It was the third night. Hawkwind noticed that Karo had become very quiet, clinging to Thornfire, staring around at the dark walls with wide eyes. The other children, too, were subdued. They ate their meal of roasted bats gloomily but without vocal protest.
“How long will we be in here?” Karo whispered to Jessika as they cuddled up on their blankets.
“I don’t know,” she said. Her big eyes sought Hawkwind’s.
“I want to get out,” Rikah complained. “It’s always dark.”
“I’m scared,” Karo added.
Kassandra said nothing, but her knuckles were white where she clutched her blanket.
“When will we get out?” Jessika asked.
Hawkwind debated. She didn’t want to lie to them.
“They heard just as well as anyone when I said how long it would take,” Thornfire said.
“Human children have a different perception when it comes to time,” Hawkwind informed him. “They can’t always conceptualize something like ‘two weeks.’ To them, it might as well be never or now, especially when they’re stressed and scared.”
Karo started crying. Jessika hugged him as his tears set off Kassandra and Rikah, too. Hawkwind lay down beside them, covering them all with her wings, but that turned out to be the wrong choice. Karo batted away the arms and wings trying to encircle him. His sobbing increased in volume. Thornfire winced.
“Can you quiet him? He’ll bring down enemies upon us.”
“It’s dark,” he cried out. “I’m scared.”
Kassandra huddled against Hawkwind’s side: her hands clenched, teeth chattering, as tears slid silently down her cheeks. Jessika didn’t seem to know what to do. She’d pulled up her knees and hugged them with her arms. Her eyes would dart around their cave camp and then back to Hawkwind, over and over.
“I want to go home,” Rikah demanded of Thornfire. The little boy’s wet face screwed up into a trembling-chinned glare of defiance.
“You can’t,” Thornfire spat bluntly. “We’re going through these caves until we come out on the other side.”
“No,” howled Karo. “Out, now.”
Starbright, who was on watch at the cave entrance hissed back at them, feathers flat with fear. “Quiet,” she scolded. “Master Thornfire’s right. Sounds echo. You’ll bring them down on us.”
“I’ll increase the light,” Thornfire told her. “Maybe it will keep them away.”
“Karo,” Jessika tried to command. “Come here.”
She held out her skinny arms and the little boy tumbled into them, his shaking legs giving way. She snuggled him as he cried, and his voice was muffled a little against her chest.
“Rikah,” Hawkwind said firmly and calmly. “You must be brave.”
The older boy turned to her, his expression struggling to collapse into sobs while he fought to make it threatening.
“We can’t leave now,” she went on. “You know how far we’ve walked. It’s a long way. We have to sleep here and keep going. We will get out.”
“Master, Hawkwind, Rainsoft,” called Starbright. “Here, now. Something’s coming.”
The three griffins spun about and converged on Starbright, filling the gaps around her and blocking the cave entrance.
“What is it?” Hawkwind asked.
“Shush, let me listen,” Thornfire hissed before Starbright could answer.
The light shone bright around their black shadows into the tunnel beyond theirs. Hawkwind heard scratching on the ground and the panting of many breaths. Her neck feathers prickled and her heart rate doubled. An eerie crying whine bounced through the tunnels, echoed by several other cries.
“Snow-screamers,” Thornfire rasped. “They’re just beyond our light and sight. If the light fails, they’ll attack.”
“I won’t be able to sleep, knowing those things are out there,” Starbright shivered.
“When we leave after sleeping, they’ll still be waiting. They might brave the light of the small stones,” Thornfire grumbled.
“They’d attack from the front and back, wouldn’t they?” Hawkwind hazarded.
“Indeed. We’re better suited to fighting them right now.”
Starbright and Hawkwind stared at him, but Rainsoft didn’t seem to have picked up on his subtext.
“Now?” Hawkwind repeated.
“I can dim the light,” he shrugged. “We’d eat well.”
“Unless they overran us.”
He gave her a somber look. “Now that they are so fixated and attracted to us, they will try to overrun us, now, or tomorrow. You’ve already pointed out the problem with fighting them tomorrow.”
A cold weight settled in her chest. She’d felt true battle only a few times before: when Northnest had been attacked, and facing the drakes in the forest. Before that, it had been sparring matches and war games using figures and maps, with the occasional hunting trip, if that counted. All over her body, Hawkwind’s feathers lifted, a subconscious response to threat.
“Now is better,” she admitted reluctantly.
Rainsoft looked at her questioning.
“Enemies,” she told him, “out there. Thornfire will put out the light. They will come. We will kill them.”
His jaw tightened. His body quivered. Hawkwind wondered how much fighting experience he had; they hadn’t talked about that yet. She still knew very little of his past. Mostly, they had spent time acquiring language so that such things could eventually be talked about.
“How many?” he asked with a gesture.
“How many?” she repeated towards Thornfire.
