Content warning: violence.... specifically: fight scenes between some angry and impressively- armed beasties!
A New Understanding
Shrieking to announce his victory, Jurel extended his wings and regarded his defeated opponent. Jeerik now stood in a suitably humble posture. Head lowered, wings splayed out to the sides of his body, he waited resentfully to be dismissed.
“Go,” Jurel told his rival in satisfaction, preening his chest feathers back into some semblance of order after the fight. The motion caused a tear in the skin of his neck to pain him slightly. It would heal up fine, but unfortunately it wouldn’t leave a scar that anyone would ever see under all those feathers. Wistfully, he wished that the tear was in a more obvious place. A few more scars would make him look all that much more mature and impressive!
Since leaving his parents’ eyrie in the mountains to join the adult population by the seacoast, Jurel had done very well in competition against his peers. All the young Gryffin competed against each other, vying for supremacy over the rest. The most successful could claim the better hunting and fishing grounds and the most desirable consorts for themselves. The best among the fully mature adults would be king. Larger and stronger than most of the others his age, Jurel was fast climbing the social hierarchy. Winning these little scuffles was a good beginning, as was being accepted into the king’s guard patrol at such a young age.
“Well done,” Keerak said, his thoughts coloured with admiration as he watched a very-bruised Jeerik take painfully to the sky. “Jeerik was difficult to beat.” Suppressing the swelling of pride that welled up in his breast at his patrol leader’s praise, Jurel sent him a thought of wordless acknowledgement for the sentiment. “Perhaps we may have to think about promoting you above your current station,” Keerak mused thoughtfully. “We will see how you continue to do; time will tell.” Jurel’s chest puffed up with pride and Keerak’s mental laughter filled his head. “Don’t get too cocky, youngster!” he admonished. “You need to learn a few things yet. There is more to leadership than just cowing your opposition, you know!” Spreading his huge, golden wings, Keerak followed the rest of the watching Gryffin into the sky.
Pleased with himself and his latest success, Jurel turned to leave as well and was surprised to notice that someone else had lingered behind. Mandoral was nobody of real importance. Older than Jurel, he was smaller than most of his peers and was often a quiet spectator at most of these social competitions. His small size made it next to impossible for him to compete successfully with other males for status so he didn’t bother. Certainly, he was no threat so Jurel decided to ignore him.
“Watch your back,” Mandoral’s thoughts warned him unexpectedly. “You should have picked your battles more carefully.” Surprised, Jurel whirled around to face the smaller male. “I want no quarrel with you Jurel,” Mandoral assured him, his thoughts neutral and his posture non-threatening. “I only wanted to warn you to watch out for your personal safety.”
“I don’t need to watch out for my personal safety,” he sent back, his thoughts incredulous that Mandoral should think so. Jeerik had been his most powerful rival among the youth his age, and soon he would be able to set his sights on engaging in serious competition with the fully mature adults. Mandoral had far more reason to be cautious than he did! Anyone taking offence to the little male could beat the stuffing out of him. Briefly, Jurel considered doing just that. Someone as poorly regarded as Mandoral had no cause to be advising him on anything!
Mandoral watched him from a respectful distance away, his wings folded neatly along his back, his crest feathers flat and his posture relaxed. In spite of his notable lack of impressive stature, he had an air of dignity and confidence about him, something Jurel had never noticed before. Deciding to leave that dignity intact since the little male’s transgression hadn’t really been all that serious; Jurel opened his great wings and took to the air.
In the next few months, Keerak did indeed promote him above some of the lesser-ranking members of his patrol squad and Jurel got his first taste of what it was like to command others in a meaningful way. With the powerful Keerak as his ally, other adults began to notice his success and began to watch him as he started to challenge some of their number in more serious competition. Those scuffles did indeed earn him the scars he craved and even the females began to compete fiercely with each other to attract his eye. All the while, Mandoral watched silently from a distance and without further comment. Supremely confident in himself and his abilities, Jurel realized there was no limit to his ambition. His dreams were big.
Showing up for guard duty one day, he was surprised to learn that Gawlik was in command of their patrol squad.
“Where is Keerak?” he asked Tyrella.
“Injured,” she responded, the colour of her thoughts respectful of his superior rank. “He will be grounded until he heals.”
