Title: Most Precious, Part 1/?
Prompt: Written for the winning bidder on my RK fanfic auction at Help Japan on LJ. Request was for a fantasy-themed Kaoru/Battousai
Note: This is a slightly edited version - roughly an additional 1000 words - from the one I posted on LJ, oh, two years ago.
A firm kick to Kaoru's seat jolted her awake, her eyes snapping open to blink muzzily in the weak light filtering through the train window. Train. Why am I on a train again?
"Are you paying attention? For days you've been demanding to know why we're going to Wales, and now that I'm explaining you're ignoring me!" Misao's strident tones interrupted her half-awake musings.
Wales. That's why I'm on a train. Kaoru slowly straightened in her seat, her answering glare decidedly grumpy. "Didn't you notice that I was sleeping?"
"Yes. I also noticed that you're missing lots of gorgeous scenery, too. I thought you'd enjoy this!"
The Welsh Highland Railway was a scenic 'heritage' railway passing through a large section of the Snowdonia National Park. Despite the gray sky and steady drizzle, the views of Mynydd Mawr and Snowdon were nonetheless impressive, and Aberglaslyn Pass would be breathtaking at any time, no matter the weather. It was just that the world - everything in it save Misao - seemed to be conspiring to send Kaoru off to dreamland. The refurbished Pullman car was toasty warm, her plush armchair spacious and absurdly comfy, the rhythm of the train lulling, and even the gray day itself practically begged her to curl up for a nap. She'd resisted until Misao had become engrossed in paging through a book - the same one now splayed open on the table between them - before kicking off her shoes and letting herself succumb.
"So I did you a favor," Misao declared, raising her voice and snapping her fingers to regain Kaoru's wandering attention. "Wakey wakey wakey!"
Hiding a yawn behind her hand, Kaoru gave herself a little shake. "Alright, alright! I'm awake. And," she added, belatedly registering the entirety of Misao's earlier complaint, "I'd like to note that I have not been demanding to know anything for days. The first I knew about this trip was when you showed up at the crack of dawn on Thursday, waving boarding passes and insisting I get up and pack."
"That was two days ago!"
"While we were rushing around trying to make our flight," Kaoru continued, unimpressed with the interruption, "I merely asked, as any sane person would, to know where we were going and why." Misao opened her mouth, ready to argue that this constituted demanding (or at least nagging), but Kaoru didn't give her the chance. "You put me off, and put me off, until we were finally on the plane where you promptly put on headphones and pretended to be oblivious!" At that point, Kaoru's choices had been to let it go - for the moment - or make a scene in first class. She'd opted to be adult about the matter, but her tone left no doubt as to how frustrating she'd found Misao's behavior. Although it was, in part, the use of such evasive tactics that convinced her this was likely to be one of those trips: a Misao-instigated treasure hunt, rather than an officially vetted purchase or appraisal. "My baggage claim receipt was more informative than you," she concluded pointedly. It had been, too; with no connecting flight, the likelihood of their destination being somewhere within the British Isles greatly increased. She'd made use of the in-flight satellite internet - someone, probably Okina, had been looking out for her when the tickets were booked, and they were on British Airways - to refresh her memory regarding unique trends in the British antiques trade. She'd also searched the company database for open and standing requests, paying particular attention to those from the London office, before finishing up with a check of recent sales on Sotheby's and Bonhams among other prominent auction sites. With her travel companion playing mum, it was the best she'd been able to manage in the way of preparation - assuming there was any actual work to be done at their destination.
"Be nice," Misao scolded. "I told you we were heading to Wales after we landed." Which was still two days before, so Kaoru had clearly still had plenty of time to demand explanations.
"You told me after we'd checked into the hotel and I was already half-asleep."
"That's when I thought of it!"
"Because me asking you about it during dinner didn't jog your memory at all?" Kaoru punctuated this bit of sarcasm with an accompanying eye-roll.
"Ah-hah!" Misao jumped on the question like a weasel on an unsuspecting rodent: gleeful and completely opportunistic. "See? Even you admit you were demanding an explanation since Thursday!"
Kaoru frowned back repressively, her left eyelid twitching in a way that threatened Misao was pushing it. "Misao, I know you are up to something. I know that you know that I know. This is how you always are, and I'm willing to let you get away with it - as usual - but you better stop pretending to be hard done-by here, or so help me I will find a bokken and smite you with it." After a moment Misao gave a shrug and a nod and a sheepish smile, and Kaoru eased up on the glare. "Okay then. Go ahead and tell me why we're in Wales. For that matter, tell me where we're going in Wales."
