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The Flight of the Griffin

The Flight of the Griffin

Book excerpt

Chapter 1 - An uncommon evening

The floorboard creaked under the sole of his felt boot - a calculated risk whenever entering a sleeping man's room uninvited.

      A breeze fluttered the loose linen curtain, and the sleeper stirred at the welcome respite from the hot sticky night. The prowler slowly exhaled the breath that was starting to burn in his lungs, every sense tingling, receptive to any change in the room or a sound from the street below.

      The sleeper, thankfully, continued to sleep.

      The street under the second-storey window was silent, the night given up to the occasional rounds of the city watch and those set on a darker business, the never-ending cat and mouse game that went mostly unappreciated by the law-abiding citizens of the sleeping city.

      The summer had been one of the hottest people could ever remember, taxing the energy of the city’s inhabitants to the limit. Several of the more elderly citizens down at the port could be heard explaining that, ‘in their day’, the summers were often this hot, and indeed often hotter. Of course, these were the same group who would entertain the regulars at the portside taverns with tales of goblin hordes, ferocious sea serpents or the time the winters were so cold that the seas had frozen solid.

      ‘A man could have walked from here to Minster Island without ever seeing a boat or even getting his feet wet,’ was a much-repeated reminiscence. Whatever history really concealed, it was a hot summer, and this, a particularly humid night.

      Pardigan watched the now softly snoring form and, moving his foot from the traitorous board, crept towards the cabinet that he knew held his prize. It was an elegant cabinet - its construction given over to more than mere function. Gracefully curved legs supported drawers and shelves that were fronted by a scrollwork of intricate designs. He inserted the blade of his knife between the edges of the middle left-hand drawer and felt for the hidden catch. If the information Quint had given him was correct, the false front should spring open. A prickle of sweat tickled his brow and he wiped it absently away. Glancing over to the still-sleeping form, he applied a little more pressure on what he hoped was the catch.

      Nothing.

The merchant stirred, smacked his chops, exhaled wetly and then returned to snoring. Pardigan tried again.

      Most people hated the fat merchant, known for his cheating ways and vile temper, so he and Quint had set about the business of planning to rob him with great enthusiasm. The break had come quite by chance when Quint had met the apprentice of a cabinetmaker who’d been happy to talk about the merchant, and the cabinet he’d helped his master build for him.

      ‘The shame of it is that the true beauty of the cabinet will never be appreciated,’ the apprentice had moaned. ‘Such a cunning mechanism my master contrived to conceal the hidden safe-box, nothing of the like have I seen before, nor I fear will I ever see again.’ He had been all too happy to describe and even sketch the piece for Quint who, of course, had shown great interest, marvelling at the skill of the cabinetmaker and, naturally, his gifted apprentice. Several glasses of elder ale had kept his new friend’s throat well lubricated, an investment in tonight’s escapade that they had both placed huge hopes in.

      Up until this point, the information seemed to be good; the cabinet did indeed look like the sketch that he and Quint had spent so much time studying. Pardigan’s hopes had soared when he’d first set eyes on it as he was slipping over the windowsill. Right up until now that is, as his frustration grew. Because the Source damned catch simply wouldn’t shift - if catch it was. Pardigan was beginning to wonder if the real catch hadn’t been poor old Quint, whom the apprentice had conned into buying several glasses of elder ale on another blisteringly hot day.

 

Without warning, the warm still of the night was disturbed as the door to the bedroom opened with a creak, causing the hairs on Pardigan’s neck to stand up. He slowly turned, half-expecting to be staring at the tip of a crossbow bolt. Instead, a large grey cat slunk around the door, ran across and rubbed against his legs, purring as it sought attention. He ruffled its ears, before gently pushing the animal away. Without a backward glance the cat walked over and leapt up onto the bed. Settling comfortably against the sleeping merchant, it lay watching as Pardigan renewed his efforts.

      He applied his knife once again. Nothing was happening with the left-hand side so he moved his attention to the right. An audible click echoed around the room, rewarding his efforts as the false door opened, wobbling the washbasin that sat precariously upon the cabinet’s top. The merchant turned over, groaning loudly and ejected the cat from the bed. It meowed, padded over to the open window and leapt to the sill. Ignoring Pardigan, it sat regarding the street below with a critical eye.

      The merchant continued to sleep. He was back to breathing heavily, his fat sweaty chins bobbing with the effort of sucking in the warm moist air.

      Pardigan returned his attention to the cabinet. Behind the false front was a small opening. Several moneybags had been carelessly tossed on top of some papers, a few old books and some rolled documents that had been stacked neatly above on two shelves.

