Hugo's breath caught as he stared up into the sky at the creature soaring through the heavens. In all his eight years, he had never seen a real, live gryphon.
Long before his mother had given him his birth weapon, Hugo learned to hide from the womenfolk at night, staying up long past bedtime to haunt the shadows near the village campfires, straining against heavy eyelids to listen to the stories told by the elders.
There he'd crouch behind the cover of a barrel or a tent flap, drinking in stories of the great white stags and the hunters who tracked them, of ferocious dragons and the archers that turned the sky into night with their arrows, and fables of ghastly white bears that could split a totem pole with a single rake of its claws. But his favorite stories were those of the proud gryphons, the emperors of the skies.
Once, when he was five, his friend Cael had seen a large shadow pass overhead while carrying water from the creek. Hugo had called him liar, but that night he hid in the bushes by the creek for hours, hoping to spot the gryphon. One of the older boys, Ylman, had once guided the younger boys to a shaded glade in the woods where he'd found the carcass of a beast he claimed was a gryphon. Wolves had picked the bones clean so you couldn't tell for sure, but Hugo had been pretty sure they were the bones of a deer or an elk.
Now, at the age of eight, well before most men of the Karaya were allowed to join the hunting parties of the adults, Hugo stared up in triumph from the cover of thorny bushes on the edge of the woods, shading his eyes with his hand. There it was, soaring across the azure sky, a shadow passing over the glaring sun. It was all he had dreamed of. To him, the beast seemed a king among kings.
They'd gone farther than Hugo had ever gone before, him and Lulu, into the lands of the dreaded Iron Heads. The adults had warned him not to cross the Silver Rock Stream, not to pass beyond sight of Watcher's Hill. It wasn't the first time Hugo had snuck past the river, out of sight of the hill, but he'd never gone this far before. Lulu had followed behind, trembling, biting his lip, glancing back at every step. But he'd come, and now the boy stood gaping at the gryphon passing overhead, like a blessing from the spirits of the wind.
An arrow arced up from below, startling Hugo. The arrow darted past the gryphon, and the beast swayed, turning its head towards its attackers. Another arrow shot past the beast, missing by a narrow margin.
Heart beating in his throat, Hugo crept through the bushes towards the edge of the woods. They weren't the only ones who'd spotted the gryphon. Hunters? Here? None of the Karaya would range this far. It had to be one of the other clans. Or, could it be the Iron Heads? The thought put the chill of fear in Hugo.
He parted the leafy branches to look out on the savanna. A hundred paces away, five figures pushed through the tall elephant grass. The sun glinted off the metal of their chain mail armor, and Hugo's heart sank. Iron Heads! Each man held a bow to the sky, tracking the gryphon in its flight. The hunters' voices carried on the breeze. They sounded excited and agitated.
Hugo's heart pounded in his chest. He heard Lulu move behind him, and turned to press a hand over his friend's mouth. What should he do? He watched the hunters loose arrows, flinching with each twang of their bowstrings. They launched arrow after arrow, each one coming closer to striking its mark.
Suddenly, a cheer rose from the hunters. The gryphon shuddered, and dropped in midair. The feathers of an arrow sprouted from the beast's flank, just below its wing. Hugo gasped. The beast swayed unsteadily, plummeting from the sky. Hugo stood up, eyes tracking the gryphon as it drew nearer to the tree line. He clenched his fists, feeling useless.
The hunters cried out in triumph. Their voices were too far away to make out, but Hugo knew their intent. The hunters moved for the woods, running to catch up to the flagging gryphon.
"Hugo," Lulu said, "What do we-"
"Come!" Hugo said. He ran with the beast's shadow as it sailed past the treetops overhead. It shot past them, too fast to follow. For a moment, Hugo thought the gryphon might get away. Then, a few hundred paces ahead, he saw the trees rustle and shiver, and he heard branches bend and snap, as something huge crashed through the canopy and toppled into the undergrowth.
"Oh no!" Lulu exclaimed. "Is it dead?" Hugo glanced at Lulu. His friend's eyes were wide as saucers, his face as pale as chalk.
Hugo bit his lip. He looked to where the gryphon had fallen, and then turned to take in their surroundings. The trees shaken by the beast's descent had come to rest again. It occurred to him that from this point, there was no way to tell where the beast had disappeared into the trees. Glancing behind, he found the hunters still approaching the treeline. It would be a few moments yet before they arrived.
