“Ah, Master Noble!” The count bowed. Daxar, standing behind his master, observed that the count was a handsome man, but the sour twist of his mouth seemed to warp his features.
Mathro Noble forced a tight smile. “You have a griffin in this race?”
“No,” the count replied. “I have come to study the competition.”
“I hope you find the races entertaining.”
“I take it that you are racing a griffin in this race.”
“The little black one? The one with big feet? I hear she lost the last race because a competing griffin took a jab at her. A nasty stroke, but not illegal. It’s unfortunate. A fearful griffin will never make a champion.”
Mathro’s smile hardened. “She’s worth a second chance.”
“Then I wish you the best of luck.”
Mathro bit off the words shortly. “Myth doesn’t need your luck.”
The count shrugged. “We shall see.”
Mathro’s gray eyes flung ice at the back of the departing count. Then he glanced back at Daxar, who carried his master’s racing ledger.
“Come,” Mathro snapped.
Daxar sighed. Pride against pride always sparked enmity.
Mathro and his slave entered the arena and made their way to the balcony where the noblemen awaited the first race of the day.
The announcer’s voice boomed over the arena.
“Welcome, ladies and gentlemen to the annual Redemption Race!”
Daxar hardly heard the man’s voice, the griffins emerged from the shadows of the entry and strode onto the track, flickering with many colors. Myth was like a shadow beside them, dark but shimmering with silver, though she was hardly visible amongst the taller competitors, whose names the speaker announced to the spectators.
Daxar raised his head when Myth’s name was announced.
“...and in the black and silver is Lady Silver Myth, sired by Dare To Rival through Lady Azure Spark. She is owned by Mathro Noble, and her jockey is Rangar Bent. She has two points from one previous race.”
Daxar tried to ignore the dry chuckle from the spectators. All the other griffins of the race had acquired four or more points. Still, Mathro was a man with an eye for quality and his decision to give Myth a second, and final, chance in the Maiden Races indicated his belief in her abilities. She would not—she must not—lose another race.
The griffins pranced around the oval track, tossing their sharp beaks to the sky, their lion’s paws pressing into the hard earth. Then they took their places on the track, staggered along one curve. The trumpets blared the “set” signal.
The flags plunged as the sound of the gong quaked through the stands.
The race was on!
For the full length of the straightaway, Daxar saw nothing of Myth through the pounding feet and leonine bodies of the griffins. Then he glimpsed what seemed to be a shadow, and he recognized Myth edge into the second place as she spun around the corner.
On the far straightaway, she kept her pace smoothly.
“Pull her back a little, Rangar,” Mathro muttered under his breath. “Don’t wear her out.”
Myth fell back more, under Rangar’s urging, vying for third with another griffin. At the corner, a flurry of dust obscured the competitors, and when the brown cloud cleared, Myth ran once again in second.
“Pull her back!” Mathro snapped, his hands tightening on his knees.
Daxar recognized Rangar’s shift in position, as the jockey attempted to force Myth to conserve her energy. Suddenly, Myth’s beak jerked up, tearing at the reins in Rangar’s hands. She shook her head and thrust herself forward.
“Little witch,” Mathro half-snorted, half-sighed. “She can’t win if she won’t listen to her jockey.”
Daxar’s dark eyes followed the black griffin on the straightaway as she inched towards the first-place runner. Little by little, she gained on her competitor, her beak open for air but a wild light in her golden eyes.
The other griffin turned his head, his curved beak glinting like the point of a spear, and Daxar’s hope plummeted. But Myth suddenly pressed in towards her competitor, shoving the other griffin to the inside of the track, dangerously close to the wall of the central oblong island. While the other jockey struggled to maintain his griffin’s balance, Myth pulled ahead.
Mathro’s blond eyebrows rose. “What was that?”
Daxar frowned. “I don’t know.”
They watched tensely for a moment, then Mathro shook his head. “She’ll tire before the end. If only she weren’t so headstrong, she would make a great champion.”
Myth scrambled around the corner, her huge paws and lighter body allowing her to turn more sharply than her competitors. She was a length ahead of the next griffin, leading the panting pack of racers.
On the straightaway, she kept up her pace, and when she rounded the next corner, her quick turn won her yet another length. She streaked by the announcer’s booth for the second time. Two laps down, two to go.
On the third lap, the crowd grew strangely quiet. The little black griffin in the front, her jockey little more than simply a weight on her back, was running the race the way she wanted to—and every moment was broadening the distance between her and the next runner. Her sharp claws dug into the track fiercely, her shoulders rippled with power, her hindquarters pushed with all their might.
When she passed the announcer’s booth for the third time, the staccato beat of her feet had slowed fractionally. The other griffins, having conserved their energy, crept up from behind. Myth spun at the corner, the momentum nearly flinging her headlong, but her double-sized feet saved her, and she knew it.
On the far straightaway, Myth began to strain. She fell behind by two lengths, her hind legs even with the next griffin’s head. Daxar bit his lip.
Rangar leaned forward suddenly and shouted. Myth sprang forward like a striking snake, gathering the last reserves of her strength. She took the final corner with a spray of brown dust and exploded through the obscuring cloud. Thundering down the track, her eyes fixed upon the red ribbon ahead, the steady thumping of her feet crescendoed to a rapid spatter like pouring rain.
Mathro was on his feet with the rest of the crowd, silent as the crowds roared. He simply stared with his mouth open and his eyes riveted on the flying black shadow as she tore the red ribbon. She was a winner by a full six lengths.
Some minutes later, Mathro and Daxar met Rangar in the entryway of the track.
“Well done!” Mathro cried, his grin broad.
“It was all her,” Rangar panted. “When the other griffin jabbed at her, I expected her to skitter. But she refused to be dominated.” He chuckled. “Even by me.”
“What did you say to her?” Daxar asked. “On that last straightaway?”
Rangar reached down and ran a hand through Myth’s mane. “I told her that I refused to let her lose again, that she was a champion. And she proved it.”
Myth shook her mane, lifted her beak, and chirped her agreement.