      Pardigan hadn’t had any real idea what he might find, but when he and Quint had been working out the finer details of the plan, they’d had plenty of time for speculation. Jewels, money and magical items had been on the hoped-for and expected list, but Pardigan now noted, with a certain touch of dismay, that there was a distinct lack of necklaces, rings and brooches in the safe. He turned over a few of the papers to see what they hid and wondered at the markings on them. He could read after a fashion, but only the local low-speak, enough to tell the difference between a bag of beans and a bag of rice. High-speak was for merchants and nobles.

      He slipped several of the more promising-looking papers into his coat along with the moneybags, and then a small knife without a scabbard caught his eye. He picked it up. It had a blade about a hand’s span long and a plain blue jewel set in the pommel. He put it into his pocket and cast a last glance over the remainder of the contents. With a sigh, he gently reset the false front, watching the merchant’s face to make sure he wasn’t disturbed as the catch clicked softly back into place. Satisfied that he hadn’t been heard, he straightened and tested the new weight in his pockets. With a smile, he crossed to the window. The cat watched him approach then meowed in irritation as he brushed it from the sill. Taking care to mind the loot in his pockets, he straddled the windowsill and, with one eye to the street for the city watch and the other on the still sleeping merchant, made his way carefully to the ground.

      Dropping the last few spans, he landed safely and offered up a silent prayer of thanks to the Source. Then, after casting up and down the street, he drew in his first real breath for what seemed an eternity and moved off towards the sanctuary of the poor quarter. Keeping to the shadows, he kept an eye open for both the watch and for any opportunist thieves that may be lying in wait for a rich victim like himself.

*****

 The grey cat continued to watch as he scuttled away, noting his haste now he was in the open. The way he looked back and forth for danger, seeing everything, but understanding so little.

      She’d been waiting for something like this to happen for several weeks and now she felt both excitement and regret that the game was to move on. Maybe I was beginning to enjoy the lazy life of a house cat too much, she wondered. The easy life did have certain merits, especially for a cat. Licking a paw she cleaned herself one last time, enjoying a few final moments in this form, and then leapt from the window, shimmering before spreading wide, snowy white wings and gliding silently in search of the departing figure.

*****

Pardigan hurried down the darkened alleyways, the houses crowding closer together the further he got into the poor quarter. At several points, the buildings actually touched above him and the alley became a pitch-black tunnel, blocking out even the faint ambient light that had lit his progress so far. Earlier in the evening, the oil-lamps would have been lit, but it was late now and the oil had long burned away. He came to The Stag, an inn on Barrow Street that was favoured by traders from the market square. The murmur of a few late drinkers came from behind the heavy closed door, then the sound of a glass smashing and a woman’s shrill and angry cry prompted Pardigan to move on before the drinker was tossed onto the street, illuminating him in the light from within.

      At the end of Barrow Street he slowed to a cautious walk. Market Square was in front of him, a regular hangout for drunks and beggars who tended to group together. Even at this time of night there would probably be a few milling around. These people didn’t seem to keep normal hours. You could be walking around at midday and most would be sleeping like it was midnight, and then times like now, they would be up and about sucking on a bottle and probably wondering idly where the sun had gone to.

      Keeping to the shadows as best he could, he moved into the square being careful to skirt the darker parts at the edge. Picking up his pace he had to clamp his hand over his nose and hold his breath as he sidestepped several piles of rotting vegetables; the warmth of the night rich in their pungent odours.

      Several of the square’s occupants were dotted about but none seemed interested in him. Three drinkers grouped around a spluttering fire were singing and laughing as they passed a small barrel. Pardigan slowed and watched for a moment, fascinated as they took turns, upending it and laughing at each other’s efforts as more of the liquid splashed down their chests than into their mouths. Pardigan shuddered, and wondered at the mystery that was adulthood and at what age you lost your mind and did crazy things like that.

      At 12 years old, Pardigan dreaded the thought of waking up one morning as an adult. To have had all the fun sucked out of his life, replaced by the need to scowl at people and tell everyone off for not seeing the world his way. Growing old was inevitable, growing up was not. He and the others had made several vows that they would never grow up and would sail the coast in their boat The Griffin, for a lifetime of fun, adventure and good times. Whatever happens, I’ll not be sitting in this square drunk, dribbling and howling at the moon like some crazy dog, he vowed. Casting another look at the small group, he moved on.

      The square was crossed without incident and he started down The Cannery, a street so named because of all the fish canning shops that lined its sides as it went down the hill towards the city's little port. During daylight hours, it was one of the busiest areas of town, with fishermen hauling their catch up from the port and the canneries bustling with wagons shipping out their product all over the realm. At this hour, all was deserted and Pardigan passed down the pungent street without incident, a few squabbling rats its only nocturnal residents.

