“We shall go through the tunnel,” Thornfire announced the next morning as they gathered at the fork in the road. “It will keep us away from any drakes that might still be flitting about and looking for Hawkwind and her nestlings.”
He led them down the trail.
“What’s in there?” Hawkwind called to him.
“Bats, bugs, all manner of little furry critters,” he answered lightly.
“What’s in there that’s dangerous?” Jessika corrected from astride Hawkwind.
“Besides colder temperatures, darkness, cave ins, pits, slippery rocks, things to bump your head on, and plenty of things to trip on, you mean?”
“Yes,” the girl dignified with a reply.
He cleared his throat. “Snow-screamers,” he admitted. “There’s likely a large colony of snow-screamers, and possibly other things like wolves and snow cats and maybe even bears, but they’ll probably leave griffins alone. The children will need to stay close.”
“What are snow-screamers?” Jessika asked.
“Do you know what a monkey is?” Starbright called from behind them.
The girl twisted in her seat. “I’ve seen drawings.”
“Snow-screamers look like part monkey, and part cat. They’re about the size of a large dog, with wide paws like snowshoes, and they usually travel in packs. They have long, grey, white, and light brown fur; big eyes; and very sharp teeth.”
“If they mob a griffin before it can get off the ground, they win,” Starbright admitted. “In the tunnels, we probably won’t be able to escape them, if they find us.”
“Maybe we should go around instead,” Hawkwind suggested, unnerved by the description. “What’s so dangerous on the other path?”
“Rock dogs, and possibly snow-screamers out there, too,” Thornfire answered, feet not faltering in his continued trek down the path through the pass and towards the tunnel.
“What are rock dogs like?” Jessika wanted to know.
“Sort of like wolves,” Starbright provided, “but instead of fur they have a thick layer of body fat, and skin so tough that our claws can’t get through it. Since we can’t fight them, we have to run. If we can’t get airborne, they chase us. They have great endurance, so they run their prey to exhaustion. Then they eat. Plus, they aren’t afraid of fire because their skin is so thick it doesn’t really burn them.”
“We’d have to post a watch all night long,” Thornfire complained.
“Snow-screamers fear fire?” Hawkwind checked.
“That’s right. They don’t like bright lights and unknown smells and things,” Starbright told her.
“That should make them easier to handle than the rock dogs then.”
“Except that they’re incredibly territorial,” Thornfire said. “If they detect us, they will wait for any opportunity to eat us.”
“What if we can’t find wood for a fire down in the tunnel?” Jessika asked.
“There are other ways than wood to make warmth and light,” Starbright commented. “Thornfire and I are with you; we can handle everything.”
“But all you children, stay on your mounts at all times,” Thornfire emphasized. “No walking or running or anything on your own feet. You can get down only when we’ve made camp. You’ll also need to stay quiet; snow-screamers have excellent hearing. Understood?”
“Everyone, be watchful,” the mage went on. “And try to be silent.”
They walked on for a while in that silence, descending for the start between two tumbled walls of rock. The only sound besides their feet was the popping and dragging of Jessika pushing her thick twine through leather as she worked on sandals for Rikah. Above them, their view of the white sky narrowed.
They stopped at midday by a thin waterfall that cascaded down one rock wall. The children were allowed to get down, drink, and see to bodily needs. Thornfire instructed everyone to fill their water skins before going on.
“We will encounter underground streams,” he told them. “We’ll have to drink from them when we run out of this water, but not every stream will be drinkable, so it’s best to take all the water we can.”
“What about food?” Hawkwind asked.
“We may have to resort to eating bats or other small animals. If we survive an attack of snow-screamers, we can eat them.”
“Ew,” Jessika commented under her breath.
“Bats aren’t bad,” Thornfire said. “I’ve had them before. Crunchy. Snow-screamers are stringy and tough, but edible except for the guts, which tend to be full of parasites.”
“You’ll survive,” Hawkwind told the girl. “I expect Thornfire and Starbright’s magic can cook anything you want to eat.”
“Of course it can,” Starbright smiled as Karo climbed back onto her. “I’ll cook anything you need. I’m good with fire.”
“Why have we been making a real fire then, every night?” Hawkwind asked as the group moved off again.
“Magic takes energy. If we don’t have to, we don’t use it.”
The trail was winding now among the peaks, sometimes climbing up steep trails, and other times twisting along little narrow valleys. They group stayed quiet, speaking only in whispers, as all sounds were taken up and bounced around the crags by echoes and the wind. They camped for one more night before entering the tunnels in a shallow cave some yards away from the tunnel entrance. Thornfire forbid them from going to look at it.
“No scent near the tunnel,” he said. “We want a comfortable night’s sleep don’t we? Snow-screamers have an excellent sense of smell, too. It’s risky enough without giving them a trail back to us. Now, make camp here. There’s wood, so build a fire. Starbright and I will go hunting. Hawkwind, Rainsoft, guard the camp.”