"You mean I haven't?" When Kaoru's frown immediately returned, Misao made a placating gesture and began looking around the table and in her bag as if she'd lost something. "No really, I thought I told you the name of the town while we were at the train station in London, so you could look it up before we lost internet on the train in Wales. It's a small town called Pact," she said, locating a glossy tourist brochure at the bottom of her pile of books and sliding it across the table. "At least, that's the English name. The Welsh is on the brochure but I refuse to try and sound it out."
Glancing through the small flyer, Kaoru was struck by the thought that the incredibly quaint village couldn't possibly be real. The only thing missing was a castle, and it could double as the set for a Disneyfied sword-and-sorcery film. On the front the words Cytundeb Pladur were written in script beneath the larger, bold-faced PACT. "Why two words?"
"It's complicated," Misao waved the question away, "and I'll explain it later. For you, the important thing is that Ianto Gryffith, last descendant of one of the town's original founders, recently passed. He left the family home to the town, and the council has decided to auction off some of the antiques in order to fund a full restoration of the building and grounds."
Blue eyes widening with interest, Kaoru flipped back to the town photos, wondering which of the houses had belonged to Gryffith, or if it was even pictured. "That explains why Okina let you use the company credit card," she said, nodding to herself in a distracted manner, "and why he let you drag me along. But it still doesn't explain why you're so excited to be going in the first place."
Ostensibly, they both worked for the family business, traveling the world in search of rare and unique pieces to grace the company's many showrooms. In reality, most days Kaoru thought it was more accurate to say she worked for Oniwaban Fine Antiques (in the dual roles of appraiser and chaperone), while Misao wandered around chasing wild geese. An activity which the family generously (and tolerantly) described as 'working independent projects'.
"It sort of does though." Misao leaned forward in her seat, practically bouncing in place. "Somewhere in there," she gestured at the brochure, "it mentions that Pact is one of the oldest towns in the area, and the only one to have remained continually prosperous since the late thirteenth century. Historians can't explain it - winters were just as difficult in Pact as in the neighboring Nant Peris, their crops would have been just as susceptible to insects or blight or damp - but Pact has never suffered anything remotely noteworthy. No plague, no flooding, no famine. Nothing more significant than an herb garden hit by an early frost, or a round of the common cold." For a town that had existed since the Middle Ages, that was impressive. "The people of Pact claim their good fortune is the result of a deal they made with a magical protector - and they've been telling the same story for hundreds of years, since the town's founding. That's long before the Grand Tour became popular and people thought to make up legends to sucker rich folk into visiting."
"Mmm." Still scanning the brochure, Kaoru was slow to connect the dots and make sense of Misao's excitement. "Wait. You're saying the town name refers to an actual pact?"
"That's the story! So of course I had to come with you - I want to talk to some of the locals, see if there's more to the legend than I've been able to uncover. Hear the version that's not really for public consumption." Smoothing the open pages before her, Misao made an obvious effort to regain control of her voice before words started clumping together in her rush to get them out. "Finding a translation - never mind one that hadn't been embellished - wasn't easy, but this one reads fairly well. If you're interested."
The cousins each had a deep appreciation for and fascination with history, although they expressed it very differently. Where Kaoru could spend hours researching the background of an antique side-by-side, Misao's passion was for little-known folklore. The tale less told. Her finds always made for enjoyable listening, especially if you included the babbling that came after: hundreds of tiny details that hinted at the tale's true origins and the nature of the storyteller. As such, Kaoru didn't really mind getting roped into the search... provided Misao didn't make her wait too long for the big reveal. When it was obvious that she was on the trail of something, her tendency toward dramatic suspense could be exasperating. As it was, Kaoru had been waiting to hear this story since before they'd ever left New York. 'Interested' wasn't really the word to describe her anticipation. Snuggling back into her plush seat, she made a show of getting comfortable before announcing that she was ready. "Remember to start with 'once upon a time'," she added. "You always forget that bit."
Laughing, Misao tugged the book closer. "It's not a fairy tale," she said, "it doesn't have to start like that." Mock lecture completed, she then began to read aloud:
"When the English king came to sit in conquest at Aber Garth Celyn, then did Idris ap Gruffydd, youngest half-sib of Llywelyn the Last, go before him and abjure his inheritance. Forever forsaking any claim to the throne of Gwynedd, he asked only to be permitted to live in peace. As he offered no conflict nor ever had, his surrender was rewarded with a modest tract of land near Llanberis, where Edward no doubt hoped he would have a calming influence on an angry people.