      Coming down into the port, there remained one final obstacle in his path - Blake’s. The largest of the inns around the harbour, it never closed. On a warm night like tonight, even at this late hour, there could be people sitting outside hoping for the comfort of a small breeze to come in across the sea.

      The sound of music drifted up to him accompanied by the sound of voices laughing and talking – there was no way he could escape being noticed. He would have to cross right in front of the entrance to get to where The Griffin was moored. Drawing his coat about him, he walked on, a shiver running the length of his spine - his nerves once again on edge.

      A lone figure sat on a barrel under the main window, bathed in a pool of light from a lantern that hung above the door. Keeping his eyes averted and with his heart beating in his ears, Pardigan tried not to stumble on the uneven cobbles in his haste to get past.  Nearly there, only Blake’s to pass, almost there… Talking to himself often helped in times of stress, it was almost as if some of the burden of the moment was shared…Only a little way more…Nearly…   

      A sudden movement from behind and he spun round in time to see a dark figure loom up with arms outstretched. With a cry, Pardigan stepped back, tripped over something and then hit the ground hard, pain instantly screaming from his back and left ankle.

      He lay writhing on the cobblestones gasping, fear and despair filling him as he realised he’d been caught so close to The Griffin.  It was almost in sight, only a little further around the port, but this obviously wasn’t to be his night after all. That’s how my luck’s been running lately, thought Pardigan, offering a silent curse to the Source. Shadows gathered about him and he tried to struggle up but someone flipped him face down and sat on his back. Powerless to move or even breathe properly - flutterings of panic threatened to overcome him. Footfalls surrounded him and he waited for the touch of a knife.

      ‘You should have told us you were going to do it tonight.’ The speaker tapped Pardigan’s head with something hard. ‘We could have helped you know.’ He sounded cross.

      ‘Quint?’ Pardigan felt a wave of relief and then anger at being tricked like this. ‘Get off me, you lump.’ He felt the weight move and several pairs of hands rolled him over. A lantern was lit and he gazed up into the shadowy faces of his friends.

      ‘Well, how did it go?’ asked the tall scruffy boy holding the lamp. Tarent, for that was his name, reached down and pulled Pardigan to his feet. Waves of relief filled Pardigan and he smiled, his anger slipping away.

      ‘You rotten…’ he took a half-hearted swing at Tarent who moved aside easily. ‘Why did you jump me? I thought you were…’

      ‘Serves you right, now tell us…’ hissed Loras, the fourth and final member of The Griffin’s crew. Smaller than the others with a tangled mop of red hair, Loras was peering up at Pardigan with a frown etching shadows on his face. ‘We found your bunk empty, and then Quint told us about your plan.’

      ‘Which he wasn’t meant to carry out yet,’ added Quint.

      ‘So we came and waited for you here. You’ve been ages.’ Loras was moving from one foot to the other, clearly agitated. ‘Quint seemed to think you’d have plenty of coins and would be in a better position to settle our bill than we are,’ he glanced back into the inn, a worried look on his face. ‘Like I said, you’ve been ages and we were hungry.’

      ‘And thirsty,’ added Tarent. ‘So we appear to be a little in arrears with the good landlord here.’

      Loras reached out and dusted Pardigan’s cloak. ‘Sorry about the surprise, but you should have included us, so… how did it go?’ All three waited patiently for some sort of response.

      Pardigan finally shook his head in wonder at his friends, then checked up and down the path for observers. Reaching inside his coat, he pulled out a moneybag, recently the property of a certain local merchant, and fished out a silver coin that he tossed to Tarent. ‘Settle up here and let’s get back to the boat. I’ll tell you all just how well it went when we get there.’ Tarent disappeared inside the inn as the others moved off towards the gently bobbing boats of the port eager to hear more.

      Now, back in the company of his three friends, Pardigan finally felt safe. They were a strange group, all with a different story of hard luck and the tough times they’d had before finding each other. They’d since formed the closest thing to a family that any of them had ever known - even the boat that they called home had a sorry tale. Quint had found it in a terrible state, rotting in a small river, off the main estuary to the city. Having nowhere better to go and all alone, he’d started to live on it. The boat had conveyed the feeling of abandonment and the only other inhabitants had been a few mice and lots of spiders. Quint had spent the first few weeks alone and in fear, expecting a gang of cutthroats to reclaim their vessel at any moment. Then, as the weeks had turned to months, he had realised The Griffin, for that was the name he had found under layers of grime, really was abandoned and he began to relax. The hull was sound, had no leaks and it had several cabins plus a good-sized cargo area. The problem with the boat had simply been neglect. Whoever had abandoned her hadn’t left any clue to their identity, but abandoned she most certainly was.

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