Caleb ran his hand over Bracken's breastplate, examining its surface carefully as he examined it for damage. The tawny beast in question lay sprawled besides him. The griffin's blue eyes watched Caleb's motions intently, its head turning rapidly to follow even the slightest shift in its rider's body.
Bracken's beak lunged forward suddenly, pecking at Caleb as he adjusted the breastplate's straps.
"Here! Off ye great winged git!" Caleb snarled, throwing up his hand and grabbing the griffin by the beat. "The damned thing is loose ya fool, how're ye supposed to protect yer chest if ye've got a loose breast piece eh? Tell me that why dontcha."
The griffin chirped and warbled at him indignantly before settling into a low humming growl that emanated from its thick chest.
"Oh yer just sulking ye great oaf." Caleb replied tersely, rubbing Bracken between his ears affectionately. "It'll be alright, just ye watch."
Bracken chirped again and pulled his head away with a snort, turning back to poke at the meager portion of honeyed meat and seed that passed for his meal. He looked up at Caleb plaintively with a mournful growl. Caleb frowned fretfully and rubbed Bracken's frill of feathers affectionately.
"I'm sorry friend. Tis what we can afford fer the time being."
Bracken croaked and went back to his food. Caleb set aside the armor he'd been tending and retrieved his bags from their pegs on the wall. Things were bad. Bracken needed much more to sustain himself, however the funds were just not there any longer. Since the wars had ended there was no need for a warrior. Many were in his position, without a lord to take them into service and afford for them the means to support themselves. Caleb felt such times especially hard since he had Bracken to tend to as well. He'd stolen the griffin from his mother, being sure to leave meat for the remaining chicks, and then raised the fierce little male himself. It had been the raising of the griffin which had saved him first from a life as a tanner, and then a death in the infantry. Being a member of the cavalry, whether knight or soldier, was an auspicious and lauded position. However being a member of the riders was another thing altogether.
It afforded a certain rank to even those of the lowliest birth such as Caleb that elevated them above the rank and file soldier. However it did not protect them from peace. A knight could return to his estate, a soldier could not. All a soldier could do was hope that he still had a home and a family to return to. Caleb did not. His father had lashed his hide when he'd brought Bracken home. Caleb had taken the thrashing in silence, sheltering the griffin from his father's wrath until Bracken was old enough to first hunt for himself and then finally fly. They'd fled then, never to return. Looking back, Caleb had considered that perhaps he shouldn't have been so rash all those years ago. Watching Bracken eat now though, and all the times before when he'd questioned his choice, he found the griffin's beauty too great. They'd shared too much together in the years since he'd first gotten it into his head to steal Bracken from his mother. There would never be any going back.
"It is a shame," a woman's voice came from the entrance to the stable. Caleb's blade was drawn and at the ready. "that such a majestic creature must eat such scraps."
Caleb examined the woman with narrowed eyes. She wore an elegant green robe hemmed with silver threading and inlaid gold braiding. A noble or something equally silly he imagined.
"Who are ye?" he asked guardedly.
Bracken had stopped eating, his ears flat against his head and had risen to a crouch. The distance from the griffin to the woman was barely three men in length. A distance that Bracken could easily jump. If she was worried that she was within killing distance of the griffin, she gave no sign. Turning instead to address Caleb directly.
"I am told that you are a soldier with no means to support yourself."
Caleb did not move from his position, sword between himself and her. Behind him on the wall leaned his lance and other weapons. She seemed to be unarmed and there was no way that she could reach his own weapons. She was either very brave or very stupid. He would have to see which case held true.
When he did not reply to her statement, the woman turned back to Bracken, speaking softly in a tongue that Caleb did not recognize as she held out a hand towards the griffin. Bracken snorted and recoiled from her outstretched hand, hissing and expanding his chest in warning, fluffing out his feathers menacingly.
"I wouldn't be doing that." Caleb cautioned. "he doesn't take kindly ta strangers."
She inclined her head, reaching up and removing her hood. Long golden hair revealed the sharp features of an elf. A very pure elf from her appearance.
"I require a rider." she stated flatly, turning her green eyes to gaze at him. They were surprisingly piercing, commanding even.
"Yer lord requires a rider ye mean." Caleb growled. There was no way that an elf could be that finely adorned.
She smiled at him condescendingly. "No, I require a rider. No lord calls me his property."
"What need does an elf have fer a rider?"
She shrugged. "My reasons are mine alone human. Until you agree, I cannot tell you anything more than that I have need."