Gathering some fifteen families, among them those familiar with the growing of crops and the building of homes, the erstwhile prince led them into the mountains to an isolated vale on the Northeastern slopes of Yr Wyddfa. Its level basin and forested hills were ideal for a small settlement, the land stretching in serene, untouched acres in every direction. Yet scarcely had they arrived when the valley echoed with a wild, challenging cry akin to that of a bird of prey. Above, the sky darkened with the bulk of an impossible, incredible beast: one possessed of the head and wings of an eagle, and the lithe yet massive body of Cath Palug."
"Cath Palug?" Kaoru slipped the question in as Misao paused for breath.
"A giant cat in Welsh legend. And when I say giant, I mean huge, at least compared to the common house cat. Think panther or lion."
"Head and wings of an eagle... and the body of a lion. A gryphon?"
That earned her a look, complete with narrowed eyes and pursed mouth. "You know, it's times like this - and it pains me to say it - but it's times like this that I find myself hating the fact that you actually listen when I explain things. You're not supposed to have figured that out yet!"
"Sorry. I'll try harder to goof off in class, teach."
"Right. How about just trying to hold any further questions until the end of my presentation?"
Kaoru dutifully mimed locking her mouth closed, to which Misao responded with a roll of her eyes.
"Many cowered or turned to run in fear, and Idris did not fault them. He, however, stood his ground beside Father Deykin, a resolute protector as the holy man knelt to beseech Saint Mark for both blessing and forgiveness."
'Silence,' the beast demanded as it landed gracefully before them, the last beat of his wings causing but a faint ripple in the tall grass. No longer a dark shadow against the sun, both its feathers and fur were revealed to be red as blood, its talons and beak tipped with gold. 'I am no Saint, little priest,' it cautioned, voice a low, rumbling growl, 'but a predator upon whose hunting grounds you have trespassed. For what reason have you come here, and what do you offer in exchange for your lives?'
A wail went up at this ominous question, for none doubted the creature's ability to see the implied threat to completion. 'My lord,' Idris answered, wisely choosing his words with both care and courtesy, 'we meant no insult. If we can make amends or ease your temper, we will do so in all haste.'
'I care not for your intent or lack thereof,' came the unforgiving reply, 'only for the result. As for my temper... should you wish me to keep it, you will not make me ask again: why have you come here?' The tone was soft, the amber gaze fierce and intent, threat in every line of the beast's massive body.
Sensing it would somehow know it should he lie, Idris answered the challenge with absolute truth: 'King Edward has given me this land to work as I wish. These honest folk are here to aid in that endeavor. We seek only to be left in peace to do so.'
'I see.' Something of amusement sparked in its eyes and echoed in its tone. 'Another lordling too easily impressed with his own power, spending it freely to show his worth.' It raised a foreclaw in an all-too-human gesture of dismissal. 'No matter. I care not for the whims of your Edward or his delusions.' Cocking its head, it gave their livestock an appraising look. 'Although I may owe him thanks for the meal your oxen will provide.'
'Please! We are skilled farmers and builders, unafraid of labor. Can you not allow us to work this land?'
'To what benefit? Think you I have need of stone houses or human crops?' It shook its feathered head.
'We had planned to raise both sheep and cattle. What of those? Can we not barter for use of the land in exchange for a portion of our herds?'
'If your quantities were great enough to sustain both my appetite and their numbers, perhaps. But they are not, and I dislike the thought of being attendant upon humans for my meals.'
Idris grew increasingly disheartened, but so long as the beast was willing to talk with him, he knew he could not give up. Yet there was little else for him to offer. 'Is there no task we can perform?' he asked in desperation. 'Nothing to which human bodies are better suited than your own?'
Then at last did his words give the creature pause, and it bent its great head in thought, one foreclaw making long, lazy gouges in the soft earth. At length it spoke: 'There is perhaps something, although none among you has the required skills. In time that may change.' It gave a long, slow exhale, warm breath lifting Idris' hair and sending a shiver along his spine. 'Although I may come to regret such uncommon leniency, in truth I have not the taste for slaughter this day.' For a moment it considered the gathered people, golden eyes seeming to weigh their souls. 'Here, then, is the bargain I will strike with you,' it said, deliberately displaying a single long, curving talon, mimicking the way humans would count upon their fingers. 'First, you wish to build your homes upon my lands. For this privilege, you will pay a yearly tithe.'
