The Fall of Northnest
Icy rain soaked into the fur and fine feathers on her back, making her shiver, but it hadn’t yet slipped through her overlapping wing feathers. She tucked her head briefly under one wing, and then the other. The four little human fledglings were snuggled into the down of her belly and tucked against the hot bare skin of the apteria under her wings, and still asleep.
She looked back up at the rain. The tree branches, dark against the slightly lighter sky, enclosed her and her slumbering burden and swayed in the whistling wind. The storm the wizards had called up to ground the griffin flights now worked against them. Their rainbow drakes couldn’t move through this weather either, and even if they could have, the trees would thwart their sonar, unlike the nearby caves that Hawkwind could have chosen to shelter in. They certainly would have been drier.
One of the children shuddered and twitched in sleep.
“Shh, easy now, you’re safe with me,” the she-griffin soothed.
“Mama,” the boy whimpered. “I want Mama.”
Hawkwind tucked him closer against her, struggling against the sharp lump of tears in her own throat. “Shh, sleep now.”
The little boy began sobbing. Hawkwind closed her eyes, crooning under her breath, trying to comfort the child as well as she could. She could only imagine the things the boy had seen, before she’d fought her way to the nursery, before she’d snatched him from the claws of the invaders. Hawkwind suppressed a shudder as the fresh memories crowded in on her.
“Fall back to the keep. We’ve lost the grounds.”
Hawkwind and the other castle griffins obeyed the order, trying to dodge the drakes, trying to cover the humans’ escape. Northnest had been a small kingdom, and an overlooked one. They had nothing of great value, and no reason to be attacked as far as Hawkwind knew. Even if they’d had, the unique presence of the griffin wings made others wary. Hawkwind couldn’t imagine what the invaders were gaining from this beyond a scrap of cold, semi-fertile, rocky mountain land.
She fell back into the main doorway to the keep, between a pair of guardian griffin statues and her flesh and blood companions, Eagleye and Hawkcall. A knot of drakes was forming, getting ready to charge them: their many colors making them look like a ball of shifting rainbows. The three griffins reared up, screaming defiance. The raspy growls of the drakes answered them, promising death.
From behind, the order came. “Fall back, now. The gate is closing.”
The drakes charged, just as Hawkwind obeyed, dropping back—but Eagleye and Hawkcall leapt to meet the charge. Hawkwind cried out in denial, skidding to a halt on the rain-slick paving stones and bracing herself to leap forward and join them—but the gate guards swung down the doors, blocking her companions from sight, blocking her from joining them, from dying with them.
Hawkwind’s throat choked and she pressed herself to the solid wooden doors. She could faintly hear the fighting outside. They would die. There were dozens if not hundreds of rainbow drakes out there, and Hawkcall and Eagleye couldn’t get back in. She dug her claws into the wood, a cry building in her chest.
It was Icefeather, the retired trainer. Hawkwind spun to face her, wanting to hit her and hug her at the same time.
“They made their choice,” the trainer said, before she could speak. “You can’t save the lost ones. You’re needed, come.”
The battle surged on, battering against the keep walls like ocean waves against cliffs. With a conventional army, one that moved only on the ground, the keep would have held them off for hours, maybe days, while the aerial griffins could have made strategic counterattacks.
“The drakes will be climbing the walls,” Icefeather went on. “The wooden shutters won’t keep them out for long.”
The enemy wizards had called up a storm. It had kept the griffins from flying up to engage the drakes directly, but it wouldn’t keep the agile, bat-winged drakes from climbing the walls of the keep, and slithering in through any window they could.
“We have our hands full,” Icefeather was explaining as the dodged among the milling, panicking people. “Some drakes are already inside.”
“Already?” Hawkwind exclaimed.
“We don’t have enough Feathyrs for every window, and the guards fall quickly to their claws and maws.”
By Feathyrs, she meant griffin warriors, and by guards, she meant the humans. Hawkwind was only an apprentice Feathyr; she hadn’t even been assigned to a flight yet, but everyone who could fight, even a little, was doing so.
“We must protect the family,” Icefeather ordered.
The family: the human family that ruled Northnest. The griffin flights owed them their allegiance, and had sworn it generations ago. Hawkwind had been raised to give every last drop of her lifeblood for them. She would not go back on her vows now: not when that blood was needed, when it was time to honor the allegiance. Even had there been no vow, she had grown up with the people—both human and griffin—here in Northnest. It was her home; she would fight to defend it.
Icefeather led her to the floor above the family’s apartments. The drakes were already there. The pair screamed in challenge as they ran to reinforce the guards and Feathyrs already at work on the swarm. Vision narrowed to the nearest drake, with no intention but to shred it with claws and her vicious, hooked bill. She took injuries but hardly felt them. The drakes kept coming. One by one the defenders fell or fell back. Hawkwind fell back with them, being pushed to the stairs.
The remaining forces made a stand at the opening to the stairs, where they had a chance of forming a plug of swords and claws that could hold back the drakes. For a while, it seemed to work. Then, they were hit from behind. Hawkwind didn’t know how drakes had gotten below them. Not prepared for an attack from the rear, half the defenders went down immediately, and the defense failed.
