fisherman who dives for pearls in the southern sea, say you. Do you know how he takes his blade and cracks the oyster shell and digs in to the squirming meat of it? How he presses the sharp edge at the back of the thick slimy creature, and saws, to and fro, slowly, carefully, to dislodge it from its home?” As he said these words he made slight motions with the knife, its curved end inside my open mouth, not touching anything, but nearly. And then I felt the razor cut of its edge—slight, but painful.
I tasted blood. Metallic as the knife.
Then he tucked the blade back into his belt and let go of my neck. “Shut your mouth, mud lark. Look at me.”
I gazed first at his boot, then at his middle, and, finally, up at his face again. His eyes were pinched and small and like shiny stones.
“Tell me again about this gryphon, for I have heard of these creatures, although I have never seen them. I would like to have one in the baron’s menagerie, both as a hunting bird and pet.”
I then had no reason to doubt that this was a sincere interest on his part. The legends of gryphons were everywhere in those days. I knew of one, although I had never seen it. I had been warned away from an ancient sacred well that was far off the path in the Great Forest, entangled with vines and encrusted with the roots of trees to the point that the well—which some called St. Vivienne’s Fountain—was barely visible for the green growth around it. My mother, when she heard me mention it, forbade me to speak of it. She told me that it was of another race of people. That it was of an old time, before even the churches had been built, and that it was no saint that had been martyred there. But she would not tell me the rest. But Mere Morwenna had told me about it when she found me in the woods at the old ruins, training my birds. “There is a great bird at the well’s bottom,” she had said. “As large as a dragon. It has claws that will rip a man to pieces, and a wingspan that can take over the night sky. A thousand years ago, it fell and broke its wings, and so it lies at the bottom of the well.” She showed me the well, and told me that the pagan Romans had martyred St. Vivienne there, as well. Her story had a profound effect on me, and when I asked my grandfather about it, he told me that if it had such a wingspan and such powerful claws and was an immortal bird, that it must be a gryphon, for that was the only beast with such qualities.
So, with the huntsman and his party surrounding me, I began to sputter on about gryphons and great beasts that had remained unseen by men, but we of the country knew them, of wolves the size of dragons, and dragons the size of mountains, and the poisons of the witches that grew in the shadows of the great oaks. I felt as if I were drowning as I spoke, as if my tongue would soon unfurl and grab his blade from beneath his belt and cut itself off rather than listen to the wild stories I let loose.
The huntsman drew his hand back and slapped me across the face as hard as he could. Knocked me down. In the dirt, I looked up at him, coughing. He bent over, grabbing me as if I were an ash sack, lifting me up from beneath my armpits, and hefting me above his head, all the while keeping watch on my eyes as if to catch the imp of perversity scuttering about inside my soul.
“When you lie,” he whispered, “the angels weep. The Devil himself has not lied so much as you have in these precious minutes. Will you tell the truth, Bird Boy? Will you?” As he spoke, he shook and rattled me in the air, and I was fairly certain he would toss me into the crowd before too long.
I felt it was in my best interest to change course.
“I will tell the truth, sir,” I said solemnly. As I spoke, the fair around us disappeared to me, the men beside him vanished, and I felt as if there were just the huntsman and I in all the world. “I am a poor boy, and I have not a trade. Nor is my father a good fisherman, nor does he