Immediately, a wave of relief swept through the crowd. The condition was easily met, for the beast asked no more than would be expected of a human landlord.
A second golden talon joined the first. 'You ask for peace in a troubled time. By allowing you to remain here upon my lands, I will be granting you a measure of such. However,' it shifted, lunging forward until its beak was but scant inches away from Idris' chest, 'I know humans.' Its tone was laced with open scorn. 'I know for you peace is not just an absence of strife, but also of misfortune... and I know you are wont to blame others for any ills that befall you. Drought or famine, flood or sickness: all these and more will you lay at my feet if given the chance. In asking for peace you ask for protection, and that is a far greater thing than you pretend.' Withdrawing, it leveled a stern gaze on the surprised and shamed people. 'If I am to ward you against such harm, I must have a promise of equal value.' Drawing a deep breath, it paused for a long moment, its gaze fixed on some unseen distance. 'Worship of the Lady Rhiannon is forbidden,' it abruptly announced. 'I care not for whatever other beliefs you espouse, but you will not welcome the Lady of Horses to my lands. You will not invite the Pwca or the Ceffyl Dwf, nor seek to tame the Merlynod, for all these are her creatures. You will breed no horses, nor bring horse traders here, and any such beast to remain on my lands more than a fortnight will be forfeit.'
Although puzzled by this request, Idris' people hesitated only briefly before agreeing, spurred on in part by the approving nod of their homely priest."
"Hold on," Kaoru interrupted, half-raising her hand as if in class. "I thought Rhiannon was a queen of fairy. Like Titania."
"No," Misao's braid slipped over her shoulder as she shook her head, "although her name does have the right ring to it, and her first appearance in the Mabinogi is upon a fairy mound, she's not a fairy herself. Rhiannon is thought to have been a local Welsh cognate for Epona, the Celtic goddess of horses. And Epona was the only Celtic deity to be adopted by the Romans, so she was definitely a big deal."
"Oh. Then no wonder the little priest was happy."
"After the big scary gryphon forbid everyone from worshiping a persistent pagan figure? I'd say so." The priest should've been dancing a jig in celebration. Misao's humor at the thought was audible when she resumed reading.
"A third gleaming talon joined the other two. 'Finally, you ask for my trust. Trust that you will pay your tithes and forgo your horses. Trust that you will not accept my protections while plotting to take my lands for your own. While some amongst you may feel I have asked an equal favor, an equal trust, I disagree. Should any one of you foolishly wag your tongue in the wrong ear, you could spawn a hunt the likes of which this land has never seen - and although none would ever catch me, I would not have my life so inconvenienced. Each of you now holds knowledge of priceless worth, and I will have something equally precious in return.' Once more his amber gaze swept the crowd, seeking. Evaluating. 'From this day forth, any child born to your people bearing the mark of Belyn will be mine, pledged to me upon his coming of age.' A low rumble of protest rippled through the crowd at his words, prompting the beast to stomp one ember-hued paw for silence. 'Children are precious, and the marked even moreso - at least to me. I swear all such children will be kept safe and given every happiness.'
Idris conferred with Father Deykin and the family elders for some time following this pronouncement. The mark of Belyn was exceedingly rare - mayhap one child in a thousand might be born with it - yet the thought of surrendering a son or daughter at some future point did not sit well with them. Eventually, however, they agreed, having convinced themselves that the bargain was in their favor, the mark so uncommon that they would never need pay the beast's price."
"They didn't really have a choice, though, did they?" Kaoru remarked. As she'd listened to the tale unfold, she'd shifted to examine one of the many color illustrations gracing the open volumes on the table. Chin cupped in one hand, she traced a bold, aquiline profile with the other. "The gryphon would have killed them if they didn't agree, simply to preserve his secret. Not that it worked. From what you've said the townspeople apparently went around telling everyone."
Misao grinned: she considered it a personal triumph whenever Kaoru discussed folklore as if it were established fact. "It was a local legend, known around the town itself and maybe the neighboring villages, but it didn't really go public until much, much later. Not until people like the Brothers Grimm started collecting and sharing folktales, and that was after the last of the witch trials in Europe. As for the gryphon killing everyone if they didn't agree... I doubt it. Gryphons were said to possess great discernment, so I suspect he knew how they would react before they did."
"You think he manipulated them?"