“I see,” he responded, surprised. Keerak must have won a prestigious victory if a rival had beaten him up badly enough to keep him from patrol duty! Jurel decided that he’d track his mentor down after his hunt later on. The story of the fight would definitely be worth hearing and he was sorry to have missed it.
Their designated flight duty proved easy and uneventful and Jurel was happy to finally be released from it to hunt. Deciding to fish for his dinner, he set out for the secluded beach that was his favourite. Just offshore there was an area of shallower water where reef sharks stalked their own prey through a maze of coral. One of those sharks would make a tasty meal if he could catch one.
The spray of the ocean leant a salty tang to the air as Jurel soared over the waves to his chosen fishing hole. The sun broke free of the clouds, illuminating the water below. Dark mounds of coral hid spotty patches of sea floor but he ignored them, searching just at the edges of the reef where the water was clear and blessedly free of the sharp underwater stuff. Spotting something of about the right size swimming lazily near the edge of the reef, he dropped altitude before folding his wings and sending himself into a steep dive. Jurel’s shadow raced to meet him as he drew nearer the water and he fought the urge to shriek in excitement as his adrenaline levels soared. Plunging into the water, he felt his claws sink deep into flesh before he fought his way back to the surface, flapping his wings to get back in the air. The shark thrashed frantically in his grip but it was well and truly caught and there would be no easy escape for it. By the time he got it back to the secluded cove on the beach, its struggles had ceased. Shrieking to honour his prey, Jurel bent his head and began to eat it.
Three shadows passed briefly overhead and Jurel stopped feeding to eye the sky. Seeing nothing, he assumed that others must be out fishing as well and resumed eating his meal. An unexpected sound startled him and he whirled around to see three Gryffin landing behind him. Though one was a stranger, he was surprised to recognize another as Jeerik. His eyes were drawn to the third and largest. Toril was one of the king’s major rivals and was not someone that he would have considered challenging at this point in his life! The much older male had an impressive number of scars and a deep rent in his flank from a very recent challenge suggested that he’d soon have another. His aggressive stance indicated that he was none too pleased and Jurel cursed himself for a fool. He’d had no idea that Jeerik had secured himself such a powerful ally!
“You are not very observant, are you youngster?” Toril asked, his thoughts dripping with menace. The king’s rival stalked confidently toward Jurel, his claws unsheathing themselves from the ends of his toes and his male crest feathers rising in challenge. Jeerik and Toril’s other ally followed, displaying postures equally as threatening. “Your ambition is admirable,” Toril admitted, “but since I find it damaging to my own, I am afraid that I cannot allow it to continue. Keerak has learned his lesson, and now you must learn yours.”
Furious over Toril’s challenge, Jurel felt his own male crest feathers rise, accepting it. He had little time to wonder at his lack of wisdom as the big male hissed and launched himself in his direction. Fighting for his life now against a slightly larger and much more experienced opponent, Jurel held nothing back. His fury took Toril by surprise and he managed to score a telling blow to the other male’s leg with his claws. Blood began pouring from the wound as Toril feinted, whipping his head around to gore Jurel down his left side. Realizing his mistake just in time, Jurel threw his weight in the other direction, ending up with a tear through the skin only. Beating at his opponent with his wings gained him a moment’s respite before Toril managed to knock him sideways with a blow from his powerful forepaw. Ducking under the next one, Jurel snapped upward, ripping a bloody chunk out of Toril’s chest.
Furious himself now, the king’s rival screeched and hopped upward into the air. Jurel met him there, both of them clawing and ripping at each other’s hides. Landing a lucky blow, Toril knocked him to the ground beside the half-eaten shark carcass. Shrieking his displeasure, Jurel hopped back out of the way as Toril’s bill stabbed into the ground where he had been just a moment ago.
“Kill him!” Toril’s enraged thoughts instructed his companions. The weight of three bodies suddenly bore Jurel to the ground and he clawed frantically at his attackers as Jeerik and Toril’s other ally pinned him on his back on the sand. His thoughts triumphant, Toril raised a forepaw over him, preparing to deliver his final strike. Shrieking his defiance, Jurel heaved and thrashed in the sand, refusing to give up or to accept defeat.
