Which of his councils have you sat on?" The words drove deep and Conrad flinched.
"Do not dare try to poison me against my King," he growled. "Do not try and corrupt my loyalty!"
"Very well," Avis said. "But at least Colin would have let you kill me." On those words, she struck off away from the paddock and Conrad let her go as the night dissolved the last edges of her silhouette into the darkness. Like the shriek of a plummeting gryphon, the knight could hear the end approaching, could see the world he knew collapsing.
She will leave. She will slip into the night and be lost to me. "And then what?" Conrad whispered. Such a question was mere rhetoric and philosophy; little he could do by dwelling on it. With a deep breath, Conrad went back inside.
"There have been insurrections in the outlying towns."
"You seem surprised. They were always a stubborn people."
Conrad did not dare move, lest everybody's memory flare at once. He sat leaning back as he watched the other men and prayed Avis would keep her mouth shut. He could feel her presence back in the shadows where the squires stood awaiting a gesture from their knights. It was a tenseness and a quickening of the pulse - yes, Avis was keenly listening to the discussion on her subjects.
Almost a year into King Derek's reign, Conrad finally received summons to a council, but not as Knight Champion. A younger man in silver-trimmed armor now sat beside the King, giving the occasional snatch of vague military advice. Replaced by a snot-faced whelp not even old enough to remember the wars. Brilliant planning yet again, my liege. Listening to the talk, he understood why the King had recollected his father's old champion after so many months of dust-gathering. It was not Conrad the King wanted to see; it was Avis.
"Conrad," Prince Derek said and the assembled knights simmered their conversations into silence.
"Yes, my liege."
"Conrad, if I gave a man a pup and I did not like how he was treating it, would not I as the King be allowed to take it back?"
Conrad swallowed deeply against a blaze of anger. "Your highness," he began slowly, willing himself to remain steady, "I have not mistreated anything which you have given me."
"Yes, that is rather the point," the King responded. "But then, I don't think you've ever understood what to do with a reward."
My reward has always been the safety and glory of Etgress. I have asked for no other, Conrad thought, but held his peace as the new Knight Champion leaned towards the King and spoke so that only the monarch might hear.
Very awkward and not at all subtle. King Derek then gave an acknowledging nod to the shadows behind Conrad. O gods, please keep your tongue, Avis. A queen shows restraint. Please. When no biting challenge rang from the shadows, the King proceeded to other discussions, but the Knight Champion watched Conrad with a look of speculation. Conrad casually met that gaze until the younger man turned back to the King on the pretense of offering another hazy bit of tactics. O Etgress, what will become of you? Gods, let me die before I see this kingdom doomed.
"Will a gryphon that old be able to keep up?" Sir Roger, the Knight Champion's lieutenant asked as he studied Geft with a dubious eye on the gray ticking in the fur. "An attack requires unit cohesion, Conrad. One weak mount can destroy the whole attack."
"Geft knows his way in a fight. It's the young ones that balk and falter," Conrad replied and took satisfaction in seeing Sir Roger twitch. "And it is still 'Sir Conrad', thank you."
Where did you go wrong, Colin? Where was your mistake? I don't know, except that we all must pay for it.
A short month since Conrad had sat in council with King Derek. Throughout Etgress, rogue knights had been pressing against the laws, trying the power of the young King. Conrad had seen it before, bands of knights forming loosely to pillage their own country, taking their chances until the King bit down hard on them. Only King Derek did not bite. He did not even snap. So Conrad took it upon himself to organize some veteran knights and begin a proper hunt.
Avis seemed to enjoy the idea, probably because it meant fighting against Etgressian knights, even if they were criminals. She joined some of the veterans who now found the ground-thundering charge of a horse more reassuring than the plummeting dive of a gryphon. After the first fight, when Conrad landed and Avis removed her helm, a triumphant shine lit her face and she even smiled at him. He had been too startled and stupidly awkward to return it.
Then the Knight Champion arrived with a handful of gryphon-riders and a letter from the King to remind Conrad that his post belonged to another. Well, Conrad took satisfaction in knowing that at least the rogue knights now had the King's attention.
"Mount up, knights!" came the call that only a year ago Conrad had given. He had fallen that far in but a year. Where would he be after two? He swung up onto Geft. Perhaps he would not be in another year. Perhaps this would be his final battle and they would carve his name and "For the glory of Etgress" on a stone, and he would fade into the ages.
"I am growing too morbid," he muttered as the gryphons leapt for the sky, their wings thumping the air as their sleek bodies cut upwards. No, I would miss this, he decided as he looked across at the two dozen riders and their graceful animals. The wind rushed into his helm, roaring around his ears and blowing away the feeling of age and uselessness. Geft moved with precision and his breaths came controlled and calm, even his heartbeat felt steady against Conrad's pressing knees.
