Grez heard the struggling before he saw his full trap. He was a very experienced gryphon-catcher, having twenty-five years under his sash including apprenticeship. His own apprentice, Plud, was a new boy.
Unshaven, Grez had a fair bit of prosperity padding on him. Plud didn’t, as he was little more than a boy. Both were dressed in tunics that came down to the knee, held onto their bodies with coloured cloth belts denoting their status. Plud’s was plain yellow, as he was a mere apprentice. Grez’s was full red, as he was a master. The older man’s movements, as he snuck up to the trap, showed the litheness that was needed in the field. Plud’s were more pedestrian, but his lack of grace could be excused by the weight of the gryphon holder it was his duty to carry. That and the two satchels he had in his pockets, each filled with the powders of the trade.
The older man knew the land well, as it was his by right if not by formality. Yellow plants intermingled with green, indicating magic in the area. Granite outcroppings poked up above the foliage like the earth sending spies to oversee the surface creatures. Some of them had quartz, glittering in the air like welcome salt.
Looking back at the gangly youth, to see if he could keep up, Grez added: “Once you’re independent, this is the kind of place you look for. You’ll learn how to prospect along the way. If you become good, and the licensed prospectors concur, you’ll find a perfect place for a trap. Just remember: the gryphons aren’t smarter than us.”
Gauging the slump-shouldered boy’s tiredness, Grez decided that he had talked enough. “Now let’s get going. No need to be lazy.”
The trap itself was arranged in a small depression in the outcrop, which exposed lots of quartz speckled with yellowish pinpoints. It was fake gold, cunningly embedded in the crystal, which made for the perfect bait. Grez had needed weeks of work to arrange the earth and free stones so as to accept the hidden leg trap. Not only did there have to be a stout base, but also the whole foot-pad area had to look natural. It had been more than mule work: the area had to be crafted so that it looked hospitable for goldworms. Gryphons with gold were not smarter than humans, truly, but they were not dumber. Many a gryphon catcher had to shamefully hire himself out because he had been too hurried to build a proper trap. The gryphons did talk to each other.
Plud, sandy-haired and thin, struggled with the holder one last time as he put it down. His blue eyes, normally wide, widened even more when he saw the creature breathing rapidly as its eagle head looked over at them. The boy was intimidated; the man was not.
Stepping forward, Grez snapped out his usual parley. “Gryphon, you are captured. I am Grez. If you have heard of me, then you know that I never let one escape. You can come willingly, in which case it will be easy, or you will be taken in irons.”
As he expected, the gryphon merely responded with a hostile hiss. Its eyes, settled into its eagle’s head, were baleful. Its head bobbed, sizing up the two-legged creature that had subjected it to the indignity of being held. It was not lacking in feathers on its head, chest, or its front claws. The rest of its body, tawny-haired, showed no mange. Luckily, Grez had managed to capture a healthy specimen. Its right rear leg, bloodied above the ankle by the trap, chafed again at its mechanical captor. This gryphon was a fighter. It would go for a good price.
The man, balanced on the balls of his feet, was still unintimidated. Turning dexterously around, despite his subcutaneous padding, he ordered the scared boy: “Plud! The powder, in your right pocket.” Although the youth was in the bloom of health, he was still a boy and had the scatterbrainedness of someone his age.
“Take your time; we have all day.” There was no sarcasm in the man’s voice.
Plud reached into his pocket slowly, with the air of a schoolboy memorizing a lesson. That, Grez did not like. Schoolboys have a habit of forgetting their lessons. It came with school, it came with boys. His apprentice was still too young to learn in a man’s way.
The boy’s fair and long-fingered hands grasped the powder and handed it over to the meatier, hirsute hands of his master. Grez took it from him and turned to the gryphon.
“I know you can talk! If you can fly, you can talk.”
