Hakenteri drifted on the edge of an uneasy doze, awash in a dull ache of pain.

He’d have been happy never to know how much of an improvement that could be. But improvement it was over how he’d been, what felt like mere moments ago but in truth was much of a day. When he’d been brought into this little den, he’d been exhausted, half-starved, and in genuine agony – from first the burns, then the arrow through his right wing, then all too many broken bones and a host of lesser bruises from when he’d hit the ground.

That had been bad. He’d barely been aware of anything but the pain, hadn’t known that healers were at hand until the pain had faded into merciful oblivion; at that point, he’d succumbed to his fatigue and sunk into oblivion as well.

He’d woken – a few candlemarks ago, now? – with fresh pain, if somewhat less than it had been; healers had come to tend him, and that pain had settled to the ghostly memory he had now. He’d been able to make a quick report, though the most important thing – the courier-pack he’d borne – had long since been taken and dealt with. Then, with nothing to do but rest and heal, he’d tried for more sleep. The genuine article was proving elusive, with the worst of his fatigue gone, and discomfort and bound limbs making it hard to settle.

Well, he told himself, at least he was alive to suffer it; and on that thought he shifted, trying to get as comfortable as his splints would allow, to drift off again. He was dimly aware of people moving nearby, but that was to be expected; this was, after all, an infirmary, and odds were he wasn’t the only being in need of a healer’s care.

The sounds of movement and conversation – hushed, but not enough to escape a gryphon’s ears – came closer, becoming less muffled. Hakenteri just twitched his tail and tried to let himself nap through it all. But then a voice that was unmistakeably in the same room said, “Good gods in the heavens.”

Hakenteri cracked a bleary eye open, blinking. Had someone else been moved into the other nest? He thought he’d have noticed that…

Then he recognized the features of the one who’d spoken, and his head jerked up. For a moment, the trio of healers who’d come in with him faded from his world; all that mattered was that speaker.

He didn’t know the man personally, but the long silver-white braid and the very distinctive, angular profile of his face had been illustrated often enough. Naruvin Jadefire was one of the foremost wizards in the realm – and while not a healer as such, he was an expert on the anatomy and overall nature of magical creatures. Gryphons in particular.

He was staring at Hakenteri now in utter shock.

Inwardly, Hakenteri wanted to cringe. He’d thought he’d lived through the worst of that – people, mostly gryphons but others as well, who saw him as deformed, born wrong. His foster father had kept him cupped under a wing for all too many bleak nights, assuring him that his smaller stature, thinner wings, and foreclaws that’d never be of much use in a fight weren’t wrong, they were different. How he’d known, Graeshandar had never said, but his utter conviction had given the young merlin the confidence he’d needed to push on, to make something of himself even if he did only grow to about three-fourths the size of other merlins and maybe half as big as a full-grown morgan. He’d thought the scorn was behind him, but for this man of all people to…!

But no, there was no disgust, no censure, in the human’s gaze. There wasn’t even the confusion, the lack-of-recognition, of someone who wasn’t quite sure if he was looking at a gryphon.

Jadefire looked as though he’d seen a ghost.

And in a way, that was even more disorienting to have levelled at him than the revulsion.

Hakenteri swallowed. “Sir, I…” The sibilants came out with a whistle; he swallowed again, took a breath, tried to steady his breath and his voice. “I’m sorry,” he managed, the R’s trilling a little but otherwise steady. “I know you by reputation, of course,” the hard consonant was sharpened by a click of his beak – hells, he was better than this with their speech, really he was… he put the fretting out of his mind and forged on. “But I didn’t think we’d ever met… have we?”

“Not as such,” the wizard said slowly, stepping forward and extending a hand. It cupped to match the shape of Hakenteri’s splinted-and-bound right wing, hovering a few finger’s breadths away from the binding. “But I knew your parents.”

That was more than Hakenteri could say… but then he blinked. He thought back to the woozy time a few hours back when he’d made his report. It was hard to be sure, but he didn’t think he’d ever given his name – just the run-down of what had happened to him in the course of what should have been an easy, safe journey. “How…?”

