CHAPTER ONE

When Ahara rode into battle, it was not as a knight, though one she was. It was as a warrior of honour. The years of training, the formal swearing of allegiance meant little to her. She would have been doing exactly the same thing, training or none, oath or none. It seemed like it was in her blood.

When Claudia first met her, she watched her preparing for battle, saw the mottled skin across her chest and parts of her face that marked where the shrapnel had bitten in and lodged there, keeping her out of the war for two months while she healed. She watched her stealthily use magic to calm her troops and then as she armoured her mount – but that was where she had to step in.

"Sir Ahara of Llowden." She called, a hint of anger in her voice. "Stop."

The knight turned, she too angered now, her brows furrowed deeply and her eyes burning.

"What is it?" She snapped, returning to placing armour over the face and legs of her griffin.

"You can't use him today. If you do, he'll never walk again." Claudia pushed, forcing her frustration into her voice.

"He's fine. He's always fine." The knight snapped again, snarling over her shoulder a little as her hands worked busily with the armour straps. Claudia formed a growl deep in her chest and let it rumble up to her throat like an earthquake, grabbed the knight by the shoulder and shoved her violently sideways, but caught her wrist as she fell. Shaking her a little, she growled "Look" at her and placed her other hand on the shoulder of the griffin who shifted on his feet nervously.

Pain ripped through Ahara's arm, through her chest and into her back where it left a burning mass somewhere between her heart and her spine. Sweat sprung from her brow and she began shaking all over.

"Wha- What are you doing to me..?!" She demanded, trying to sound as forceful as possible.

"Showing you what he's feeling." Claudia snarled through gritted teeth before releasing the knight's wrist and tossing her to the ground. "Pay more attention, for gods' sake." She spoke in acid tongues over her shoulder as she walked away, leaving Ahara on the ground in a throbbing, confused heap.

She had listened though, the pain was not easily forgotten, and she apologized to her mount and ordered her squire to bring her back up griffin. She had no idea who the woman was, how she had the nerve to toss a royal knight to the ground, or even to speak to her that way, but it didn't take long after the battle was won to find out.

Her feeling of guilt over almost taking her main mount, Gephyroi, into battle was weighing her down, and she went to see him in the healer's tent. Stroking his feathers and brushing him down, she helped calm him while the healer tried to work out the source of the pain in his shoulder and wing joint. Guilt festered in her chest as she tried to remember if he had been injured recently, or if his mood had changed to indicate that something had been wrong.

Then, from across the tent, she heard her name as part of a sentence, shouted above the rows of beds and sitting griffins. It took her a moment to work out the rest, but eventually she did, and the noble line in her body tensed.

"That's that idiot Llowden's boy, isn't it Gray?" – it was the same woman, she was shouting to the healer who was currently still trying to establish a cause for the pain. Ahara's face went white and she stood quickly, just in time to interrupt Claudia's war path towards the mount and wind up face to face with her.

"Who do you think you are?!" She demanded, trying not to have to look up at her.

"Speaking of which…" Claudia rolled her eyes and said as if she hadn't heard the angry knight almost pressed against her. Ahara growled at her as viciously as she could, but the older woman pushed her aside with one hand and walked straight up to the griffin, once more laying her hand on him.

"He was playing, she took him into the forest to hunt and he got tangled in something and fell on the joint. The swelling is underneath though." She muttered, then indicated with her hand "here." To Ahara's surprise, the beast rolled onto his side and released an affectionate trilling noise that she'd never heard before.

"Why didn't he just let me know he was hurt?" The knight said without realizing she had done so, her voice mellow now.

"He didn't want to let you down. He knows he's better than your other one. And he is. I should know." She dropped her hands away from his side. "I raised him" She finished, staring at Ahara with her eyes narrowed just slightly.

"Keep a better eye on my baby." She muttered finally before storming off to yell at someone else who was trying to force a younger griffin to sit down.

"She isn't usually like this." The healer said quietly behind her. "Mostly she's very kind and sweet. She hates being in the camp, or on the battle field though, and seeing the griffins treated badly – well. You've seen."

"Yes, I've seen." She mumbled idly, watching in the distance of the tent as the woman grabbed a soldier by his collar, lifted him off the ground and threw him onto his back, obviously winding him, as it took him a while to stand again.


In the evening, when the sun had gone down, soldiers and knights and their hands sat around fires to stave off the cold, and all of them gazed up as a perfect formation of young griffins flew overheard, low, and then landed just off the to side of the camp, in a clearing where one small fire burned.

Ahara handed her empty plate to her squire, left the warmth of the large fire she'd been sharing with 4 other knights and headed in the same direction.

Claudia was sitting cross legged in near the fire, with her back to her, and the young griffins were gathering around her with what seemed to be a great rush, which at first took Ahara aback – she thought they were attacking her. Breaking into a jog, she got closer and saw that they were nuzzling her, rubbing against her, curling up at her feet – they adored her and desperately craved her attention. Some of the larger creatures fought over one of her hands as she scratched whatever part of whichever beast was there as they shoved one another out of the way to gain a fleeting moment of contact with her skin.

As she neared, the tone of the gathering changed, and the young creatures rallied slowly, but with purpose behind the woman, staring Ahara down and growling louder the nearer she got.

"Calm, babies." She just heard Claudia whisper over the creaking of green branches on the fire. And with two words, the animals recoiled and returned to circling her for a short time before settling in a rough circle around her.

"Commander Ahara. What do you want?" She continued, this time louder so that the knight could hear.

And for a moment, Ahara was dumbstruck. She had no idea what she came for, no idea what she wanted, but she was more curious than cautious – she always had been.