Hugo made a snap decision. "This way," he said. Turning away from the direction of the downed beast, he instead ran deeper into the woods. Away from the hunters. Away from the gryphon. As he ran, Hugo started shrieking and whooping. The Karayan hunters had taught Hugo some of their bird calls. Hugo now improvised, giving his best impression of a giant predatory bird.
Lulu ran to keep up with him. "Hugo, no! It's too dangerous!"
"We can't let them kill it," Hugo called back, over his shoulder. "We'll draw them away!" He charged through the underbrush, stopping to snap branches, stomp bushes beneath his leather boots, and tear moss from boulders. He had to make it seem like a large beast had barreled through the undergrowth.
Hugo glanced back every few steps. Lulu dashed after him, panting loudly. His friend struggled to keep up. Further back, Hugo could hear the boisterous shouts of the Iron Head hunters tearing through the forest. They were hot on their heels, and gaining on them. With a sinking heart, he realized that Lulu could not keep up this pace. It wouldn't be long now until the men burst from the cover of the woods and caught up to them.
The words of Beecham, one of the Karaya's mightiest warriors, now rang in Hugo's head. When all else fails, play dead. Hugo scanned the dense vegetation as he ran. He needed a hiding place. A large moss-covered boulder jutted out from the forest floor, but it was surrounded by flat earth with low shrubs. If the hunters split around it, they would be spotted. There were trees to climb, but only sparse foliage covered the branches. Even a casual glance upward would reveal the hiding spot. Hugo felt panic rise as they ran through a gallery of light trees on flat ground. There was nowhere to hide.
Hugo's eyes passed over the fallen tree before he saw it. There, beneath the rotting trunk, behind a patch of dense shrubs, he saw shadow. The fallen tree sheltered a sink in the earth, nearly hidden from view.
Hugo dragged Lulu with him. Careful not to disturb the shrubs and leave signs of their passing, Hugo crawled down into the loamy pit. Lulu squeezed in beside him, and the two of them crouched down in their hideout. The smell of damp, fresh earth filled Hugo's nostrils. Tiny black ants marched across the rotting tree-trunk's underside, carving out a hidden empire around the boys.
They heard the shouts first. Then came the pounding footfalls of running boots. The hunters filtered into view, each with an unstrung bow slung over his back, each man with a long knife at the ready. The men clearly expected to find a flightless gryphon fighting for its life.
Hugo's heart pounded so hard he felt certain the men could hear it. He breathed slowly, through his mouth, painfully aware of each rise and fall of his chest. Lulu's breaths sounded as clear as drumbeats to his ears. He wished he'd never crossed the Silver Rock River, wished he'd never gone out of sight of Watcher's Hill.
The hunters slowed to a brisk walk, fanned out to cover more ground. "Where the hell did that feathered cur get to?" one man spat.
"My arrow struck true," another man said, "It couldn't have returned to the skies."
"Then where in the Goddess's name is it?" said a third man.
"Look around," the first man said, "There's got to be tracks."
Hugo peered out at the hunters in horror, tracking their every movement. Beside him, Lulu squeezed his eyes shut. The boy shivered with fear, whimpering in a low voice. Hugo put his hand over Lulu's mouth to keep him quiet. He felt the boy's panicked breath as dampness against his fingers.
Leaves crunched under booted feet. The man was right on top of them. Hugo held his breath. The footsteps circled around the rotting log. Hugo heard bushes rustle, twigs snapping. The footsteps moved away, then went silent. Hugo waited, allowing himself shallow breaths.
Suddenly the footsteps approached. Mud-encrusted boots came into view, inches from Hugo's face. Legs bent as the man knelt, and a hand pressed against the dirt. A necklace of wolf fangs sank into view, dangling from around the man's neck. Then the hunter bent low, and looked straight into the pit.
The man's eyes focused against the dark. He had an angular face with a bent nose. Dark stubble covered his chin. His eyes were almond brown. And they looked straight into Hugo's eyes.
Hugo froze. His mouth opened, but he didn't dare make a sound. Lulu made a muffled sound against his hand.
The hunter's lips twitched. A small smile. His eyes passed over them, taking in their features, studying their hiding spot. A look of surprise came over his face, or perhaps it was thoughtfulness. He still hadn't spoken. Hugo waited for the horrifying moment to come to a close. He felt like a snake facing down a mongoose, waiting for the mongoose's jaws to dart out and close on his neck.
