Alice walked in Totoran’s shadow feeling nervous and picking at a loose scale on her claw. She wished she had been left with the other Griffians, the deference they’d shown when Totoran mentioned his father increased her unease. How fearful is the King? Will he crush me underfoot? Dismiss me as a nothing? Her increasing panic slowed her pace until Totoran glanced backwards to find her lagging several feet behind him.
“Alice, please keep up. My father despises tardiness.”
Oh no another thing he doesn’t like. Can I do this right? Alice scuttled to walk close to Totoran’s back taking advantage of his bulk and it’s shadow to hide her. The undulating corridor floor became smooth and torches ahead illuminated a large rock face. Alice frowned as the dead-end of the corridor but then remembered their previous entrance. Totoran will push the rock to open it in a moment. What will the inner sanctuary look like, I wonder?
“Alice, stand beside me and as soon as we are through the entrance lower your head. Do not look up unless you are asked to. Do you understand?”
The grating sound of rock against rock echoed along the corridor, as the Prince pushed the solid rock face open. A gust of fresh air flowed past them and bright flickering light bathed the companions. Alice moved forward and slightly to the right of Totoran keeping her head bowed to the floor but curious to look around she glanced quickly left and right. The cavern’s walls were smooth and glistening with crystals. Fabric hung from steel rods showing emblems of rich burgundy and emerald green. She was trying to make out the shapes on the wall hangings when Totoran’s whisper made her jump.
“Keep your head down, Alice. I will show you around the sanctuary once my father has gone. Remember to bow your head and only speak if spoken to.”
Alice nodded her head and concentrated on her clawed feet.
“My son, come to me. It is a great relief to see you unharmed.”
The voice was deep and gruff but the words were kind. Alice was exposed as Totoran left her side to greet his father. Unable to move for fear of doing something wrong she stood perfectly still resisting the urge to look up and see the King.
“Father, we have managed to block the upper corridors and the great cavern but the humans are blasting explosives. It may be some time before we can regain our home.”
“You have done well, Totoran in keeping our subjects safe. Your escape plan worked flawlessly. We own you a debt for that.”
“Thank you, Father but without the assistance of a great number of brave Griffian’s it would not have been so successful. If we work together we are stronger.”
“Exactly why I know you will be an exceptional leader when your time comes, my son. Now shall we feast?”
“Before we do, may I present someone to you, Father?”
Alice’s heart leapt in her chest. Oh no don’t make this any more uncomfortable for me, please Totoran. Let me disappear into the shadows.
“You have found your one, Totoran?”
“I truly believe so, Father but as tradition states you have the final say in her suitability.”
Alice felt the blood drain from her upper body. What are you saying Totoran? Her vision began to shimmer she could feel her body sway and adjusted her position to prevent herself falling.
“Alice please come forward and meet my father.”
Placing her clawed feet slowly one after the other she approached father and son, trepidation coursed through her body. If I mess this up what will he do to me? Can Totoran save me?
Once she was level with Totoran, Alice lower her head even further and remained quiet.
“Father, this is Alice. She has shown me she is brave and loyal in the time I have known her. Her guardians were taken and she has no one to protect her. I have found she is fearless in her flying and is willing to fight for her new family.”
“Well that is quite the recommendation, young Griffian. Alice you may look upon me.”
Alice raised her head slowly. Her eyes flowed upward revealing the towering bulk of the largest Griffian she had ever seen. Totoran was large but beside this Griffian he seemed small in comparison. The King leaned forward slightly to greet her face to face. His green eyes shone and his nostrils flared. Determined not to show fear, Alice matched his gaze even though inside her stomach rolled over and over.
“You are a strong character, Alice. Many young Griffians have fled from my sight in fear. Welcome to my sanctuary.”
“Thank you, Majesty. It is an honor to meet you.”
“Well, I can see why my son has chosen you. Shall we feast and get to know each other?”
Alice nodded and bowed her head again. The King turned and walked toward a corridor to the left of the cavern. Totoran clasped a claw around her arm to steady her as Alice stood up.
“You faced him, Alice, that was awe inspiring. Many have indeed run once my Father peers down upon them. I will let you into a secret he is not as fierce as he makes out.”