"I think he manipulated the entire meeting. He obviously didn't want to kill them, and it would have been foolish for him to try and hide his presence for any length of time. It made much more sense to confront them openly and engineer a truce. His impressive entrance would certainly have given him the upper hand... or claw." Noticing Kaoru's little frown of disappointment, she gave an exasperated sigh. "It's not like they didn't benefit. Those skills he said they lacked? He was referring to both mining and metalworking. As Pact grew, those skill sets were added, and eventually the tithe they paid was pulled from the beast's own mines. The humans did the work, but he shared the wealth."
"I suppose." Tilting her head, Kaoru slowly conceded the point, while internally reminding herself that it was just a story. Caught up in the infectious nature of Misao's enthusiasm, it was all too easy to find herself believing in these tales as if they were real rather than fiction. Especially since Misao herself tended to mix historical facts - like the opening of the mines - into the narrative. "So what happened next?"
"Well," returning her attention to the book, Misao flipped pages until she came to a full-color double-page photograph. "First they did some extremely masculine bonding ritual involving spitting and vowing and exchanging names - and oh, can we say annoying?! I couldn't find much of anything on the legend itself, but there are entire books written about the possible origins of the gryphon's name-"
"Why? What's his name?" As she spoke, Kaoru leaned forward to get a better look at the photo. Strange... She blinked several times, trying to make the picture out, but her eyes didn't seem to want to properly focus...
There was a pause, during which Misao chewed her lip, puzzling out how to answer. Or how not to answer. After a long moment she huffed an annoyed breath and slouched down in her chair. "We don't know."
Abandoning her attempt to make sense of the upside-down photograph, Kaoru raised her head to gawk at her cousin. "How can you not know? You just said-"
"And that's the point! There are volumes written about it because nobody believes the villagers could possibly have it right!" Folding her arms across her chest, she gave every impression of pouting about the incompetence of early medieval storytellers.
"It's their story! How could they possibly be wrong?"
"Because! Well... That's not... It doesn't..." After stammering out the start of a handful of rebuttals, Misao stopped, blew her bangs out of her face, and then tried again: "This story is tied to an actual place and time with actual historical references. As such, it has more in common with tales of Robin Hood or King Arthur than with your typical fairy tale or fireside legend. It begs the question of whether or not there's something real at the heart of it. Something so inexplicable or larger-than-life that witnesses made up a story to explain it. There's also the distinct possibility that the tale we have now is a corrupted version of the original. Maybe the initial story wasn't about a gryphon, but about a man who possessed the heraldic qualities of one - someone who was fierce and noble and protective and lordly. After centuries of the story being told and retold, he eventually made the transition from man to beast, and the term became what he was rather than merely a description. In which case his name would - or could, or should - serve as a clue to the truth of events."
Truth being mutable over time was not exactly a foreign concept to Kaoru. She'd had to explain it to customers far too often - usually right after telling them that their prized antique had been manufactured by a less than prestigious company. "But the name as passed down among the villagers doesn't tell you anything?"
"Yes. Well... no. It tells us all sort of things, but none of them are useful."
"So a bunch of uptight language academics sit around arguing about it? Despite the fact that none of them will ever actually know?"
Kaoru's eyes narrowed, and she drummed her fingernails on the table. Slowly, as if she were counting to ten internally. "What did the villagers call him?"
"Scythe of Battle," Misao answered reluctantly. "Or Battle Scythe - that's how it's given in the oldest version of the story we have, and part of the reason so many think it's wrong is because it's the only bit in English rather than Welsh." Her thumb stroked back and forth over a corner of the book, riffling the pages. "He - the gryphon - was apparently amused by it, too."
"Or sometimes just 'The Scythe' - like it was a title."
"Uh-huh." Kaoru's tone said she was waiting for the punch line. Sadly, there wasn't one. That was it.
When her scrutiny continued to be met with nothing but a disgruntled expression, she sat back in her chair. "Fine. So they did the shaking and the spitting and the getting-to know-you stuff. Then what?"
"Well, they built their town - naming it Scythe's Pact, hence the two words in Welsh - and then a whole lot of nothing happened for several hundred years. Happy-go-lucky fun times were had by all, right up until Idris' descendant - Folant Gryffith - married a woman from a distant town, and for the first time in all that time, a child was born bearing the mark of Belyn."
"Let me guess: the wife didn't buy into the legend and refused to give the child up?"
"Worse... she went a bit crazy at the idea that her son would be taken away from her, even though it wouldn't happen for at least another fourteen years. When her husband wouldn't be swayed, she went to a wise-woman for help. Of course, according to the legends the woman wasn't merely wise, but a witch."