"What have you got there, Tram?" came a voice nearby.
The hunter hesitated. Then his head turned from the pit, and he stood. "An animal's lair, no more," he said. "I think we've lost the beast."
There was a moment of silence, then the other man cursed. "Well, let's get going. We'll need to be in Galnay by nightfall."
Two pairs of booted footsteps led away from the fallen trunk. The dispersed hunters gathered together amid shouts. A muffled conversation followed, of which Hugo could only make out a few words here and there. Then the hunters broke off and started towards the edge of the forest.
Hugo remained absolutely still, listening for the sounds of the hunters growing distant and indistinct. His heart beat so fast it hurt. His every muscle clenched to the point of agony. Hunched into a crouching position, his back hurt. His skin was clammy with cold sweat. He kept expecting a lingering hunter to leap out and drag them from their hiding spot.
Finally, Hugo dared to relax. Slowly, quietly, Hugo crept out from under the log and slid on his belly past the flattened bushes. He looked around for a long time, turning to press against the log and peer over it for hidden threats. Eventually he concluded that no one remained.
Hugo stood. "I think they're gone," he said. He stared at the quiet tree trunks, mind racing. There was no doubting that the Iron Head—Tram—had seen them. Why hadn't he said something? Why had he left them alone? Hugo shivered as he realized just how much danger they'd been in. What would the Iron Heads have done to them, if they'd caught them? Would they have been marched back to their great tents of stone and wood, and be forced to work as slaves? Maybe even... cut their throats and leave them in the woods to bleed out?
Lulu first poked his head out, then scampered from the dark pit like a frightened rabbit. His friend shook so bad his teeth rattled. "Is… is it s-safe?"
Hugo didn't answer. His thoughts went to the wounded gryphon, somewhere in the woods, with an arrow stuck in its body. The hunters were right – the beast wouldn't fly again. Unless someone helped it. Hugo turned to take in his surroundings. They'd dashed wildly through the woods for what felt like a long time. Where could the beast be? He needed to find a better vantage point.
A quick scan of the thicket around him revealed the tallest tree around, a gnarled acacia with an enormous crown. He trotted over to it and leaped to grab its lowest branch. With a grunt, he hoisted himself up onto it. The sturdy branch swayed under his weight. From there, he leaned on the trunk and twisted around to access the higher branches. The bark bled sap that made his hands sticky as he climbed from branch to branch towards the top. Emerging through the leafy crown, Hugo looked out over the roof of the forest. From this vantage point, he could see for miles around him. Hugo scanned the treetops, searching for signs of the gryphon's violent impact.
There, about half a mile away, he spotted snapped branches and tangled canopy where the beast must have slammed through the treetops. The distance surprised him. Had they ran that far?
Hugo clambered back down and landed with a thud in a patch of thick moss.
"Let's go find the gryphon," he said.
"Hugo, no!" Lulu protested. His friend tugged at Hugo's sleeve, a miserable look on his face. "Let's go back home…"
Hugo shook loose from his grip. "I'm not going back before I've seen the gryphon." He didn't say that he hoped to save the beast. He knew Lulu would like that even less. Turning away from Lulu, he started towards the place he'd seen from the tree.
Lulu stumbled after him. "But Hugo! We already saw the gryphon."
Hugo grinned. "We saw the gryphon fly past us. That's not enough! Don't you wanna see it up close? It's wounded, I'm sure it's still there." As the fear bled away, Hugo felt excitement return. He fingered the dagger sheathed on his back—his birth weapon—as he forged a path through the dense undergrowth. Always, he stepped softly and strained his ears for sounds of the hunters. He could still hear their calls in the distance, but their voices grew more and more distant. Still, he feared some trick, and reminded himself to stay alert.
Hugo had come almost upon the site of the gryphon's landing when he began to hear animal cries. The shrill shrieks of the gryphon cut through the woods, filled with the animal's desperation. But there was something else. Growls. Barks. He hurried through the foliage, drawing his dagger and using the blade to help cut a path. His heart pounded as he stepped into the clearing.