Caleb snorted, sheathing his sword and crossing to Bracken, stroking the griffin in an attempt to calm the irate beast. Bracken leaned against him as he ran his hand over the beast's shoulder blades soothingly.
"What are ye paying?"
"Well enough that your griffin will not go hungry again." she replied.
"I'm no in the mood fer yer coyness lass." he growled.
The corners of her mouth turned up at the corners in what appeared to be amusement. "No, I suppose not. Very well. There is an advancement of ten gold pieces with seven silver and five copper a week thereafter. More will be forthcoming depending on the length and result of your service."
Caleb's mind lit up at the sum. With that he could certainly afford to not only maintain the kit he currently had but also acquire new items that he would need; not to mention that Bracken would not need to go hungry for a while.
"Ye've got me attention lass. What's the job?"
"I am assembling a small cadre to accompany myself and my companions into the Oskillian Forest in north Vagre. Your duties will be as escort to myself and those with me."
"What are ye seeking in those wastes? There's nothing there."
"Oh there is." she replied. "We are seeking a High Elf ruin."
Caleb froze and looked at her, really looked at her. The expensive clothes, the noble bearing, the fact that she did not seem in the least bit cowed by the disparity in their race...and the strange words from before. He swore.
"Yer a damned wood elf."
Her face lit up with a smile, despite himself, Caleb couldn't deny the beauty in that expression.
"How very astute of you sir rider. Will that be a problem?"
"I am not in the service of brigands." snapped Caleb. "Deal's off."
She stiffened, her eyes narrowed into slits. "Do not cross me rider. I told you what the job is and knowing that I cannot allow you to walk freely. You and your griffin are contracted."
Caleb met her gaze. "Lass, I've seen things yer eyes would pop out at. Don't test me good temper."
"And don't underestimate mine." she replied. "You will regret it."
"Go back to yer cart lass." he said dismissively, turning away from her.
She spoke something in the strange tongue from before and Bracken shrieked, twisting and shriveling up in a ball and the straw floor. Caleb's heart stopped as he knelt besides the thrashing griffin.
"Calm down, Bracken be still, ye hurt boy?"
Bracken did not respond, instead he continued to twitch and cry in pain. Caleb rose, drawing his blade as he turned. The tip touched the throat of the wood elf, who tilted her head back to keep from losing her head.
"Undue it." he snarled.
He looked back at Bracken who let out a fresh agonized screech. He turned back to her, his face twisted in a mixture of fury and terror. There was a touch of desperation in his voice now.
"Undue it now or I slit yer throat."
"If you kill me," she said darkly. "Your griffin dies."
"What do ye want?"
"Your service." she stated flatly.
"Yehave it." he cried. "Undue it!"
She nodded and spoke in the tongue once more. Bracken stopped convulsing and uncurled, panting heavily as his chest heaved laboriously. Caleb dropped his blade and wrapped his arms around the griffin's neck, stroking the back of Bracken's head as he cradled the beast's head in his grip.
"Yer alright now, yer alright." he cooed soothingly.
"I have your service then?" asked the woman quietly.
He looked back at her, tears in his eyes though they blazed with hatred.
"Yes damn yer eyes."
"Good. If you try to disobey me or attempt to flee your griffin will die. I will remove the magic completely when your job is complete."
"Ye'd better hope yer not near me when that happens. I'll kill ye." he said.
She smiled at him. "It is good to see that you care for him so dearly. It means you will work well to keep him safe." she took a rolled parchment from her cloak and tossed it on the ground. "That is your contract...you can read I presume?"
"Enough." he replied, not taking the parchment.
"Good. Be ready at dawn tomorrow. I will expect to see you at the north gate."
She turned to leave. "What do I call ye, asides from bitch?" Caleb asked.
The elf froze, her body tight as she gazed over her shoulder at him indifferently. "Sheera." with that she replaced her hood and strode from the stable, leaving Caleb to tend to Bracken who was still whimpering pitiably as the griffin burrowed its head into Caleb's arms. For his part, Caleb held Bracken protectively, trying to provide the safety that his mount sought. He didn't understand magic, or wood elves, but he knew enough of each to know that Bracken's life would be forfeit if he wasn't standing ready at the city's north gate on the morrow. He reached down and took the parchment, unrolling it and scanning the ink. There were words he didn't recognize, but he deciphered enough to understand what it said. He was bound until released. He found the part that mentioned his pay and it was as stated. He shook his head, stroking Bracken as much for the beast's reassurance as his own. He'd wanted work. He had it. Gods help them both.