It was a bright night, the blue velvet sky covered in a blanket of twinkling stars. The grass was sifted through by a gentle zephyr, scattering fluffy seed pods through the air, to drift where the breeze took them.
Alla and Fortren lay nestled in the grass, hidden to the casual observer. "Beautiful aren't they?" whispered Alla to her partner, a motley gryphon with a good eye for detail.
Fortren nodded, his eagle eyes scanning the heavens. "So many, yet so few do we see." He turned back to Alla, a twinkling in his eyes. "But no star will ever compare to you, Alla." A reddening of her nares informed him that he had struck a chord within her. Fortren nuzzled closer, hoping that she'd reciprocate. He was rewarded by her reaching up and grooming his ear tufts with her beak.
A quiet rustling sound, almost inaudible to his excellent hearing, managed to penetrate the fog of pleasure infusing his mind. Fortren focused on it, trying to identify the source. After several long seconds of hard listening, he gave up, returning his attention to Alla's expert grooming. "You're very good at that, you know," he commented.
Alla stopped her ministrations to reply. "Thank you, Fortren. Always a pleasure to do so for you." She resumed her task, teasing out little tangles of hair and feather-sheath dust with her deft beak. "There," she said. "All done." She sank down onto the ground, resting against Fortren's warm bulk, and turned to look upwards again.
Suddenly a rustling came from the long grass around them, and another gryphon, a graying Elder of the Council, appeared. "So this is where you two disappeared to, eh, what?" he boomed.
The two younger gryphons winced. While relationships between Apprentices were not unusual, they were generally very much frowned upon, they being considered too immature to cope with the responsibilities should anything untoward occur between them.
Being caught, amongst other ills, usually meant 'seeing the world,' as outdoor experience was often called. A fortnight or two of mapping out the southern continent may have sounded exciting but by the end of the first week, most gryphons were desperate for some action, other than drawing up maps and writing reports about border skirmishes with butterflies. On the plus side, if, after the allotted period, they still retained their feelings for each other, then they would be allowed to continue and further the relationship.
Fortren exchanged worried glances with Alla. This could mean the end of an enjoyable liaison. In a low tone he whispered into Alla's ear, "This old bore always manages to break up little trysts at the most inconvenient moments. I'd swear he deliberately follows Apprentices as a form of amusement." He looked back to the gray-feathered gryphon staring at them through partly opaque eyes. "Elder Sinclan, what a pleasant surprise," he said in a breezy tone of voice, trying to disguise his actions.
Sinclan looked at the two partners, blowing heavily through his nares. "I hope you've had your fun for the night, because you are coming back with me." He spread his gray-edged wings to emphasise his point.
Fortren sighed. The night had gone so well until now. "Very well, Elder Sinclan," he said, nodding. He got up, as did Alla, and turned to follow Sinclan through the grass to the landing area, specially cleared for the purpose. "There'll be other times," murmured Alla into Fortren's ear.
Sinclan looked around at Alla, and she quickly glanced away, her nares flushed with crimson. Sinclan snorted and turned back, reaching the landing area a few steps later.
"Up you go, gryphlets," Sinclan ordered, watching them as they took a short running leap before spreading their wings, which caught the strengthening breeze and propelled them upwards. With a grunt of discomfort Sinclan did the same, his old joints protesting at the effort of getting his carcass off the ground.
It was a silent trip back to the Aerie, punctuated every now and then by the older gryphon's various oaths of discomfort. When the trio arrived, three worried parents, and a couple of Council Members, awaited them. "Charming the lovely Alla again, I see," commented one, Fortren's sire. It was said in a displeased tone of voice, but the twinkle in his eye suggested that he, in some way, approved of his son's activities.
Fortren settled down to earth, raising a barely perceptible dust cloud. He caught his father's look, and reassured by that, he was not overly upset by being enlisted into the O.E. for a fortnight. It just so happened the next O.E. period was only a few days away, not inclusive of the flight there and back.
Alla nuzzled Fortren with her beak, giving a very quick affectionate ear tuft preen, before turning and strolling off with her parents. She too was going to 'see the world,' but she would be sent to the eastern region of the Southern Continent, himself being sent west, to the foothills of the Bandari Mountains.
"So how is she?" queried Tymon, Fortren's father, as they strolled along packed earth pathways leading between personal aeries to their own domicile. Fortren turned his head, and saw an inquisitive gleam in his sire's eyes. His nares coloured, and he quickly turned his head back to study the path in detail. "Oh, fine, fine," he offered lamely. Even thinking about her set his heart afire with passion, and he quickened his pace, anxious to get to the privacy of his own room.
Tymon kept step with his son, murmuring, "I think that if you have to have romantic affairs, I'm glad you've picked Alla. She's a fine partner, although she's still rather young for my liking." He fell silent as they drew near to their home.
At the entrance, a female with tawny plumage and dark brown stripes stood waiting. "Oh, Fortren," his mother said affectionately as he plodded into the cave, Tymon a couple of steps behind. She glanced at her husband, who nodded an affirmation of her thoughts. They watched as Fortren mumbled an excuse and stepped into his private area, and shut the door with a quiet bang. A slow chuckle rumbled forth from Tymon, Pallia joining in a few moments later. "I guess it runs in the family, dear," Tymon noted, referring to their own romance so many years ago, which had run along the same lines.