"It's always a witch, and Dorothy's never around when you need her."
"This was several hundred years before Dorothy's time. Besides, she was apparently a weather-witch with an affinity for both air and water."
"Nice. So what was their plan? Make it rain until the gryphon gave in?"
Instead of replying in kind, Misao's features took on a solemn cast, a sure sign that the story was going to take an unpleasant turn. "There are a couple different versions of what happened after the witch became involved," she said. "In the sympathetic version - the one that paints the wife as hysterical rather than evil - she asks the witch to help her trap the gryphon so that when the terms of the bargain come due, he won't be able to collect. In the other version, the women actually plot to kill him. Despite the difference in goals, however, what actually comes to pass is the same in both: the women wait until the gryphon arrives to collect his tithe, and then the witch calls up a windstorm to keep him grounded."
"And she loses control." It wasn't a question. Kaoru had heard enough myths and legends and fables to just know.
"She summons something on the scale of a small hurricane rather than a large thunderstorm," Misao agreed, nodding. "A tumult of wind and rain that threatens to blow away half the town and flood what's left. The legend says the Scythe uses all his strength and magic to cut through the storm and disperse it, saving the townspeople even though they'd betrayed him; but the effort is so great that it kills him. In retribution, the villagers then hang both the witch and Gryffith's wife - which is certainly a fittingly typical sort of ending."
For a long moment both fell silent, Kaoru clearly dissatisfied with the conclusion of the story (regardless of how appropriate it might be) and Misao absorbed in some thought of her own. Then, with a resurgence of her earlier enthusiasm, she nudged Kaoru with her foot. "Hey. The legend does have an original twist. When the child - the marked one, a boy - grows up, he begs his father to build a monument honoring the gryphon's sacrifice. Folant agrees, and a statue is finally placed in the village green on the eve of the boy's coming of age. The next day the young man visits it to pay his respects, and then he disappears off into the mountains, never to be seen again."
"Lost on the same day he would have been claimed by the gryphon," Kaoru mused.
"Exactly. But what's really interesting," and at last Misao turned the book around to give Kaoru a decent view of the photograph. "is that the town actually did erect a statue in the gryphon's honor."
The two-page spread pictured a sleek but powerful stone gryphon segreant: rearing on his hind legs, wings spread, beak open to shriek defiance. The sculptor had even managed to capture a wind-blown, storm-tossed feel to the lay of the feathers and the curve of the long leonine tail. It was a truly beautiful work of art.
The photo on the other hand...
"Why did they use that flashy holographic treatment on such a large and detailed image?" It was difficult to tell whether the statue was granite or marble or something more exotic. From one angle it appeared to be made of glossy, highly polished stone - a poor choice for a statue in an outdoor setting; and from another it had a more weather-resistant look, the stone taking on a dull copper tone and fine-grained texture.
"I know! I said the same thing to Omasu, and she looked at me like I was insane. It's completely inappropriate for a book on folklore, too. Usually they go with the most traditional art they can find."
Kaoru knew exactly what she meant: drawings that were somehow even more flat and simplistic than their two-dimensional nature should have allowed. Such a picture would never have done justice to the Scythe. He was far too... impressively three dimensional. Although the photo treatment was bizarrely inappropriate, at least it gave some sense of how the original storyteller had imagined his presence.
After a few minutes of staring at the picture, tilting her head to see if a slightly different angle would provide more details, Kaoru reminded herself that this was not a jeweler's mark she was being asked to identify from a faxed copy of a bad photo. Pushing the book away, she braced her elbows on the table and returned her attention to Misao.
"Tell me the rest of it," she said.
"What rest? The story is over. Do you need me to say 'the end'?"
Kaoru lightly pinched her on the arm. "You know what rest. Tell me why this story has you so fascinated. Because I know you, Misao, and that's exactly what you are: fascinated." Enough to travel all the way to Wales. Enough to forgo Okina's bi-annual trip to Japan.
Misao resisted the invitation for only a few seconds. "It doesn't fit."
"It doesn't fit? A tale about a magical creature aiding humans? In a European story? No, you're right, that never happens."
Now it was Misao's turn to reach across the table and poke Kaoru. "Very funny. I mean that gryphons don't belong in Wales!" She made the announcement as if both Kaoru's ignorance and the creature's existence were personal affronts. "Gryphons are found in the legends of Greece and Scythia. That's an entire world away. On those rare occasions when they make cameos in European literature, it's either as a first-hand accounting of a fantastic creature that was seen somewhere else - like India or Greece or even China - or as an entry in a bestiary. Having one actually show up and interact with people in Wales is like... like hearing about a water-horse running wild on the island of Crete. Or a leprechaun helping Hercules. It's out of place."