“I certainly hope not. At one point I thought I was going to pass out! We best hurry if he detests tardiness.”
Totoran led Alice down the same corridor his father had taken. Torches lit their way to a smaller but luxurious cavern, festooned with more fabric hangings and ebony furniture elaborately carved with Griffian images. Alice could now make out the images on the wall decorations. They were life size representations of magnificent Griffians, all holding specters of various designs.
“You are admiring my family heritage, Alice. These are my forefathers.”
Alice turned to face the King and immediately bowed her head.
“Majesty, every one of them is splendid. Do you have one?”
“Not as yet, I’m glad to say. The seamstresses make them during the ‘death month’ to honor the passing of their King. It is laid over the body for the last ritual and then hung on the wall.”
Alice covered her mouth in shock and hoped the King would not find her disrespectful.
“Apologies, Majesty, I did not know. Forgive me.”
“Of course, Alice. You have much to learn and I am sure Totoran will teach you well. Come and sit beside me, we shall talk.”
Alice glanced at Totoran who smiled and led her to the long ebony table in the center of the room. Once she was seated he sat on her left and squeezed her claw gently. His whispered comment eased her mind.
“My father is obviously taken with you. It is a privilege to be seated beside him.”
Alice watched as multiple plates of food were laid on the table in front of them. This is far too much for three of us. She was startled when both the King and Totoran suddenly stood up and bowed. She followed suit as fast as she could wondering what had happened. There had been no noise or shouting prior to their sudden action. As Alice raised her head she saw a beautiful slender woman walk into the cavern. She curtsied and approached the King. He held out his claw and kissed her hand, which looked tiny within his large claw.
“Do you wish us to transform, my love?”
The woman smiled at the King and Totoran and gave Alice a slight nod.
“Only if it pleases you, my dear, I would prefer it remain in this form but will of course change if you wish. I thought it would be more comfortable for the young one.”
“You are right as usual, Serina. Let us transform and eat in a more civilized manner for our guest.”
I’m a guest? Totoran never said. I hope I can change as quickly as them. I would hate them to see me struggle. Alice took a deep breath and tensed her muscles as her body began to contort she could see the King and Totoran do the same. The woman sat patiently on the seat beside the King until they were in human form.
“I believe we should be introduced now, Totoran.”
Totoran stood and guided Alice to her feet.
“Mother, this is Alice. She was the ward of guardians, who unfortunately were captured. A rescue mission is under way. As we speak. I brought her to safety.”
Alice could not stop her surprised comment.
“You are rescuing my aunt and uncle?”
“Yes, Alice but it is something we can discuss later. Please acknowledge my mother.”
Alice felt her cheeks grow red. Trying to remain calm, she bowed her head and smiled at the lady beside the King. The queen, she is so beautiful.
“Your Majesty, my sincere apologies, I was unaware of the mission, Totoran is speaking of. I was shocked. Please forgive me. It is an honour to meet you.”
“Well, I am sure I would have reacted the same way, Alice. I hear you fly exceptionally well for a young Griffian. Totoran has spoken of you fondly.”
Alice’s cheeks flared red again at the compliment and the implication’s of it. Could Totoran be interested in me as more than a friend? She glanced at the young man beside her and saw his smile.
“Let us eat, Serina, let the poor girl adjust to all this new information. I am famished and wish to discuss the concealment and rescue plans with Totoran once we have finished.”
The King placed a hand on his queen’s hand and then began selecting items of food from the copious spread before them. Once Alice saw the queen pick up several items, she chose some pieces for herself. Alice was relieved there was ‘human’ as well as ‘griffian’ food on the table. Her palate was getting used to the new tastes but hunger made her chose recognizable items. For several moments the table guests were quiet as they ate. It was Totoran who broke the silence.
“I must apologize, Alice for not mentioning our rescue mission to you before. Believe me, when I say I did mean to let you know but the invasion attempts took my focus elsewhere. We have several Griffians infiltrated into the police force near your old home. They will bring your aunt and uncle here as soon as they are able.”
“I completely understand, Totoran. The safety of the majority comes first but I’m glad there is a rescue plan. Uncle Gregor and Aunt Catterine are special to me and my only family as far as I know.”
