Caitlin Aussprung


We are the gryphon riders. We are the women who guide our bearers through the sky above the battlefield. We are the ones who breathe the air thrumming with arrows. We are the minds of the bodies that twirl and dive and dance in unimaginable patterns. We are the ones who never lose control.

I looked over my shoulder at my clan. All six were there, behind me in perfect formation. We were flying steadily upwards, the clouds whipping past. All of them were women, young, lithe, and sinewy. All of them were specifically selected by me. Our legs and arms were brown and toned. I turned back to look in front of me. The sun was about to break behind us.

I felt the ripple of my gryphon's muscles under me, so rhythmic, so incredibly powerful. My gloved fingers gripped the reins firmly to my callous-ridden palms. My mind was empty of all but battle plans. Nerves never held sway over clear thought.

Men were not suited to this task. They were too big and bulky, difficult for a gryphon to bear balanced to any reasonable altitude. Their large fingers require large reigns. Forceful masculine movements are well-suited for monstrous battle-steeds, but a gryphon is a different creature; he requires subtle directions and slim reigns that allow for the freest of movements. Gryphon-riding also requires multiple trains of rapid, simultaneous thought. Men seem to only be able to focus on one simple duty, especially in the heat of battle, and could not handle steering a mount that can go up and down as well as left and right.

As we gained altitude I was forced to press my mount's sides with my thighs. Gryphons long to fly free, just as horses love to run free. But, as horses are needed to serve us, so are gryphons.

A gryphon is a fierce warrior by nature. Mine, Elpeth, had been especially perilous from the day of his hatching. He knew me and respected me; anything and everything else was an enemy. All the gryphons were selected and trained by me, too. Trained, but never broken or domesticated. We needed their wild spirit, their fiery rebellion. I matched them to my chosen women warriors.

The powerful wings beat beside me as we leveled off. I felt the rush of the wind, and some strands of my brown hair whipped at the corners of my eyes. My hand snaked down, my arm muscles working against the force of the wind to check once more for the stones in my saddlebag. The stones ranged in size from fist-sized to small pebbles. They were for use with the sling knotted in my high belt. A sling was an old-fashioned weapon to be sure. The commander had scoffed at me when I had told him four years ago that I would wield a sling. He had cackled with scorn when I had told him I had tamed and could ride a gryphon. And he gaped when I sailed over his head in the heat of battle and delivered a mighty performance. Of course, I also had a short dagger thrust in my boot, in case I ever needed to fight in closer quarters, but Elpeth and the sling and I were one; O, we were a fierce creature!

I looked down as the enemy ranks began sliding beneath Elpeth's taloned front feet. Now was the time.

"Freeya," I yelled over my shoulder. My oldest strategy, named for my red-haired mother. I saw the battlefire begin to burn in my clanmates' eyes. They exchanged positions until they flew in pairs behind me. Then, jerking the reigns, we banked sharply left and at the same time steeply downwards. Though gryphons are mostly brutish, they are somewhat intelligent; they knew what to do. Folding their wings, they let us drop with perfect timing, pair after pair.

I let the wind drive me backwards until my back was pressed against Elpeth's. The ground was rushing at me quickly, a sight which has always been accompanied by a savory, barbaric exhilaration.

Then our gryphons' wings snapped open simultaneously, leaving us layered and difficult for archers to gage. We let fly with our slings, hearing above the roar of wind and the great flaps of our beasts' wings the screams of our struck foes. With every attack my clan executed there were always many screams.

"Hah," I cried, and we dispersed upward in a way that appeared random, but was actually carefully choreographed. Collisions in the air were always deadly.

Swooping around in a tight circle out of range of archers I planned our next barrage. Combing through a large number of strategies, I settled on the simplistic "Old Oak" formation. We would condense the circle, dive straight down in sync, and pull up abruptly and fan outwards at the bottom, just above the heads of our foes. Perhaps some of my clanmates would find opportunities to make use of their daggers.

I slowed the pace of our whirling circle so the wind could not snatch my words away. If someone did not hear, it could mean death for us all. Improvisation was something I did not allow, barring, of course, where you shot your slingstones or when you had to use your knife.

"Now," I began, but a fearsome roar cut me off, making the air around us vibrate. My eyes shot groundwards. What I saw was impossible: a huge black shape had detached itself from the mass at the center of the enemy force. It was drawing closer to us at a blinding speed. It was faster than anything I had ever seen. I felt my eyes grow wide. I discerned as it grew larger in my view a pair of fleshy wings, a bulbous body, and—could it be?—two long, snake-like extensions from either end, one terminating in a small head. A small head pointed directly at my clan. A dragon. A small one, I guessed, but a dragon: the fiercest of all creatures. The enemy had captured a dragon. But that was impossible. Our current enemy, the Fronumans, were not so numerous or crafty or ruthless as others we had faced. They were not of royal blood or wealthy or strong. They were simple cretins from the borders of our lands who had grown tired of being kept there. They were scruffy-bearded, raggedly-clothed, bickering, drunken idiots, burly, impoverished outlaws.