“They… they were good friends,” the wizard managed, his voice weak and fragile; where he was standing, the gryphon couldn’t get a good look at his features, but the man sounded suddenly, profoundly sad. “I was there when you were conceived. In a very real sense, I made you what you are. And then, when I heard about the fire…” A noisy gulp. “The Watch told me there was nothing I could do. I believed them. I… had no idea you’d survived. I’m sorry.”

Hakenteri felt dizzy, and it wasn’t from fatigue or pain. What kind of world was he in, suddenly, where a great wizard made apology to him, for a loss so far back in his youth he couldn’t recall having what he’d lost? But then his mind seized on part of those words. “You… made me?”

Jadefire stepped back to give the healers room to work; the trio surrounded the merlin – at least in that they took up places around him; small though he was for his kind, Hakenteri was still twice as large as any of them – and the wizard, meanwhile, examined Hakenteri’s much-abused harness, set nearby pending repairs. He fingered the Legion crest with a sigh. “Your parents were ambitious. They wanted to found a new line of gryphons, one suited to pursuits other than war. You would be the first; if you thrived, I knew other pairs willing to follow suit. At any rate, I… changed you. At the moment of your conception I shifted Nature’s course, to give rise to… what I see before me now.” A beat; then, ruefully, “Though I’d not counted on the grievous injuries.”

Before Hakenteri could reply, Jadefire spun and took a step closer, once again turning his attention to the gryphon’s wings as the healer working on his forelegs moved aside; this time, a thread of power flowed from the older man’s fingers – cooler, somehow, than the vital force the healers were channelling into his other limbs; cooler and more precise, focused so finely that it almost tickled, not the suffusing warmth of normal healing. And with him so intent, Hakenteri had little choice but to let the conversation lapse.

When the four were done, Hakenteri’s legs were still bandaged, but no longer immobilized, and his wings didn’t ache so much; progress had been made, though there was still a long and painful way to go. The healers left; the wizard, lingering, asked the gryphon’s name, then said, “You know of me, of course, as Naruvin Jadefire. Please call me Naruvin.”

“I will try,” was all the gryphon felt able to promise. This was not someone he’d ever expected to be on familiar terms with!

The wizard sat nearby, shaking his head. “Your parents were trying to spare you this sort of life. The conflict, the pain… you could be so many things, if only you’d had guardians that knew to give you the chance.”

For a moment Hakenteri bristled – Graeshandar had always been kind to him, always there when he had need, and always, always been his advocate. But in truth, the wizard was right; Graeshandar had never given him reason to consider any life but the Legions or the wilds. That was what gryphons did – they fought, or they hunted. It was the details that changed; and knowing that Hakenteri would never match other gryphons in a straight fight, Graeshandar had helped him become a scout and courier instead.

But what of it? He shrugged – gods, it felt good to have that much mobility again. “It’s the life I know, and it keeps me useful. No other gryphon,” he declared with pride, “could have raced past that ambush once it was sprung.”

“You could be a wizard – adept-level, at least,” Jadef – no – Naruvin protested. “Maybe even a healer, you’ve something of that feel…”

At that the gryphon blinked again. He’d only ever learned enough of magic to keep the reservoir of power most gryphons had from welling up at the wrong time. Him, a healer?

Well, that would put his hands, much more like a human’s than any other gryphon had, to good use.

“The Legion always needs healers,” he mused. “And I can get swiftly where one is needed.”

“But you weren’t given it or any other options before,” Naruvin stated. “Were you.”

“Well… no,” Hakenteri admitted.

“The option’s there for you,” the man pressed. “You don’t need to be a soldier.”

“I do now,” Hakenteri replied. “I swore to serve for five years or until my body could no longer bear it.”

Naruvin’s grimace was exasperated, but his eyes were shrewd. “You take that oath seriously, then.”

The gryphon bobbed his head. “Maybe I was young and foolish. Maybe I didn’t even pause to think of what else I could do with my life. But I swore to serve, and serve I shall.”

“All right,” Naruvin sighed. “But you don’t need to serve in harm’s way.”

“Anything that calls for speed will put me there,” Hakenteri pointed out. “And anything that doesn’t would be letting it go to waste.”

The wizard threw up his hands in surrender. “But after the five years?”

“After that…” Hakenteri shook his head. “I’ll need to see then.”

But truth be told, the possibilities were rather enticing.