A curious thing happened then. A rock fell inexplicably out of the sky, bouncing with a solid “thunk” off Toril’s head. In disbelief, Jurel watched as the king’s rival fell bonelessly to the sand. Roaring in rage, he finally threw off his remaining attackers and launched himself at Jeerik. Defeated by him once, Jeerik was no match for his fury and soon fled when the other Gryffin did not come to his aid.
The sounds of battle raged on in the cove and Jurel let Jeerik escape to discover why. Turning in the direction of the fight, he was met with a sight he never would have expected! Toril lay motionless on the sand as his remaining ally fought with another, much smaller Gryffin. For someone of such small stature, Mandoral was giving a surprisingly good accounting of himself! He was lighter and quicker than his opponent, darting in and under his rival’s defences to land blow after blow on his tawny hide. Toril’s ally was bleeding from a myriad of shallow wounds and cuts and the blood loss was beginning to slow him down even further.
Hissing furiously, Jurel waded into the fray to help his unexpected ally. Together, he and Mandoral drove their last opponent into the sea, shrieking to announce their victory.
His sides heaving, Jurel studied Toril’s still form as he caught his breath. The rock had apparently split the big male’s skull, killing him on impact. Incredulously, he looked at the smaller male beside him.
“You killed the king’s rival,” he said, his thoughts undoubtedly betraying how impressed he was. Mandoral sent him a wordless thought of agreement, preening his neck feathers back into some semblance of order. The air of dignity the smaller male always wore seemed to settle around him once again as Jurel stared at him in disbelief.
“You knew that Jeerik was Toril’s ally and that defeating him put me in danger,” Jurel pointed out.
“Yes,” Mandoral agreed. “Certainly you didn’t notice Toril’s involvement with Jeerik, and neither did Keerak. Toril had high hopes for Jeerik before you came along. Had you not allied yourself so strongly with Keerak, he might have tried to gain your allegiance as well. As it was, Keerak took advantage of you first, making that impossible. Toril had no other option but to kill you or force you to accept a humiliating defeat.”
“Keerak was right,” Jurel noted ruefully, feeling like the biggest fool who had ever flown on the wind. He was apparently an amateur at adult politics! “There is more to leadership than just cowing your opposition.”
“That is certainly true,” Mandoral agreed. “Watch the king and his rivals at court sometime. The king’s allies are as important for keeping him in power as his strength is. He cannot stand alone and still hold the throne, for the very same reason that you couldn’t today.”
“Thank you Mandoral,” Jurel replied, honestly grateful. Thinking in admiration of the little male’s considerable powers of observation and intelligence, Jurel regarded him with a new respect. Mandoral was extremely cunning and had turned his physical limitations into an advantage. Jurel realized that he and everyone else had vastly underestimated him and that Mandoral had probably manipulated them into that deliberately. Thinking about the events of the day, one question remained in his mind. “Why did you help me?” he asked, truly puzzled.
The colour of Mandoral’s thoughts became decidedly pleased that he had asked. “It seemed a shame to me to see your life wasted Jurel,” he noted. “I knew that you would never accept defeat and that Toril would be forced to kill you. You have done uncommonly well for yourself since your arrival here. With the right help, you could go right to the top eventually.”
Jurel allowed his mental chuckle to sound in Mandoral’s head. “With help like yours,” he guessed, piecing the puzzle together. “I think that such an arrangement might work out very well for both of us.”
“It could,” Mandoral agreed. “I help you to side-step the worst types of trouble and gain the allegiances we need to advance. You can deal with the trouble we can’t side-step. What do you think?”
“You would have to accept that you would always be second,” Jurel warned him, his crest feathers rising involuntarily at the thought of Mandoral possibly challenging him eventually.
“I know that I could never be king,” Mandoral admitted, his thoughts humble, “and second is better than I could ever hope to reach on my own. Very few ever climb that high.”
“Deal,” Jurel said decisively, making his decision. Picking up the half-eaten shark, he dropped it at Mandoral’s feet. “Share it with me,” he invited. “It seems our Destiny is to fly together.” Mandoral’s thoughts were grateful and decidedly pleased as he tore a piece out of the tasty fish and swallowed it. Jurel bent his head to do the same, certain that he’d gained a valuable new ally as well as a valuable new understanding.