How had they taken a dragon?

Fool, I spat at myself, there is no time to wonder about anything. Just do your duty! I racked my brain, trying to select an appropriate strategy. I knew it was futile, but I thought frantically. It was no use. I had never dreamed this would happen. We had never faced an airborne enemy, much less a dragon.

Time was out. The beast was so near I could hear its great wings flapping and its guttural breathing. I could see its black eyes glint like flint, cold, mad with the injustice of capitivity. There was nothing, nothing to do.

"Scatter," I screamed to my clan, yanking too hard on the reigns. Elpeth writhed beneath me, and then we shot left. The dragon screamed by somewhere close as I threw Elpeth into a series of turns and rolls that disoriented even me.

As I pulled him up and turned back, my hair loose and flying in all directions, I saw the dragon start after one, then another of my clanmates. Their gryphons bucked and clawed as they evaded its passes. There was no order, no rhyme; it was madness in the air, chaos in the sky. I saw all reigns flapping loosely as the riders handed control over to their mounts.

The sky was too small; the dragon was too close. His scales glinted as I urged Elpeth at him. Some of my women noticed my action and yelled my name, "Mathea! Mathea!" they cried. I leaned low, not acknowledging them. I felt only the harmony of my body with Elpeth's as I leaned low, my head resting on top of his. I relished this sensation as we swooped towards our quarry. "Fierce," I whispered. It was my deepest wish and my secret battlecry.

Elpeth and I knifed toward the dragon, seemed to ricochet off his side in a blur. We left behind six deep gashes in his tough flesh. Deep red blood oozed out, and the dragon roared in pain and rage. At this close range, it was the most horrific noise imaginable. Elpeth screamed as the wall of tortuous sound hit his sensitive ears, and I felt his wings twist unnaturally. We spun in circles, and again I was disoriented. When the echo died, he righted us. I saw we were far below the rest of the clan. The dragon folded its wings and dropped after us.

The speed with which it came was incredible. The dragon is fast, I thought, but Mathea knows her way in the sky.

I felt the courage and strength of will flowing through the connection between Elpeth and I. Mind and body. Spirit and flesh. We flew in a straight path. I urged him fast, faster, the fastest we had ever flown! I could barely keep my head up, I felt my hair threatening to rip my scalp off and water running in streams from my eyes and nose and mouth. Elpeth's body was spread out full length, his lungs had ceased to move in and out, as, I realized, had mine. I felt the pull of the elongated back of my brown shirt tugging furiously at my torso, almost tearing in the screaming wind.

Being unable to turn my head, and with the wind screaming in my ears, I had to rely solely on instinct. I was totally unaccustomed to this, but I was confident. Recalling the approximate speed I had calculated the dragon to be traveling at, I estimated the rapidity with which it was gaining on us. I cautiously determined the right moment. Then, I whipped Elpeth's head back and we flipped upwards as the dragon whooshed beneath us, its tail almost slapping my head. I barrel-rolled my gryphon, going over twice before pulling him upright. The dragon had performed a lithe turn and was heading back for us.

I held stationary in the air as it charged. I waited, sucking in air the best I could, feeling Elpeth doing the same, his wings beating hard, his back legs pawing the air. When its jaws opened an instant before it would have been able to tear into my side, I twitched by thigh muscles and Elpeth flicked downwards. I pulled him into another backflip, bringing both his sets of armed legs in turn into the dragon's softer underbelly as it sailed over us; ten claws gouged the flesh, followed by six talons. The thick, red blood hit me in the face, impacting with stinging force.

The dragon was fatally injured. I watched it contort and writhe in the air as its blood rained down upon its captors. What vitality, what strength, what evil beauty it had. Its tail curled and whipped about, its eyes rolled crazily, and it screamed. I admired it, even revered it a bit. How ferocious it was. But it had not love as I had. It had not intelligence as I had. Mathea the gryphon rider.

And then it charged me again. I gasped, and directed Elpeth straight upwards. It followed with alarming agility. Its neck bent at an unnatural angle as it caught Elpeth's hind leg. Its great fleshy wings unfurled as he came to a dead halt in the air. Using the sudden shock to snap his head back, he threw me free of my saddle. I heard Elpeth's leg snap, and he screamed. I slammed into the dragon's back. The dragon was spent; it snapped its head around again with a gurgling scream as I latched onto the spines on its scaly back with my hands and lightly-booted feet. It faltered and began to fall, and I saw Elpeth spinning away through the sky.

So the dragon and I fell together.

As we plummeted groundwards, the sun came out from behind the mountains. The sky I loved was set on living fire. My beloved clanmates were illuminated with golden light as they dove after me. I watched them silently, knowing there was no hope. I heard Elpeth, my friend, cry out after me. Soon my hair blocked everything from my sight, and my gloves and boots separated from the dragon's hide. There was nothing but the sky around me. Freefall. I lived it. There was nothing touching me. I was free. I was fierce.