He looked out onto a narrow river valley with a bubbling brook cutting through it. The sun slanted down through the break in the canopy, brightening the clearing. Wildflowers grew in patches on the banks on the river. And there, on the far bank, the gryphon lay curled up, its wings furled in over itself for protection. Blood spilled from its flank, where the snapped shaft of an arrow jutted out. The blood drained into the grass and into the river, where the stream washed it out.
Three big gray wolves circled the gryphon, growling. One by one they darted in, snapping their jaws at their motionless prey. The gryphon fended them off with its powerful beak and its sharp talons, but the wolves danced just out of its reach. With each passing, the wolves drew closer. They sensed their prey was quickly tiring. The gryphon's chest heaved with each labored breath.
For a moment, Hugo stood as transfixed by the sight, leaning against the trunk of a tree, watching in horror. Then he regained his composure. He knelt to pick up a stone from the ground. Taking careful aim, Hugo pitched the stone at the closest of the wolves.
The stone struck the wolf's back. The wolf howled in pain, and all three of the beasts turned to regard Hugo. Hugo cursed. He had meant to scare the animal, not hit it. His mother had taught him never to harm a dangerous animal if you could avoid it.
"Scram! Get out of here!" he yelled. Never taking his eyes off of the wolves, he knelt and felt along the ground for more ammunition. His fingers closed around a heavy rock, and he hurled it at the wolves. He missed his mark by a narrow margin.
The wolves howled, and then ran along the stream to where the waters grew shallow and stones peeked out of the current. The wolves leaped across the stones and crossed to the slope where Hugo stood.
Hugo watched with growing terror as the lanky gray beasts drew up before him. Their snarling mouths peeled back to bare menacing fangs. Their golden eyes gleamed like pools of poison for coating arrowheads. Then they were upon him.
The lead wolf hurtled towards him, snapping its jaws. Hugo fumbled his dagger, striking too soon and slashing wide. The wolf's jaws closed on his arm. Hugo yanked his arm back. He felt sharp teeth pierce his skin, felt the wolf's warm drool lick his flesh as he narrowly avoided its bite.
The wolves danced around him, growling. Hugo backed up, shouting and waving his dagger. The beasts watched him with hungry eyes, waiting for a moment of hesitation, a moment of weakness. Hugo said a silent prayer to the spirits. His birth weapon—a long, curved dagger—was meant to last him a lifetime. It was outsized for a boy and felt awkward in his hand. He tried to remember his lessons, but his mind felt sluggish and he froze up, seizing the dagger so hard his knuckles hurt.
A wolf lunged suddenly. Hugo reacted instinctively. His dagger sliced across the wolf's face, drawing blood. The beast howled in pain, but it kept coming. The wolf's jaws closed on Hugo's shoulder, and the weight of the beast bowled him down onto the ground. Hugo screamed, beating the hilt of his dagger at the wolf's flank. The wolf's teeth tore into his arm. Hugo gasped in pain and shock. Out of the corner of his eye, he saw the other wolves pad forward, moving in to strike at their downed prey.
A rock struck the wolf atop Hugo. The animal whined, and released Hugo.
"Go away!" Lulu shouted. "Get gone, you mangy dogs!"
Hugo took advantage of the momentary confusion. Rolling to the side, he stabbed his dagger at the wolf's belly. With satisfaction, he felt the dagger sink into the beast's flesh. Trailing blood, the beast turned to run. The other wolves ran with it.
Hugo looked up to see Lulu advance from the trees, feeding his throwing arm with the contents in his other hand. Stone after stone sailed through the air, striking or narrowly missing the wolves. "Go away!" he shouted.
Hugo grunted. His shoulder and arm throbbed, unbearably painful. He sat up, looking over the wound with a grimace. The wolf's jaws had turned his sleeve to tatters, and blood leaked from a dozen places where its teeth had broken the skin. With some relief, Hugo confirmed that none of the wounds seemed serious.
Lulu knelt beside him. With the wolves gone, his friend sagged like a ripped piece of canvas.
"Thanks," Hugo said, groaning with pain.
"Be still," Lulu said. "I'll bandage your arm."
Hugo sat in silence, steeling himself against the pain as Lulu tore loose spare cloth from his breeches to form a bandage. Karayan children were taught to bind wounds and mix simple herbal remedies almost from birth, and Lulu had taken to the lessons with exceptional talent. Hugo had never shown much talent for it, himself, and now he was grateful for his friend's diligence.
"There," Lulu said, tying off the bandage with a knot.