"So? It's a myth. Does it really have to make sense?"
"Yes, at least from the point of view of the storyteller. Changelings made sense as an explanation for impossibly ill or deformed children. Fairies made sense as an explanation for why things sometimes went missing only to turn up in their proper place. But that's not the point. What makes this so weird isn't that it's a gryphon in Wales. That's... unprecedented, but not incomprehensible. But this is a gryphon in Wales acting exactly the way he should."
Which statement caused Kaoru to shoot her a flatly incredulous look, head cocked to the side and a single slim eyebrow raised in question. It was an expression that demanded as clearly as words: What's wrong with a gryphon acting like a gryphon?
Misao sighed in frustration. "Okay. King Edward set up his court in Aber Garth Celyn during the summer of 1284. That means this story dates from the thirteenth century, a time when the average person wasn't really familiar with the folklore or mythology of other cultures. Idris may have recognized a gryphon from its use in heraldry, where it was a symbol for strength. The rest of the villagers may possibly - even probably - have been introduced to the concept through Christianity, where the gryphon was used as a symbol for Jesus. But neither source would give any information about the likes and dislikes and attitudes of a gryphon as established in Greek mythology."
"I follow you, but I've no idea where you're going."
"How would anyone from that background even think to include a gryphon in their story? 'I want to make this more interesting... I know, I'll throw in one of those hybrid monsters from Earl so-and-so's banner!' Doubtful. And given the depiction, it certainly wasn't added by anyone thinking along the lines of Christianity. Not if the gryphon figure is going around threatening to kill everyone."
"It wasn't described as a gryphon, either," Kaoru mused, remembering the reference to eagles and Cath Palug. "I guess that detracts from the descriptor theory - the word 'gryphon' is never mentioned, so it can't really have been used as a label. Can it?"
"Maybe, maybe not. Poetic metaphors are given a lot of leeway, and we don't know if the word was used in an earlier version of the story, before the shift from man to beast took place. In fact, I don't even know how accurate this translation is - it's possible the Welsh language version describes the gryphon differently. Oh... It would be interesting to know if it uses the term adar llwch gwin. It was first used in a story that dates from the seventeenth century, and there's some debate as to whether the phrase refers to a gryphon or just a large bird of prey..."
Shoving aside a slim book of Arthurian legends, she scribbled a note at the bottom of a well-used legal pad, one already liberally scattered with drawings and underlined questions.
"Regardless, though, my point is that nobody mentioned in the story could possibly have known enough about classical gryphons - Greek gryphons - to depict the Scythe as exhibiting all their known characteristics. At best, there might have been someone who could liken the Scythe to a Christian gryphon - in which case he would've been monogamous, unable to either utter or abide falsehood, and possessed feathers and claws that could cure poison. Those are the traits detailed in the European bestiaries I mentioned. But that's not the Scythe. Instead, the Scythe doesn't like horses, the most hated enemy of classical gryphons. And he's Welsh. Or at least we assume he was. And the Celts historically revered horses. That's an amazing coincidence."
Kaoru had to agree that was a bit strange, but not impossible. Being born in a particular place didn't automatically predispose you to like all the same things as your countrymen. "Is that the only parallel? His dislike of horses?"
"He encouraged the villagers to open the local mines, and may even have bargained with them solely to achieve that end. The mines are on record as primarily yielding copper, but copper and gold are known to be found together in Wales. Arguably, that may show a desire or fondness for gold, and gryphons were known to covet the stuff."
"I like gold." Kaoru's tone wasn't argumentative, merely conversational. "You like gold. Okon adores gold. Lots of people do, at least when it comes to jewelry. We're not showing gryphon traits, the gryphon is showing a human trait."
"Alright." Although clearly unconvinced, Misao let the point go in favor of another. "Belyn is the Welsh name for Belenos, who was the pan-Celtic deity the Romans thought to be a cognate for Apollo. And guess what? Gryphons were closely associated with Apollo. They pulled his chariot and were depicted as his guardians. Much like the Scythe claims all children with the mark of Belyn are his to protect. He's also shown to be loyal even past the point of betrayal, another gryphon trait."