The greater swarm of drakes from above pushed Hawkwind and the survivors down the stairs. She stumbled over Icefeather’s still body, but there was no time to mourn, and to Hawkwind’s churning emotions, the trainer’s death was merely another bucketful of pain thrown into the already overflowing whirlpool. The drakes around her were filling her vision with fangs and talons, and she had to flee, dodge, and escape them. The family—would she be in time to save any of them? Was there any hope of doing so, even if she reached them?
The drakes howled at her heels, pushing her into the royal apartments as they pulled down the last of her fellow griffin fighters. It seemed that there had been a defense here, too. The bodies of guards and some Feathyrs were scattered around the rooms, mingled with brightly colored drake bodies, all splattered with blood. Hawkwind knew there were secret passageways out, down, deep into the bowels of the castle, and out through long, dark tunnels. Had the family had a chance to take them?
No—there, the queen mother; she was gutted. Under her lay her husband, the retired king: mutilated, throat ripped into a bloody hole. Hawkwind ran on, fleeing the drakes. In the next room, the reigning queen and king with the crown princess were in a lifeless pile in one corner. A few drakes were still standing over them, tugging at their limbs but not eating them yet. Maybe they had orders not to.
Hawkwind dodged out another door before they could swarm her. Frantic, she slammed the door between her and them, but the lock was already broken and the frame damaged. She turned, reared up unto her hind legs, and leaned her body back against it, as she surveyed the innermost room: the nursery.
Three drakes hissed at her with their spiny crests rising on their heads and necks: a sunset red one, a lime green one, and a pink and purple one. The barbed chains encircling their necks like collars were glowing a magical red.
Hawkwind had known what the policy would be when the attack came. Here, the deepest room in the castle would be where all the children had been sent. Dead, ripped guards and several Feathyrs were heaped about, leaking blood into the thick periwinkle carpet. The children were huddled into a corner, but it seemed the drakes had been pulling children out of the pile, one by one, and—
Hawkwind sobbed in her throat. The poor little corpses were littered about atop their slain protectors. Her eyes sought the remaining children as the drakes from outside began pounding against the door, and she dug her feet in, trying to hold it closed. Although swift and vicious, rainbow drakes did not have high body mass or great muscular strength; she would hold the door against them for a while. There were no more than half a dozen children left, all between the ages of about five and seven, it seemed: all helpless, all with wide, glazed eyes that fixed upon her.
“Hawkwind,” cried a little girl in a tremulous voice.
What could she do? She looked to the side, towards the bookshelf that hid the tunnel out. She looked back at the children. How could she hope to get the bookshelf moved and escape with the human fledglings, avoiding the drakes in the room and the ones outside, that would be inside as soon as she left the door? She needed help. She couldn’t do this alone. The three drakes in the room were closing in on her.
Then she saw the oldest child, a boy, reach down and pick up a discarded, bloody crossbow. The drakes remained fixated on Hawkwind, and didn’t notice the boy’s actions. With eerily calm fingers he set a bolt taken from a dead guard. He aimed, and put the shot into the back of the lime green drake. It howled and all of them spun to face the boy, preparing to attack. Hawkwind took the chance and leapt for the bookshelf. With one vicious wrench she tossed it to the floor, scattering books over the bodies.
“Into the tunnel, go,” she ordered the children.
Behind her, the other drakes burst through the door. One girl, perhaps six years old, took the hands of two other children, and dragged them, stumbling over the mixed wreckage and remains, towards the tunnel, while the boy with the crossbow fumbled another shot, and hit the red drake with a glancing blow. Hawkwind, with a desperate war cry, leapt, all talons open, into the cluster of drakes, as she saw the crossbow boy slain: a drake ripping his soft throat out in a spray of blood.
Hawkwind’s vision went blind with red for a few moments. When she came back to herself, she found the bodies of a few drakes around her, unmoving, and a few others, backing away, injured and regrouping. She was panting, her heart beating as if trying to break out of her chest. The crossbow boy was dead: his eyes open and staring. It was then that Hawkwind recognized the child prince, gone to join his older sister, parents, grandparents, and probably most of his family now. Hawkwind had failed to protect him.
The other children, those that remained, were tumbling into the tunnel. Hawkwind swooped, snatching up the last little one, a blonde boy too terrified to move from the corner, and dove for the tunnel herself. Roughly, she spread her wings, pushing all the children inside, even though it made them fall and scrape themselves. She shoved in after them. The drakes were screaming again, rushing after. Hawkwind shoved and shoved, until the children were rolled out of the way, and did her best not to step on them as she turned about.
She’d been shown this tunnel, along with all the others. She knew how to operate the inside door, which would keep the enemy from following. Heaving with adrenaline-born strength, she swung the heavy iron door into place. Hands shaking, she gripped the wheel that would lock it, and spun it, sending thick bolts home into the stone doorway. Gasping, she tightened and strained until she could push the bolts no farther.