"I-I came to apologise." She deepened her voice slightly, trying to make it sound more powerful after her stuttering start.

"I don't need your apologies. I need to be giving one." She sighed a heavy sigh and her body seemed to lose some of its stiffness. "I apologise for my anger and the way I have spoken to you. I hate being here. I hate watching my griffins go into battle and come back broken…" She paused and drew in another deep breath, disturbing one of the young griffins who stirred, yawned and nestled back against her once more. "But that should be no excuse. I truly am sorry" This seemed to be an afterthought, her mind was clearly dwelling on the idea of injured or dying griffins, a point made even more poignant by the sleeping crowd.

"Would you mind if I join you..?" Ahara finally got the courage up to ask, and took another step towards the woman and her entourage.

"Not at all." Claudia motioned for her to sit near her, and even moved a griffin or two so they could be close enough to talk easily. Ahara took her seat gladly, marveling a the small creatures and how sedate they were with the woman before her.

She remembered when she got her first griffin, he was an angry, bitey thing, equally as likely to ride into battle as to kick you out of the saddle before you even left camp. Ahara had been young and determined then, though, and had spent day after day breaking him in properly. She realized that her first griffin must not have come from Claudia, and the thought struck her as slightly odd.

Later in their slow conversation, she decided to bring it up.

"When did you start training the griffins for the army..?" She asked, trying to say it gently, but as if she had not thought on it too much.

"When I realized it was the best way to sate their natural desire for blood so they would stop eating innocent people." She replied matter of factly and repositioned something in her lap that Ahara hadn't even realized was there before. Her response had slightly alarmed her, though. It meant she had been with griffins before she had begun to train them, which also meant she had been witness to their bloodshed – times when they had raided villages for nothing other than what seemed like amusement, killing everyone.

"How do you... I mean... how do you connect with them so well?" She asked, not sure of how to word her inquiries, and even less sure that she sounded like the Knight she was.

Claudia looked down at the tiniest griffin Ahara had ever seen, which was curled up firmly in her lap.

"I don't have magic really, it's sort of similar, but it's specific to them. They found me when I was young, and since then I've just… been with them." The older woman stroked the small creature in her lap and ruffled its feathers. It picked at the fabric of her skirt with its beak lightly, then settled back down the sleep.

Ahara couldn't help but feel like the young griffins gathered in sleeping piled around them were watching her intently, making sure she didn't upset or harm their mother. It honestly made her wary to even raise the questions she so desperately wanted answers to, but she decided that Claudia surely wouldn't let her be harmed, so she tried to relax and continue the conversation.

"It's amazing, what you can do with them. They're such amazing creatures." She commented lightly and reached out a hand to a dark orange griffin with white feathers, who promptly snapped at her hand and backed away.

"I'm sorry, they're a bit nippy at that age. She's just not in as good mood tonight." Claudia soothed and clicked her tongue at the griffin. "She's a sweetheart usually".

In the light of the slowly growing fire, and in the lull of their conversation and a few of the griffins relocated the sleep under some trees away from them, Ahara could see the scars crisscrossing the woman's body, three across her right cheek, down her arms, her ankles and calves. She was covered in them. That thought made her even more nervous.

And then Claudia caught her looking, and Ahara immediately felt worse than she had ever felt about anything (except maybe the events of that morning), she thought that the woman must be so ashamed of them, and Ahara staring was like a testament to their visibility – or at least, that's what she expected to see in her face.

"Horrible, aren't they..?" She asked rhetorically, running a finger down the deep marks on her cheek. "That was my clan leader when I was 15. He was angry with me for spending time in the village, away from the clan, and she punished me. I can't really blame him…" Her voice was so relaxed and calm, like she was explaining what shoes she wore a week ago – like the marks didn't effect her at all.

"Yours are very different to mine, much newer too." She commented softly, looking through her hair briefly at the knight, slightly concerned for her reaction.

Ahara instinctively brushed the mottled skin across her cheek and chest. She felt it beneath the tip of her finger and it made her feel sick, just the feel of it there. "Much newer. I got mine in battle" her voice sounded hollow and she wished she didn't care like Claudia, and she wished mostly that she didn't have to look at it every time she dressed or undressed, every time she saw her reflection.

Looking back, her injuries were not horrific, not seriously life threatening with treatment and they were no longer painful – she wished she didn't still feel how much they had hurt and how much they made her feel… Down, something.

Claudia laid a warm palm on her knee lightly as a small comfort and smiled softly at the young knight.

"It's okay for them to upset you, but you're still beautiful, still an amazing warrior and I'm sure it strikes fear into the heart of your enemies. If anything, I think it shows that you're a survivor; tough. So don't worry about it…"

Ahara looked up at her and saw the soft smile that stretched from her eyes all the way down and seemed to sink into her posture. Her entire body exuded the kindest smile she had ever seen in her life. It struck her, making her blink a few times before regaining herself and looking at her again.

The older woman was strong featured, with a long pointed face and straw-blonde hair down to below her shoulders. Her eyes were so blue and pale, like clear water, and her skin was tan, but pink in some places where scars had formed from her many injuries. She looked older than the young knight, by maybe 5 years or so, and a whole lot taller, not that it was very hard, she mused.

"Th-thank you." Ahara mumbled out, looking back at the ground to find that a griffin had crept closer and was now pressed against her boot. Claudia followed her gaze and laughed slightly, a small chuckle in a voice higher than her usual tone.

"I think someone is warming up to you.."

Ahara nodded and laughed a little too, suddenly feeling like they were going to be really great friends.