Rainsoft nodded with understanding and the two mages went off to hunt on the wing. Jessika presented Rikah with his sandals. The children got the fire going and prepared their blankets. Hawkwind and Rainsoft sat with the fire at their backs, looking out of the cave into the darkness and waiting. Without Starbright to translate, it was difficult to talk, but Hawkwind decided she wouldn’t let that stop them.
“Are you all right?” she asked slowly.
Rainsoft eyed her for a moment, and then gave a roll of his head that suggested “somewhat,” to her.
Then, he raised his hands and slowly made a few gestures. Hawkwind copied them and made a guess. “Are you all right?” she said, doing the gestures along with them.
Rainsoft smiled and nodded at her. She smiled back, and he asked her in earnest with his hands, if she was all right. Still smiling, she copied his head roll. He gave her some silent laughter in reply. For a few minutes Hawkwind practiced the gestures, memorizing them so she could ask again any time she needed to.
Then, with a combination of words and gestures, she asked, “Are you going to Snow-in-lee?”
His visage turned serious and he made the gesture she’d seen the previous night, the one that meant “death.”
“Death,” she said, copying it. “You think we’ll die.”
He nodded, slowly and simply, not breaking his gaze at her. Hawkwind didn’t know what to say, but after a few moments he made another statement.
“I will go.”
She could only nod, humbled by his bravery. “Thank you,” she told him.
His smile, conveyed mainly through his eyes and the lift of his feathers, since griffin bills were rather immobile, was soft, and for the first time since her entire community had been killed, Hawkwind felt like she had an ally, a wing mate. An empty place inside her filled, and anxiety she didn’t know she was carrying melted away like a heavy blanket slipping off her back when standing up. Rainsoft’s released sigh of a breath suggested to her that maybe he was feeling the same thing.
Thornfire and Starbright landed with a thump in front of them, bearing a big mountain sheep each. Hawkwind’s mouth watered instantly.
“Good, nothing attacked,” Thornfire commented. “Take a haunch to the little ones and let’s eat our fill.”
Hawkwind didn’t hesitate to obey, ripping off a hind leg and carrying it to Rikah, who was ready with the dagger to hack into it. Hawkwind returned to the others, who had already started eating, and bit hungrily into one of the beasts. With almost a whole half a beast to herself, she could eat nearly her fill. When they’d finished, Starbright carried away the refuse; hopefully anything attracted by the scent would go to the pile of leavings, and not the bloodstain on the trail.
The four griffins rejoined the four children, who were just starting to eat their cooked dinner, and sat down for the evening lessons. Hawkwind pushed herself to memorize more and more. There was so much she wanted to be able to say. Rainsoft seemed no less ruthless. When her head finally felt full to overflowing with new words and gestures, she cuddled down among her four children and let sleep take her. The fire had been banked so it would burn all night, hopefully keeping away any snow-screamers that might be in the area. The morrow would see the group descending into the tunnel; Hawkwind wanted to be well rested.
The wind made a hollow, moaning sound passing across the tunnel entrance. The four griffins with their human riders stood in front of the gaping hole, preparing to enter.
“Who made this?” Hawkwind whispered to Thornfire.
“After our ancestors were driven from Snow-in-lee, attempts were made to retake it. One of those attempts involved digging out this tunnel, allowing the army to approach unseen and bivouac here before attacking,” he answered. “That attempt failed and the tunnels were abandoned. Other things moved in.”
“How long of a journey is it, to the other side?” Starbright asked.
“Two weeks?” Hawkwind gasped.
“We’ll be fine. Snow-in-lee isn’t going anywhere.”
Thornfire straightened up from where he’d been sorting through a pile of rocks at the side of the road. He held four smooth round stones.
“I’ll be relying on you children to hold onto these,” he said.
Then his brow creased with concentration, and a moment later all four stones were noticeably emitting light. Thornfire passed a stone to each child; the children examined them with wondering curiosity.
“They’ll need daily renewing,” he commented. “Starbright or I can handle it.”
“I can do this someday?” Karo whispered.
“Not too long from now, I expect, with training,” Thornfire nodded. “We should get going. Stay alert. This place is a warren of tunnels, both ones our ancestors dug, and new ones dug by all manner of creatures. I know the way, so follow me, and try to be silent.”
Hawkwind watched Thornfire and Karo move into the darkness, only Karo’s magic stone pushing back the gloom. Starbright and Rikah followed. The boy had a hard, straight stick he had peeled of bark and taken to carrying around. He brandished it like a sword, prepared to defend against the dangers of the darkness. Hawkwind stepped aside and let a dubious Rainsoft go ahead of her.
“We’ll be all right,” Jessika whispered to Hawkwind.
Hawkwind smiled reassuringly. “Yes, we will.”
She followed the others into the tunnel.