At last, she forced herself to let go of the wheel. She clicked the lever-locks into place, securing the bolts. There was no way to open the door from the other side. They’d have to get a battering ram of some kind, and even that would take hours to break the iron bolts or the stone walls, especially with no room in the nursery to get a good run going. She could only hope there wasn’t a magician who could somehow open the door. Northnest had no magic; she didn’t know what magic could or couldn’t do.
Hawkwind tried to catch her breath, head dizzy. They had a few minutes at least; they had to get moving to get a head start on their enemies. The tunnel was blacker than night, and she could see nothing, not the door nor the wheel nor the children behind her. She wasn’t even sure how many she had saved, or whose they were, or what their names were.
“Children,” she began.
At her voice, the crying started. Ignoring it and bracing herself against the urge to join in, she searched for the flint and blade kept near the door, and the torch she could light to help them find their way out. She only hoped the external exit had not been discovered by the enemy.
The crying lessened slightly when she lit the torch, and she was able to make a count: four. There were two girls, one about six years old, one about five, she guessed. The two boys were perhaps both five years old, although one was considerably bigger than the other. Hawkwind shrugged to herself; it really didn’t matter their ages, and she was a poor judge of the age of human children anyway. They were too young to be much use; she would have to take care of them. Their shining eyes, wide and showing the whites all around, stared up at her from red faces streaked with tears.
“Where’s Mommy?” whispered one of the boys.
Hawkwind crouched down. “Come here and listen to me,” she said, and the children inched nearer. “We’re going to go down this tunnel.”
“It’s dark,” the littlest girl objected.
“We’ll use the torch, and you can ride me.”
“I,” whispered the oldest girl, “I can walk.” She reached out to take a handful of Hawkwind’s fur. Her whole arm was trembling.
The griffin knelt down onto the floor and swept her wings back out of the way. “Climb onto me, and hold onto my harness.”
The three younger children obeyed. Hawkwind was still a youngster herself, and not at her full adult size, but the weight of three human children was bearable even with her injuries. Once they were up, she partly raised her wings to keep them from rolling off her sides. The older girl held gamely to a strap of the harness, and managed the torch in her other hand. Hawkwind tucked the flint and blade into a pouch on her harness, and they started walking.
On Hawkwind’s back, the three children became oddly silent. The girl, too, walked with her dark eyes focused straight forward and glinting in the torchlight, not saying a word, but behind all of them loomed the greater darkness of what they’d just witnessed, and the she-griffin guessed they were all somehow resolutely not thinking about it yet.
Hawkwind walked as fast as the girl could keep up. It was tempting to just stay in the tunnel and hide, but the enemy would know now that there were tunnels. They would look for the exits and eventually break into the tunnels from both ends. Hawkwind knew they had to get as far away from the castle as possible, as quickly as possible.
After walking for several minutes, up and down some stairs, past some other tunnels that fed into this one, the exit door came into view and they stopped before it. Hawkwind examined the opening mechanism.
“Can you put the torch out?” she asked the girl.
“Alright,” the girl whispered, “but then we can’t see.”
“We’re going to go outside now. It will be dark, and rainy, but I will be able to see. I’ll need you to get on my back with the others.”
“Alright,” she said again.
Hawkwind watched her rub the head of the torch against the damp, gritty floor until she managed to put out the flame. She dropped the torch with a rattling clunk. Hawkwind lowered a wing so the girl could climb up with the others, and winced a little under the extra weight. She tucked the extinguished torch through a strap on her harness.
Under the push of Hawkwind’s muscles, the door opened with groans and the scrape of iron against rock. A rush of fresh, rain-washed air entered with the sounds of the storm. Unfortunately, the children were going to get wet. The joints of Hawkwind’s shoulders didn’t allow her to cross her wings up over her back, but she did her best to raise them enough to shield the children from the wind.
Dusk had arrived, and with the storm above, light was scarce under the trees in the dense undergrowth and up the steep hillsides. Hawkwind pushed out into the forest, moving up the hill, away from the castle and the gentler valley areas where clustered most of the kingdom’s towns and villages. There were some caves to the west, but she headed due north. The drakes would have little trouble searching the caves. The forest would present a bigger challenge.
On her back the children remained silent, but she could feel them start to shiver and huddle closer to each other. Hawkwind kept walking. She would walk until her own body gave out. They needed distance, as much as she could get. It was hours later in deepest night, when her own legs began to cramp and tremble and her vision to fade that she started looking for a place to rest.
There: several trees formed a circle, probably around where another tree had once been—their progenitor. When that tree had died, its roots had sprouted up daughter trees, forming a ring. Hawkwind found a wide enough gap between two of the daughter trees and slipped inside. There, on a thick bed of damp leaves and evergreen needles, she let herself sink to the ground. The children slid off her immediately. She lifted her wings and hooked the children closer: pulling them in against her, two on each side. They huddled down readily, too numb and cold to speak, and she tucked her wings down around them, like any griffin, or any bird, sheltering its young.
There they rested, cried, and slept, to wait out the storm.