That the story gryphon would name the one god to which his namesake had a strong link was quite a coincidence. Especially as Christianity had been practiced in Wales for at least seven hundred years, even by the most modest or exacting of estimates. "You win," Kaoru agreed, "something is rotten in Pact." As Misao aimed a half-hearted kick in her direction, she pulled her feet back up into her chair, completely unrepentant. "What does it mean? What does it tell you?"
"I'm not sure." Threading her fingers through her bangs, Misao leaned on her elbow to stare at the assorted books scattered around the table. "It would seem that there's something more to the story that we don't know. Maybe the priest was more learned that I'm giving him credit for. Although... no. He mistook a gryphon for a manifestation of Saint Mark. If he'd known enough about gryphons to make up a story like this, he'd never have confused one for a winged lion. Still, maybe there was someone there that isn't mentioned. Maybe the 'gryphon' was a traveler from somewhere else, with a more educated background. I don't know. That's why I need to visit Pact for myself, and see what I can learn." She was frowning by the time she finished speaking, eyes clouded with questions.
Kaoru reached out to squeeze the fingers that were once again riffling the pages of the book closest to hand. "You'll let me know if there's anything I can do to help with your research?" She knew what it was like to become so absorbed in a particular piece of history, to be both frustrated and fascinated by the search to the distraction of all else. Sometimes you needed another pair of eyes to find the breakthrough, or else an outside perspective to break the spell and get you to move on to something else.
"Sure. For starters you can keep an eye out for anything bearing the image of a gryphon. Oh, and if you meet anyone tall, dark, handsome and available, you should let me know as soon as possible."
Kaoru blinked at the abrupt change in topic, before breaking into a spate of giggles. Misao soon joined her, and as the train pulled away from the small Dinas station, they set aside the question of who the Scythe might really have been in favor of discussing less esoteric subjects: lunch and site-seeing possibilities in Caernarfon. Misao had purposefully scheduled a few hours between trains to allow them time to stretch their legs and do a bit of exploring, knowing Kaoru wouldn't be able to resist touring the castle. As they talked, she began packing away her books and the other evidence of their trip, and Kaoru fished her sneakers out from under her chair.
"Misao," she asked, rubbing her thumb over a small red blemish on her ankle, "what exactly is the mark of Belyn?"
Glancing up, the younger woman noticed the thoughtful motion and schooled her features into her best 'educated but uncertain' expression. "I'm not really sure. Given the time, it could've been almost anything. Blond hair. A ruddy complexion. Albinism. Birth defects."
"I suppose... although many cultures have separate beliefs regarding those. Both what they mean and what causes them. One popular belief is that they're caused when a pregnant woman wishes for something she can't have or doesn't get."
"Really? I wonder if our mothers wished for the same thing."
Only after Kaoru said it did Misao realize she'd been fingering the smooth patch of skin at the nape of her neck, the one that was a match to the little red circle on Kaoru's ankle. "Maybe." Feigning disinterest, she very deliberately picked up the last book on the table, snapping it closed over the description of Celtic sun signs as the train began to slow. "Right now, I'm wishing to try some Welsh cuisine. How does monkfish - aka 'poor man's lobster' - sound?"
"Oooo... tempting." What wasn't there to like about a fish that tasted like lobster? "Any idea where we could find some?"
"There are a couple of restaurants in and around the castle. The Black Boy Inn is considered a must-see in general, although trip advisor recommended Stone's Bistro for seafood."
"If they're within walking distance, why don't we check the menus and then decide?" Even as she said it, the train came gently to a stop, the wheels going silent leaving only the hiss of the steam engine to serve as a soft background to the bustle of passengers disembarking. "Ready?"
Tugging the zipper on her backpack closed, Misao nodded. "More than. Let's find someone to give us directions."
His mind stirred from its enveloping lethargy, coaxed awake as something teased the very edges of his slumbering senses. It wasn't the flare of the wards, that phantom prickle reminiscent of sensation returning to numbed flesh... no, this was too far away. Outside his boundaries, but powerful enough to rouse him from the solace of hibernation.
There. Near the coast. On his mental landscape, two tiny lights shone bright in the darkness, like bonfires bursting to life on Nos Galan Mai.
Both female, both bearing the mark.
Hope surged, a ghostly reminder of the rush of adrenaline and the beat of his heart. Of laughter and family.
It took less than a thought to sense them, a bright gathering close by his unwilling resting spot. All well, all whole. Together. Gathering his strength, he sent a message winging silently off into the ether, then drifted back into the depths of insensate repose, cursing his current weakness.
Guests are coming. Be ready. Tae to welcome, Sano to ward.