Speckled With Red
Written by theyoungestleah
This work was last updated January 17, 2020
Before the war, Verilia would never have described the sunset as bloodstained, as she thought that it was far too poetic and bordered on being a mere flighting fantasy of melodramatic youth across the continent. Now, as she watched the sun start to dip below the horizon, some part of her acknowledged that it did look a fair bit like blood had been spilled across the heavens as if the world was showing a premonition of the years to come.
The woman tore her gaze away from the sky, letting it follow the drop of the cliff-face into the canyon below. With the dwindling sunlight, shadows stretched across the rocks and shrouding the ground with darkness to the untrained eye. A rustle accompanied by a soft brush against Verilia’s mind signalled Pheron’s arrival moments before he emerged from the brush to stand by her side. The gryphon cast her a long look, a foreign question probing at her thoughts, to which she shook her head and leaned against his side.
“You’re concerned.” Her eyes flicked over to meet Pheron’s, who gave the animal equivalent of a shrug. She raised her hand to stroke what part of her partner’s back she could reach past the armour. “Your mind is not unlike a vortex.”
Verilia tapped her fingers against a metal plate, contemplating her response. “Lorcan may be more ruthless and less mindful of the riders than Blanche was, but he has not attacked civilians,” she murmured, noting a second too late that speaking aloud might compromise their position.
Pheron tipped his head to the side, bumping it lightly against hers. “There are riders among the caravan. The Steel Defender has some merit to their claim that removing this supply caravan will cripple this section of the dragon patrols.”
She let out a huff, a frown tugging at her lips. “I do not like that name. Halcyone was more of a defender than Orel is; she aimed for no violence at all.” She traced her finger across the patch of bright orange feathers that covered his shoulder. “Orel said our best option is to completely eliminate these caravans with no witnesses to be left alive. Riders, I can understand, but merchants? In terms of this conflict between riders, they’re innocent and that goes against the oaths every rider swore to live by.”
“Does it give you no satisfaction to enact revenge upon a trader who plays their buyers like fools?”
“If it were anything else, perhaps, but death is too grave of a sentence to put on someone whose only notable crime is raising the price of their wares.”
Pheron clacked his beak, a gesture she had learned to recognize as mild annoyance. “Then strike these humans from behind. You will not have to see their faces when they fall, and thus you will won’t see their life story in their eyes.”
“That… is not bad advice. I’m not sure if I could still do it, but it does make me entertain the idea that perhaps this task we have tonight will be done easier than I had first imagined.” Verilia nudged her partner in the side, receiving a light smack from a wing seconds later. “When did you become so wise?”
“Since you became the gust that lifts my wings and I became yours. A wild creature such as I had never before imagined such kindness from a relentless and ever-expanding species such as humans.” She watched Pheron dip his head, pawing at the ground. “I have seen your kind slaughter animals with little mercy and purely for the thrill of the hunt. To kill with such glee terrified many mountain-dwellers, including myself.”
The woman chewed her lip, brow furrowing. “If I take your advice, the one about striking them from behind as to not see their faces, would that make me as heartless as poachers or hunters?”
A flurry of wings nearby cut their conversation short. With the sun having set long before, it was difficult but not impossible to spot the owl pass over their heads with a glittering stone clutched in its talons; that had been the signal and its meaning made stones settle in her stomach. Gripping her spear, Verilia hoisted herself into the saddle fastened to her companion’s armour in one deft movement, who crept towards the edge of the cliff. All around them, other pairs were doing the same, putting up mental walls to guard against unwanted listeners. For several long, heart-stopping minutes, only the wind made its presence known.
With little warning, Pheron tensed under her, unfurling his wings to assume a crouching stance, prompting Verilia to squint into the darkness. Her human eyes could see nothing yet there was something different in the canyon. She tentatively strained her senses, catching wind of something that bore little resemblance to anything she’d ever heard, but her confusion was cleared moments later. From down below, an amalgamation of hushed voices, the shuffling of materials, and the crisp sound of horses pulling along wagons met the expectations of the gryphon riders who lay in wait, punctuated by the rhythmic footfalls of the two dragons that accompanied them. Though she could not yet see them through the shadows, Verilia felt her throat clench as the hour of action ticked closer.
“Caravan has passed. Strike!” She had barely acknowledged the command before they shot down from the ledge, leaving the rising moon behind them in their wake. The wind whistled as the two of them descended in a steep dive, accompanied by thirty other pairs, guided the dimly lit runes that grew brighter with each thundering heartbeat. Pheron pitched back, snapping his wings open as he sunk his talons into an unsuspecting merchant’s torso and slowing down enough for his rider to thrust her spear at another, fighting back a grimace when she found purchase. Battle cries sounded off from each gryphon, piercing the air and joining the various shrieks of terror.
Verilia tightened her grip on the saddle horn as she threw her arm to the side, cutting through more flesh before the spear slipped out of the merchant’s body and tossed them to the ground. She jabbed at them a few more times, swiping the weapon through air before it impaled through their throat. She focused on the blood-spattered shaft and let the anguished face in front of her blur in her peripheral vision.
The chaos of the battle multiplied as people started to leave behind their wares and make a run for it. As Pheron regained some altitude, Verilia saw, with grim satisfaction, that the larger of the two dragons had collapsed onto its side and that the golden wisps of magic were too faint to close the gushing wounds. Her attention snapped back to her immediate surroundings as the pair came across a fleeing merchant and she slammed the flat of her spear against their head, staggering them enough for Pheron to carve a large gash across their back. A scream faded into a moan, disappearing into the din of combat when all they could voice were gurgles and guttering whimpers.
Verilia became acutely aware of the sound as the battle wore on; the screams and shouts gave way to haunting echoes of lives that could’ve been spared. She winced as Pheron joined the other gryphons who were combing through the battlefield, silencing those who still drew breath. Another series of gurgles was cut off as a gryphon dug its talons into their body and bile stung the back of her throat at the sight.
“You are unwell.” Pheron’s voice broke through her thoughts, making Verilia jump in place. She let out a bark of shaky, breathless laughter and ran her fingers across his orange feathers, grimacing at the dark smear her hand left behind. He cocked his head to the side and veered off to the canyon wall, some distance away from the corpses.
The woman clambered off the saddle and all but collapsed to the ground. “How could I be okay? They were innocent.” Her voice felt strange as if she were listening to someone else speak for her. Her gaze fell to stare at her hands, which were speckled by drying blood. “I tried to look away, Pheron, but we chased the ones that got away. Killing from behind doesn’t change the fact that we hunted them.”
The gryphon gave her no response, instead letting her lean against him and swipe at tears she could hardly feel. As the sobs and cries of partners who suddenly found themselves alone grew louder, Pheron ruffled his wings and spoke after a long moment, “I believe there is no advice that can make war bearable.”
“Then how do we survive it?” Her heart fell when Pheron shrugged, unable to give her an answer. Verilia scrubbed the blood from her skin and she suspected that she’d become morbidly accustomed to doing so long before the war would end.