They dove then. The gryphons tucked their wings and Conrad felt the feathers warming his legs even as the chill winds rushed over him. Below a group of rogue knights prepared to meet the assault, their shields aloft, swords flickering with sunlight.
They hit in a jarring crash of talons, beaks, swords, shields. Everything was movement and noise. Horses screamed, gryphons shrieked, men roared. A gryphon bit cleanly through a horse's neck, another pierced a man through with its talons. A rogue knight gouged into a third gryphon, sending rider and mount crashing to the ground. Geft sank his talons into that knight's horse and began rising upwards with the horse rolling panicked eyes as it struggled against the fatal grasp. The rider's sword slashed against Geft's barding, and the gryphon released his hold, dropping man and horse into the carnage below.
Lances set, the veteran knights slammed into the melee. Conrad caught sight of Avis dragging one man from the saddle. He began to urge Geft in her direction.
"Gryphons! Reform!" came the call to pull back the gryphons for a second assault. Conrad looked again at Avis who raised her shield against a sword. She will be fine, he thought. She was born for this. He pulled on Geft's reins and the blood-spattered gryphon climbed upwards again.
They circled above with drawn blades. Here and there a gryphon gave an attack shriek, but they did not descend. Even Geft jerked against the reins, tossing his head as they wheeled above the battle. They were well above the fighting, but not so far that they could not hear the yells and the screams, even with the wind slashing against them.
We must attack, Conrad thought, anxiously pressing Geft into formation. Our ground troops expect us to make another assault. Our plan was to make another assault.
Below, the rogue knights pressed back against their foes, using superior numbers to encircle them and draw them together into an immobile pack. Four rogues to every veteran. They could not hold against that number and they dare not retreat, not when they knew the gryphons would fly shrieking back into the fray.
And Avis. Avis would expect him to keep the plan.
Growling, Conrad reined Geft towards the Knight Commander, who guided his gryphon in a lackadaisical pattern as if merely testing the tightenings on the saddle.
Conrad raised his visor and hollered at him, "We have to attack! They're going to be penned in and slaughtered!"
"Can't risk it! We have three gryphons down already and Sir Roger's looks like he could fall at any moment!"
"Damn the gryphons!" Conrad shouted back. "They're war mounts! This is what they do!"
"My orders are not to lose the gryphons! They're too valuable!"
"Then why the hell did you come out here!"
The silver-gilded pup didn't answer, just shifted his eyes away from Conrad. The Knight Champion could not have answered more truthfully had he spoken. Conrad followed the glance down to the fight where Avis and the knights were struggling against the circling force. Avis, the queen who refused to be conquered, had not remained as forgotten as she had hoped.
"Coward! I would cut your balls off, but who the hell would notice!" Conrad yelled with a ferocity that startled the young man into giving a savage tug on his own gryphon's reins. As the Knight Champion's mount jerked and tossed, Conrad put Geft into a dive. He may not be in time to save her, but at least she would know he had not merely watched her die.
He mistimed his assault and pulled on Geft's reins too late. Only Geft's instinct kept them from furrowing into the dirt like a plow. Even so, Geft careened into two of the rogue knights at nearly full force. The gryphon tumbled and his wings flailed and struck against horses and men. The world became a painful, hazy melding of ground and sky as he flipped from the saddle and rolled into the dissipating struggle of warriors. In a misty vagueness, he saw riders hauling on their horses, scrambling to clear the path of the shrieking gryphon. At first Conrad thought he could not rise because Geft was pinning his leg, but then he saw Geft sprawled as a feathery entanglement of limbs and barding several yards to his left. O gods, please not my back, Conrad prayed and despite the gouging pain in his chest, struggled to sit up enough to see his legs. One he could move, the other bent in a direction he had never seen. Already blood was drizzling through the chainmail. With a groan, he laid back. His ribs burned as if the bones were melting and his sword arm had gone numb except for a sharp tingling when he flexed his hand. He could not move; he would be crushed.
He heard a yell from the dimness. A man rose above Conrad, both hands on the sword hilt, steel point smeared in blood. There was an impact, the man stumbled, staggered, went over backwards. A fighter stepped between Conrad and another attacker. Conrad grinned wanly. Avis had found him. Letting the dimness overtake him, Conrad faded into the darkness.
He awoke to a flickering sort of dark and the cool throb of night air. He could not hear the horses and the men or smell the hot metallic stench of blood. The haziness cleared and he realized he was back in his own room - the flickering was the candlelight that leapt and receded with the night breeze. He was in bed with bandages twined around his chest, and his leg and arm immobilized. None of those measures kept the pain from rolling upon him and choking him like a slapping wave of salt water.