Seeing the youngster as the more psychologically vulnerable of the two, the gryphon answered contemptuously. “Two thieves! That is all you are, thieves. You want my gold! Do you think I would give up my gold for you? My hard-won gold?”
Plud blinked at the talk. Having been only recently out of school, he had not acquired an insulating deafness. He was prepared to defend gryphon-catching to the creature as the honourable trade it was, but respect for his master silenced him.
Grez just smirked back. A self-reassuring gaze at the well-crafted simulation of a rock-eating goldworm's nest helped his confidence. “You, gryphon, are one to talk. I get my gold the same way you get yours.”
The creature’s eyes became filmy for a moment, and then cleared. Resting, it then sprung up in the air as its beating wings propelled it to the free blue sky. Thwarted by the trap, its eyes filmed again: this time, from the pain in its leg.
“It is of no use, gryphon.” Actually, it had been of use – to him. Its exertions made it need more oxygen; its breathing quickened.
Seeing the moment was right, Grez flipped a handful of slate-grey powder at its air-holes. Needing breath, the creature could not help but inhale the dormative power. After flailing some more in the trap, it fell to rest.
As quick as a billy goat, Grez stepped over the fallen body and withdrew a lancet. “Boy! The powder in your left pocket!” Plud, hurriedly but studied, scurried over and put the bag of lapis-blue powder in his master’s hand. Dipping the lancet in the powder, Grez leaned over his fallen prize and began cutting with quick, economical strokes. Few minutes went by before he withdrew a large gold nugget embalmed with gizzard fluid.
“A nice one,” he said to Plud as he held it out. “Almost a pound.” It was indeed pure gold. The noble metal, the stuff of magic.
The healing blue powder had begun its work, so the master gryphon catcher had to slice some more with the lancet before he could replace the larger nugget with one much smaller. The replacement being little more than an ounce, it conveyed enough power for the gryphon to talk and reason but not enough for it to fly.
“We were lucky,” he continued to his wide-eyed apprentice. “Had this creature possessed a few more ounces of gold than it had, it could have magicked its way out of the trap.”
The healing powder did its work long before the grey sleeping powder lost its potency. A fully healed gryphon woke up, after being hauled up from its side with much sweat and exertion by the duo. Putting on the leg holder beforehand had been a comparatively easy task. All four of its limbs were clamped securely in the holder, which helped to keep it from falling back on its side. Still, Plud had to exert some effort keeping it propped up.
Feeling ground under its legs after it resuscitated, it reflexively raised its feathered wings. It realized what happened to its gold when the feathers did not carry it up to the sky and freedom.
Plud had done his apprentice’s job well. Adjusting the holder to the size of the gryphon, almost man-size had it been rampant, he had frozen the creature’s legs in such a way that it was not uncomfortable but was immobile. To minimize the risk of value-cutting scars, its clamps were padded. The iron rods freezing the legs did not come near the body of their prize.
He had not yet acquired man’s muscles: the effort of rolling the gryphon was a strain on him. Grez did not help; he merely sat back and waited, dark eyes watchful as he took in his apprentice’s inefficiencies. The wings had lost a few feathers, but they were not damaged or hurt. This gryphon was indeed a strong specimen.
This time, its hiss crescendoed into a squawk as it tested the holder with its legs. “You wage war! I am trothed to –“
“Spare us,” Grez cut him off. “There is no treaty between our kinds. You were captured fairly, and you will indeed be trothed.”
The creature was not used to being treated peremptorily. It remained silent.
“Either you come quietly, or we carry you. The second way is slower, and you will not eat until we reach our homestead and your new home.”
To emphasize the point, his fleshy hand folded on a sharp sword that eased out of the scabbard that his sash held. “I’ve killed before, and I can kill again. At most, you will injure my apprentice with your free beak but it will cost you your life.”
Grez meant it. A gryphon wild enough to attack its captor was too wild for his purpose. Best to write it off before it cost him too much money for its food. The gold would make for enough profit.