Pallia nodded. "So it would seem. It didn't do our relationship any harm, did it?" She stared across the room to Fortren's door. "It'll be a good experience for him, and Alla, if I know her enthusiasm. It can only make their relationship stronger."
Tymon looked thoughtful. "Perhaps. It all depends on how serious they are about continuing the liaison. She'd make a fine partner for him, if she wasn't so young."
"She's hardly a child. Fifteen is quite old enough to be able to make one's own decisions. And he's only nineteen," protested Pallia. "Four years difference. So what? Although it would be better if she was a Building apprentice, rather than a...what is she again? A Healer?" Pallia's disparaging tone showed she didn't think much of Healers, despite the fact that she had been treated several times by Healers when she had been in ill health.
Wandering over to the other side of the room, Tymon plumped down on a large pile of cushions. "There's nothing wrong with being a Healer, although with our population growing so fast, the existing numbers of builders can't keep up." He sighed. "I'm sure Fortren would make an admirable Builder if he would just put some effort into it."
"Maybe he isn't suited to Building," suggested Pallia. "Perhaps he's interested in another Craft, but he hasn't the heart to tell us."
Tymon shook his head. "We'll find out in due time. I won't press him if he's unwilling to say anything. Now let us retire to the yard. I believe I can detect the aroma of wild ox roasting over a slow fire?"
Fortren sat alone in his room, a cave with a small glass-covered opening for ventilation and light, and also sparsely furnished. He wasn't a gryphon that indulged in luxuries, preferring to live austerely, with the minimum of equipment required to make life comfortable. He sighed, and put his head on his forepaws, thinking deeply about Alla. She was highly attractive, with a coat of bronze-burnished feathers, sprinkled lightly with cinnamon, fur the colour of polished mahogany, and eyes of a deep cobalt, unusual for a gryphon, whose eyes were generally either green or brown.
"Ah, Alla," he thought, moving his eyes to view the distant stars through the window. She had first come to his attention about a year ago, during the Apprenticing Festival, held annually, an opportunity for prospective employers to glance over young gryphons seeking a career, and pick them for their Crafts. She had been sitting in the area of the communal square reserved for those wishing to become a Healer, whereas he had been in the next section over, in the BuilderCraft area. She had glanced in his direction, sizing him up, then moved over to speak with him.
Fortren had been flattered. He wasn't a particularly good-looking gryphon, with dirty ochre fur, rust-coloured feathers decorated with black spots, and brown eyes. Females were generally casual around him, when not ignoring him, so he was tentative at first about speaking to Alla. But gradually she had drawn him out, and they had begun to converse in a more fluent tone, until the CraftHeads had arrived to look at their new stock, and take them away one by one to be privately interviewed.
They had met again afterwards, and discussed how well they had done. Alla said she had been told that she had a natural talent for Healing, being able to draw on reserves of energy inherent in all gryphons, but rarely applied. Fortren had been taken in by the BuilderCraft, which he really didn't wish to belong to, but his father had suggested that he should follow in his own foot-steps.
From there, things had slowly grown, like an oak from its acorn. Eventually they had started sneaking out together, both gryphons saying they were staying with a friend...which was true in a sense, for they were very close friends. The relationship might have become even more intimate had they not been found out so rudely.
Fortren sighed again. What was a fortnight apart, compared to an eternity? A lot, he thought, as he got up and fetched a pack to fill with essential belongings.
Alla, however, was feeling somewhat excited by her punishment. Her parents had been rather put out by her antics, both feeling that they had erred in their parenting.
"How could you possibly associate with that...that mud-crawler?" wailed her mother, Ferria. Her hackles were raised, the feathers taking on a sharp-edged quality as she admonished her daughter. "He's not even a very good...what is he? A Builder?"
Alla sighed patiently, sitting on a large pile of particularly plush cushions. Their family was quite well off, and her parents didn't have any qualms about rubbing other gryphons' noses in that fact.
Her father just sat silently on another comfy pile, watching his wife pace around the room. Unlike her, he tended to speak quietly but firmly. "I'm sure she has a good explanation of her actions," he said cutting through Ferria's tirade, "don't you, dear?" he continued, pointedly staring at Alla.
"To be quite frank with you, I like him," she declared. "I don't care what you think or say, but I like him. All those other males you shoved in my direction were what you thought suitable for a gryphon of my standing." Alla's eyes flashed a brilliant blue as she openly admitted her preference.
Her parents stared at her, her mother opening and closing her beak silently as she struggled to think of something to say.
"That first twit you tried to fix me up with? What was his name...Alton? He had less intelligence than a dead ox! And Noran? So vain he couldn't see me for himself. And let's not forget Oldrin..." She shuddered with terrible recollection of the overly lustful male.
Alla stood up and stalked to the door of her private sanctuary. Facing her parents, she said quietly, "To be honest, I'm glad to have two weeks of roughing it, if it will get me away from you two meddling matchmakers!" She turned her back and entered her room, kicking shut the ornately carved door behind her.
The main room was deathly silent as Ferria and her husband Ulwin contemplated Alla's outburst. "Well, I never," muttered Ferria.
"That's true. You never did, so how would you know how she sees us?" asked Ulwin gently.
"Hmmph," was all the answer he got.