"It's all right, Conrad. You're in bed now. Don't move too quickly."
"Avis," he said and she came over from the window, sitting down beside his bed. He noticed her arm was bandaged and she rested it on her leg as she sat. "Are you all right?"
She nodded and gave a soft laugh. "Yes, of course. I am not the one who went face-first off an attacking gryphon." She paused and then added with a quiet seriousness, "Thank you. That - that was noble of you. Brave and noble."
At the gentleness in her tone, heat crept up his neck and spread through his face and Conrad was thankful for the guttering candlelight. In seven years, not once had she praised him - not that he expected her to have reason to - and not until that moment did he understand how badly he had craved such words. Brave and noble. Ah, my lady, if that you knew.
"I seem to recall that you kept at least one knight from skewering me to the ground." He smiled but she looked away without replying, eyes fixed on the night world outside the window.
"I have to leave, Conrad," she said at last.
"I always figured you would, especially now Derek has finally realized that you are a threat."
Her eyes searched him for a moment before she looked back to the window. "Derek, is it? You have never called him that - always it has been 'Prince' or 'King', never merely 'Derek'."
"Avis, look at me." Conrad moved to grasp her hand, hesitated, pulled back. "I no longer have a king - I have a queen."
"That's treason, Conrad," she said.
"Long ago I warned Derek you were dangerous. Tell me I was not right." He gave a dry smile. "You must leave, but I am going with you. Farstov does not have gryphons, but I can bring four, if Geft, that is -."
"Geft will be all right. You came out of it worse than he did." Of course he did. Stubborn old Geft. And two of the gryphons are females, he thought. While Avis' people unite and prepare, she can also build a contingent of gryphon riders.
"You are talking about exile - exile among a people who may never again see their kingdom," Avis warned. "And you may never see vengeance against Derek. I realize now that I need him alive if Farstov hopes to rise. Our asset is that he is so weak, and I cannot risk a competent ruler replacing him."
"Whether you find your kingdom or not, I wish only to be with you." Then he added, "Besides, I threatened to castrate Derek's Champion."
She smiled and for a moment, her eyes seemed distant, but when they returned, there was a hesitant intensity in them that rivaled the burning fury of when she sparred.
Slowly, as if approaching a strange gryphon, Avis reached out her hand. She paused and Conrad did not dare to speak - gods, hardly even to breathe! - but he silently begged her forward. It's all right. I promise. Please, Avis. Her fingers touched lightly at the hollow of his throat, gently strayed downwards over his chest, tracing his breastbone. His breath quickened as her hand paused near his heart. In all things, he had never seen her unsure, until this. Her hand lingered and he moved his unbandaged arm, setting his hand over hers and guiding it to rest against his thrumming heart.
"Am I hurting you?" she asked. He answered, "No, not at all." Thus encouraged, she moved her other hand and ran her fingers along the side of his cheek, feeling the roughness of his beard. Slowly, she pulled back her hand.
Taking hold of the hand against his heart, Conrad lifted her fingers to his lips and kissed them.
"Only my fingers, Conrad?"
It was an earnest question, not a coy tease and he found her request more endearing because of it. Releasing her hand, he reached up and stroked Avis' cheek. She leaned closer and he moved his hand to pull her the rest of the distance. He did not care about the cost to his ribs as she pressed against him. He brushed his lips across hers. His arm around her, he held her against his chest and lost himself in a trembling world beyond pain. Her hand in his hair, her lips against his, he wanted so much more, he wanted everything their two pounding hearts were begging for. But that was hers to offer and not his to ask. So when at last she broke away and laid her head lightly on his chest, he contented himself with running fingers through hair as silky as gryphon feathers.
"It is almost dawn," she said. "I hope to leave tonight, if you can. There is little moon and a flight of gryphons will be harder to find in darkness."
"I will manage. I won't ride Geft, I will let him fly unburdened." He continued stroking her head, but felt the contentment pressing him into a warm drowsiness. "You should sleep," he said to Avis. "It is cool in here, lie next to me and I will warm you."
"How altruistic of you," she answered wryly, but moved herself from her perch on the edge of the bed and stretched out next to him.
He kissed her lightly as she curled against him. Derek, he thought, you truly were a fool, but I thank the gods that it was so. Outside, the sun began pressing against the night sky, sending the stars fleeing as dawn broke over Etgress. A gryphon keened and Conrad looked again at Avis who still smiled faintly in her sleep. His Queen. The Queen of Farstov. The Queen of an unconquerable people.