Hawkwind couldn’t say how many hours they had been walking. She wasn’t exhausted yet, but she guessed they’d been travelling through the tunnels for most of the day. Thornfire led them on in near silence. Kassandra was leaning forward, lying on Rainsoft’s back, and whispering into his ear. Rikah and Starbright, too, seemed to be chatting. Hawkwind couldn’t see far enough ahead to be sure, but she imagined Thornfire might be lecturing Karo about magic. Princess Jessika, on Hawkwind’s back was somehow managing to juggle the light stone and her leatherworking; she still had to finish a set of sandals for herself, and she was determinedly working without talking or looking up.
The tunnels so far clearly looked to have been carved, but since the time they’d been fresh cut stone, slimes and algae and phosphorescent moss had come to coat many of the rough surfaces. The floor was well trodden, mostly dry except in certain patches, and clean except for dirt, a few stones here and there, and occasional bone fragments. At least the bones were white and brittle: clearly old remains. They hadn’t seen anything larger than bats and rats so far—which all the griffins made a point of snatching and swallowing when they could.
Their steps echoed slightly, more when they passed a side tunnel. From time to time, Hawkwind heard drops of water hit the floor somewhere out of sight. The light from the magic stones gave them all long, black shadows that stretched out from them and merged with the deep shadows of the tunnels. Being last in line, Hawkwind’s fur and feathers were constantly prickling, and she had to fight the urge to be always watching over her shoulder. She didn’t see or hear anything following them, but that logic couldn’t stop her brain from inventing all kinds of beasts and enemies that could be following them anyway.
When they finally stopped to sleep, Hawkwind’s shoulders and back were a mess of muscle knots. Jessika got to the ground, immediately starting to try on her finished sandals, and Hawkwind stretched, arching and curving her back and extending all limbs. She checked on her wing feather re-growth progress at the same time. During the evening she’d spent in Thornfire’s house, she and Rainsoft had received the favor of the others checking their wings to be sure they’d found all the cut feather stubs and pulled them out. New feathers were starting to grow in, but they were only about twenty percent emerged from the sheath. Not that there was anywhere to fly in the tunnels anyway, but she estimated it would still be at least two weeks before even brief fluttering falls would be a possibility.
Thornfire had picked a good camping site, in a short tunnel off of the main tunnel they’d been traveling. A large stone was already in place in the center of the room and Starbright was standing over it, making it emit light and heat. A jog in the side tunnel meant light would be at least partly blocked from reaching the main tunnel. The children were already pulling out their blankets.
“I will check the trash area,” Thornfire announced. “Hawkwind, will you watch my back?”
“Of course,” she assured him.
Hawkwind followed Thornfire back out into the main tunnel.
“I noticed you took the tail,” he whispered.
“I didn’t want to risk Rainsoft just deserting us,” she said.
“And you wanted to protect him.”
“What do you mean?”
“Don’t get all defensive,” Thornfire replied, and Hawkwind thought she detected a teasing tone to his quiet words. “It’s perfectly natural.”
She didn’t say anything in response, but found herself perturbed and wondered why. The trash area Thornfire had mentioned wasn’t far away. A narrow side tunnel went off the main tunnel, ending in a small room with a pit on one side. There was no smell currently, but Hawkwind could see why it was called a trash room. Old refuse and waste filled the pit, most noticeably old bones.
“There’s nothing dangerous around,” Thornfire proclaimed after a brief investigation. “We can come here in pairs or trios before sleep, and we’ll have to do all our eating here, or in the tunnel leading to this room,” Thornfire explained. “Anything smelly that might attract animals needs to be kept away from where we sleep.”
They headed back to the campsite and Thornfire watched over it while Hawkwind showed Rainsoft and two of the children the way to the trash room. When they returned, Thornfire took Starbright, who looked exhausted from having powered up the big heat and light stone, and the two other children. After that, Thornfire took Rainsoft to go hunting in the caves. With Starbright already nearly unconscious, Hawkwind stayed behind to guard the camp.
Thornfire came to let them know when the hunt was done, and they again ate in two teams in the tunnel before the trash room. Rainsoft and Thornfire had only managed to collect a bag of bats, but the mage had used his magic to roast a few of them so the children could have cooked meat. Hawkwind still wasn’t sure if they would ever be able to safely eat raw meat; she’d never heard of humans doing that.
“Are there a lot of these camps with trash rooms along the tunnel to the other side?” Hawkwind asked Thornfire after they’d all gathered back in the camp.
“There are, and hopefully they will be as unoccupied and safe as this first one,” he told her.
“I can’t believe armies moved through here.”
“You will see, when we get towards the exit, rooms and rooms carved out where they rested. Last I was here, most of those rooms had families of snow-screamers living in them.”
“What will we do when we get there?”
“We’ll have to sneak past. Don’t worry about it now. Get some rest. There are many days yet to travel.”