CHAPTER FOUR

Ahara repositioned herself gently in the chair and flinched a little – she still wasn't well and the healer had told the king that she wasn't to go back to the front line for another few weeks at least, an action that had greatly frustrated her. She'd spent hours around the ruler in an attempt to convince him that she was absolutely fine and ready to go back.

Damn healer. She thought to herself, straightening her tunic and gazing over at the tall man across the room.

"I'm actually fine." She asserted, crossing her arms across her chest and frowning deeply. "Claudia isn't even worried."

"Of course." The man replied, still with his back to her, and with a strong stern voice. Had she not known him better, she might have assumed that he was ignoring her, or at least not really interested in what she had to say, but she had known Corim a very long time.

"You're moping a lot. This is what you were like when you first became a knight..." His rough voice pushed over the roar of the fire as his assistant manned the bellows. He turned to face her, strong arms crossed across his chest and eyes narrow. He had permanent frown lines above his brows, long straight black hair pulled into a pony tail and he was a broad as a barn, Ahara always mused.

"I don't mean to, I just feel useless." She replied, working hard not to burr up at the comment as she would with other people, but Corim always spoke the honest truth in the plainest way – that's why she'd come to see him, it was what she needed.

"Then find something to do. Seems simple to me." He replied and leaned against the wall opposite her. "And keep hanging around that… Claudia. She seems to be good for you. I can't imagine how you'd be right now if she wasn't occupying your thoughts."

Ahara frowned and admitted he was right, as always. She did need to find something to do, desperately, something to keep her busy and fit until she could go back… home. Home… that was what she was calling her little tent on the front line? Home? That thought, when she pondered it, made her sad – was that all she had in the way of a home..? She didn't have any close family really, her siblings hated her and her mother and father only spoke to her when the king was looking, and as for friends… she had Corim and his young, silent assistant Cayden, but they lived far away usually, only travelling upon the requests of certain people, Ahara gladly one of them... But apart from that; she had subordinates, superiors, her griffins (whom she did adore more than most things), but really, no close friends.

Corim raised a black eyebrow at her and brushed some soot off his shirt. "Go on, I won't have you hanging around like a bad smell. I have your armour to make." His mouth was a hard line, but when Ahara looked at him, she couldn't help but think the edge was turned up just a little, a sort of affectionate look intended for her. Or was it just amusement..? With him she was never quite sure. She understood his words and their intended meaning, but never his looks and expressions. Cayden seemed to have it under control though, but Ahara supposed that the girl would have to, having been Corim's apprentice for years, since she was a mere 12.

As she was trying to stand from the chair, Corim offered her his hand. She took it and he pulled her easily to her feet, and she smiled at him before exiting the stone building and waving to the old man and his nervous looking apprentice.

She would definitely find something productive to do, no matter what her healer said, and with any luck, Claudia would become her friend, a real, close friend in the process.

Slowly, she took the side exit from the castle grounds and left through a small gate near the lake. It was frustrating, having to walk as slowly as she did, usually she would have taken her griffin, but she was determined to keep herself strong, even if that meant walking through the city for the first time in as long as she could remember. Even when she was a child, her family took carriages with curtains covering the windows everywhere they went – she never saw the city much, only the outside of buildings that were the homes of her parents' friends before she was ushered inside.

The pain in her abdomen was starting to change from a slow throb to sharp stabs again and she wondered what her healer was going to do to her for this as she passed a house much like the one she grew up in and rounded a corner, finally coming into view of the great house, stables and yards where Claudia was staying. In the distance, she could see her, still working out on the grass with a few riders and their new mounts, even thought the sun was getting low in the sky now. She was so glad that the summer sun set as late as it did, as she watched her blood-binding the strange pairs. It reminded her of her own blood-bind with her Gephyroi, and it made her proud to think she had tamed him without the help of Claudia, and she mused at the fact that these newbies would never have to go through what she did with him, fighting for every second in the saddle, spending hours and hours just trying to resign him to the fact that she was his rider and there was nothing he could do about it. The older riders were so much more stubborn, and they had to be. She felt like it made her and Gephyroi stronger as a team, and she knew that he loved her dearly.

Claudia felt exhausted, and her hands were starting to shake, making her glad that she was down to the last griffin and rider for that evening. Binding them together was exhausting, but necessary, and she rued the fact that she was only 5 pairs into the lot. Over the next few days, she would do this again and again. Her muscles almost gave out at the prospect.

Dismissing the people and creatures, she wiped her hands on her pants and squinted to see who was watching her from a cluster of trees a short distance away, but her eyes refused to focus and for a second she worried that she might pass out, but her stress at that was eased a little when Ahara came into focus and waved at her.

"Claudia, sorry to interrupt again…"

"Not at all, we were just finishing up for tonight… What are you doing back here, it's late..?" The older woman looked puzzled and stifled a yawn.

"Oh, uhm.. I have a proposition for you…" Ahara replied quickly, smiling and gesturing to the wooden barrack style building where she assumed Claudia was staying. "Shall we..?"

By the time Claudia finished washing herself up and changing; Ahara's insides had calmed a little and returned to the dull throb it had been before her walk over. When she returned to the small sitting room, Claudia looked alive again, her eyes much less dull and her hair smoothed from the dirty frizz it had been before.

"So." Claudia began, taking a seat in the small chair directly across from Ahara and clearing her throat a little before going on. "I hope you're not asking me to move again." She smiled a little in reassurance and settled in to listen to the younger woman.

"Well, I would like very much if I could work for you, for a while, just until I'm well enough to return to the camp… I could do anything you need done, and I wouldn't dream of asking for payment, or indeed… anything in return…" Her voice sounded nervous and she hated that it did. She wanted this so badly… but the older woman smiled and looked at her with kind eyes.

"Absolutely not."

The smile was still on Claudia's face, but she looked somewhat apologetic and somehow sterner.

The smile fell away from Ahara's face, and she felt a pit form in her stomach.

"I-I see…" She cast her eyes downwards and tried not to look like she was a total disheartened mess.

"I cannot take you on as an assistant; you're of a very high birth, for a start. It would be an insult to your family for me, a mere plebe, to have power of any kind over you. You're also a knight, a Lieutenant Colonel… and a friend." She paused for a second and inhaled deeply, closing her eyes gently as she moved to go on.

Ahara's chest clenched a little, she had really looked forward to this, but if Claudia thought of her as a friend, then all was not lost, in the least.

"I will, however, have you here as a friend who happens to help out because she has little better to do, or as a student here to learn more about griffins." Claudia finished in a long slow breath and opened her eyes slowly again, hoping to see the smile back on the knight's face, and there it was.

"O-of course, I'm sorry, Claudia, I didn't mean to… But thank you..! I've been so bored and this is exactly what I need." Ahara sounded giddy, even to herself, and for a moment she felt a little embarrassed at her behavior, but surely she was allowed to be excited… Besides, there was no one else around, only her and her friend.

"Would you like some sweet apple cider..? The Duke gave it to me as a welcoming gift.." Claudia asked, veering away from Ahara's thanks and changing the subject quickly.

The younger woman nodded in response and smiled.