Alice missed the knowing glance between the king and queen as she picked out several pieces of fruit to eat.
“So, Alice had your aunt and uncle looked after you for a long time?”
“Yes, your Majesty, since my parents died in a car accident when I was three years old. I was unaware of my other form until several months ago.”
The queen smiled and nodded before saying.
“Was it the clickety click that heralded the change?”
Alice was surprised but delighted the queen knew of the clickety click noise she had experienced.
“Why yes it was that sound…how did you know?”
“It is the known sign of every Griffian’s transition time. We all experienced the click sound prior to changing, my dear. Be assured we shall do our utmost to bring your guardians to safety as quickly as possible.”
“Thank you, Majesty. I am more than happy to take part in the search.”
“That will not be necessary, Alice we have many experienced soldiers within the search party. Come we shall walk a while together.”
The queen stood and gestured for Alice to follow her down a corridor. Alice smiled at Totoran, who nodded as she left the large cavern. Alice could not mimic the queen’s elegant stride so walked as upright as she could, pushing her shoulders back and her chin upward. The corridor was lined with flaming torches and revealed large gouge marks on the rock face.
“I think you will enjoy my surprise, Alice. It is my favorite place in the mountain range.”
As they turned a corner, Alice’s mouth gaped as she was confronted with a vast cavern full of sunlight, trees, flowers and birdsong. As she looked upward she made out a fissure in the rocks above, where sunlight poured in bathing the cavern with light.
“How is it possible, your Majesty?”
“It is not of our making, Alice. A natural break in the mountain’s formation allows the light to come in. However, the garden you see before you began with my great-great grandmother’s wish to have a flower garden. Over the decades it has grown…”
“It is magnificent. My apologies I should not interrupt.”
“I find it delightful that you obviously love my garden as much as I do, Alice. Shall we walk through?”
“Oh, yes please.”
As they walked down the winding paths, Alice asked for the names of flowers and shrubs and expressed how much she loved the scent of the many blooms. It was not until the light dimmed that they realized how much time had passed.
“We must get back to the throne cavern, Alice. There will be reports of the rescue and invasion, I am sure. It is so easy to forget when surround by such beauty.”
“Of course, Majesty, but am I allowed back? I would enjoy working in your garden. I’m a quick learner and follow instructions well.”
“I would enjoy that too, Alice.”
With a last look at the magnificent garden, Alice and the queen returned into the dimness and hard surfaces of the corridors. When they returned to the luxurious cavern, Tortoran and the King were huddled with a dozen large Griffians. Queen Serina took Alice’s hand and guided her to the far side of the cavern and sat beside her on a long stone bench.
“We will wait until their business is finished. Do you require any refreshments?”
“If I may have some water, please. Thank you.”
The queen raised her hand and a servant was at her side instantaneously and bowed deeply.
“Sweet spring water for us both please, Mari.”
Mari disappeared into an alcove then returned with a tray holding two large goblets. Alice sipped the water; which was crystal clear, cold and sweet. So unlike the tap water she was used to.
“This is the best water I have ever drunk.”
“It comes from a mountain spring higher up the range, Alice.”
With their goblets almost empty, they saw the sturdy Griffian soldiers rise from the table, bow before the King and leave the cavern. Totoran stood and walked toward his mother.
“Good news, Mother. The invasive army has retreated and did not expose any entrances with their explosives. The guards will remain vigilent for another few days to ensure there are no hidden exposives or spying devices before we can assure normal life again.”
“This is good news, Totoran.”
“I also have news for you, Alice. Your uncle and aunt’s location has been found and their escape is imminent. With a good trip they should be with us in a day.”
“Thank you, Totoran. It is such a relief to know they are going to be safe soon.”
“Where did you both go while we talked, Mother?”
“I showed Alice my garden and she is keen to help maintain it.”
“The garden is wonderful, Totoran, I could live there all the time.”
“That’s exactly what my mother says.”
Their combined laughter caught the attention of the King, who was pondering over large maps on the table. He strode over to join them.
“What is so funny?”
“Alice wants to live in the garden just like mother.”
“Well that’s another similarity we have discovered…”
Alice frowned at the look her companions shared. Is there something they are not telling me? What could it be?