Hugo rose, unsteadily at first, head swimming. He flexed his arm, testing the muscles and the tendons. It felt sore, but responsive. He retrieved his dagger and sheathed it at his back. Then he gave Lulu a quiet nod, the way he'd see the older men greet a comrade on the return to the village. Silent and dignified. A subtle moment between men. They might still be boys, but Hugo felt that Lulu and he were well on their way to manhood. Certainly after today, Hugo would have much to tell the other boys about around the campfires.
Hugo's thoughts turned to the gryphon. He realized he hadn't heard the beast's cries for some time. He looked across the stream, to where the gryphon lay, silent and unmoving. Hugo's heart lurched. He ran down to the stream and waded across, letting his boots get wet. On the other side, he slowly approached the still form of the gryphon.
Hugo went cold inside. Up close, he could see that the beast's chest no longer moved. Its weakened wings no longer flapped, nor did its beak or its talons stir in defense.
Crestfallen, Hugo knelt before the beast, as the thought dawned on him that he'd been too late. There was nothing he could do for the majestic creature. It had all been for nothing.
Lulu came up beside him. "Is it… dead?"
Hugo gingerly reached out his hand to touch the beast, but hesitated. He stared at the unmoving beak, certain that it could swing around at any moment to snap his fingers off. When it didn't, Hugo allowed himself to touch the beast, solemnly.
The feathers were softer than he'd thought. Up close, the king of the heavens seemed more like any animal. Hugo's throat felt tight. It didn't seem fair. Opposing feelings warred inside his mind. He hated the Iron Heads for callously felling this beautiful creature. But then he thought of those kind brown eyes that had stared into his when they hid under the rotting log. He'd been spared. One life was taken, and one life was given. As his mother would say, such was the harsh reality of nature.
A sudden, shrill cry came from the lifeless beast.
Hugo almost fell over backwards. He scrambled away from the gryphon. "W-what?"
There was movement at the gryphon's chest. Feathers ruffled. Then, a tiny beaked head with a cap of white feathers peeked out. The beak opened, and another shrill cry rang out. The tiny thing pushed forward, out from under the dead gryphon, revealing talons and miniature wings.
Hugo found himself staring into the huge eyes of a gryphon chick. It shook its feathers, flapping its wings. It sat back on its hind legs, and looked up mournfully at its mother, calling again and again in its shrill voice.
Hugo trembled. Slowly, very deliberately, Hugo reached out a hand towards the tiny creature. It was the size of a puppy dog.
"Don't be scared, little one," Hugo cooed, "I won't hurt you."
The chick backed away from Hugo's hand at first. It looked up at him with suspicion. Hugo moved closer, reaching out his hand to pet the tiny gryphon. Its head bobbed under the weight of his palm.
The chick panicked, and bit Hugo's finger. The beak broke the skin and drew blood.
Hugo hissed and clutched his hand. Tears welled up in his eyes as he sucked at the wound. He prided himself on not crying out. The chick backed up against its mother's still-warm chest. It spread its wings and stretched out its talons in front, making itself as large as possible. Its tiny body quivered, its eyes trembled with fear.
Hugo thought about leaving the chick alone, but he knew he couldn't. It would never manage on its own in the forest, and its wings were still too weak to carry it into the sky. Even if it could fly, it couldn't fend off predators or hunt for its own food. Hugo reached out his hand again. "Don't be afraid," he whispered. He tried to make his voice as soft as possible. He moved more slowly now. He reached out for the chick again, and this time the tiny beast didn't bite. It flinched, but allowed Hugo to touch it. Gently, he stroked the creature's fluffy feathers. A life taken, a life given, he thought.
"There. You'll be coming home with me," Hugo said. "I'm going to name you... Fubar." It was a good name. In Karayan, it meant 'courage'.
Author's Notes: Please type a brief review below and tell me what you thought of the chapter! I'd love to hear from you.
The story that follows is Suikoden III as I would have liked to see it. It is a heroic romance centered on the characters of Chris Lightfellow and Hugo of the Karaya.
Be prepared for changes to the game's story. To preserve my sanity and keep this story from growing into a brick of a novel, I had to cut out a lot of material, including the whole Budehuc Castle plotline and Thomas' story. Sorry about that. I have a lot of love for the Suikoden canon, and I'm sticking as closely to the spirit of the original story as possible, but there will be changes both large and small.