“Could be dozens, but in close quarters, we’ll only have a half a dozen at us at once,” he said.
She frowned. How was she supposed to convey that?
“Many,” she said helplessly.
Rainsoft reflected her frown and gave a short, nervous nod. Thornfire seemed to take their silence for consent. He looked over at the bright stone and concentrated. The light began to dim, and the children started crying louder.
“That will bring them,” he said grimly.
A piercing howl echoed through the tunnels. Dozens of others answered it until the stone halls rang with the chorus. Eyes glimmered in the darkness and Hawkwind began to be able to discern long limbed bodies with matted grey fur. They came closer, into the faint light: their maws open to reveal their needle-like teeth.
Hawkwind extended her claws and gaped her bill in challenge. They others did the same, starting to hiss a threat cry. It didn’t seem to impress the snow-screamers. More filed into the tunnel: making a block of slowly weaving enemies.
“Aim for the eyes,” Thornfire advised. “Don’t break ranks. If even one gets through, the human children will not survive.”
The mass of snow-screamers inched closer. One darted out and made a passing slash. Starbright flinched back out of the way, but immediately retaliated, gouging through its fur and flesh to leave a bloody gash in its arm. It shrieked with fury and danced back. As a whole, the pack snarled and retreated a couple steps before milling about and advancing again. They were cautious now, advancing in pairs or trios.
“When they come, whoever is closest, grab it,” Thornfire ordered. “The others kill it.”
No sooner had he spoken than a pair of beasts lunged in. Hawkwind grabbed the swiping paw that came for her and yanked. The screamer, feeling itself caught, squalled in fear and tried to jerk away. Rainsoft leaned forward and slashed its face, making it shriek. Hawkwind had its paw still, so she pulled it closer and stepped down on its upper arm, pinning it to the floor. Rainsoft darted out his head and bit down on its neck. Griffins could crush the neck vertebrae of deer; these snow-screamers weren’t much larger. With a crunching, crackling sound, the screamer went limp. Rainsoft and Hawkwind dropped it. The whole skirmish had happened in only a couple seconds. Hawkwind checked on Starbright and Thornfire. They’d dispatched the other screamer, too.
“Well done,” Thornfire praised, panting a little.
Hawkwind had only a second to share a pleased expression with Rainsoft before four more angry snow-screamers jumped at them. Each griffin had to take care of a whole beast alone this time. Hawkwind tried to grab hers, but ended up exchanging swipes instead. Starbright snared hers, breaking its neck. Rainsoft saw success next, ripping out a throat, and then immediately clawing Hawkwind’s beast to distract it, so she could slash its eyes.
The fight went on, with new snow-screamers jumping in to fill the place of the fallen, as dead snow-screamer bodies began to pile up. All the griffins took minor injuries, mostly on their hands and forearms. Sticky blood coated the floor. Eventually, the screamers became hesitant, thinned out and intimidated. They milled uncertainly just beyond the remaining light and the snarls and shrieks of battle faded into dark echoes, vanishing at last, so that Hawkwind just heard her pounding heart and the heavy breathing of the griffins around her. The children had gone completely silent. The few remaining snow-screamers glared over the dead bodies, and then turned as one and retreated into the darkness.
Thornfire slumped, panting hard. Starbright waved a hand and the light from their campfire stone brightened back to the usual normal.
“Come on, back around the stone,” Hawkwind encouraged them. “Who’s hurt?”
Thornfire lowered himself down to the floor. Rainsoft and Starbright sat, too.
“Not had a fight like that,” Thornfire panted, “for some years now.”
“Never had a fight like that,” Starbright said.
He waved a hand, chuckling, “you’ve seen nothing, child.”
“Are you all right?” Hawkwind asked Rainsoft with voice and hands.
He nodded, but rotated his arms, showing off his scratches. She examined them. None of them were bleeding profusely.
“I think they’re fine,” she said.
“Snow-screamers are filthy,” Thornfire spoke up strongly. “The wounds may be slight, but we’re all likely to get infections from them. Starbright, I’ve taught you to cauterize, right?”
“Yes, Master,” she breathed.
Hawkwind gulped. “This is going to be painful, isn’t it?”
“You’ll live,” he grunted, reaching out to grab Rainsoft’s nearest arm. “We’ll burn out any contamination. The scars will be worse, but you won’t get wound rotting and fever and die. I’d consider herbal poultices if we could go collect the ingredients, but we can’t, and the small amount of dried herbs I brought should be saved in case the children get hurt. I think cauterizing them would be too traumatic for them.”
“I’ll practice on myself first,” Starbright whispered.
“Dangerous wounds,” Hawkwind told Rainsoft, as Thornfire got ready to start. “Thornfire will fix them. It will hurt.”
“I understand,” he signaled back.
Starbright was already strangling her own whimpers as Hawkwind went to check on the children. They had huddled together in a ball of skinny arms and legs, heads hidden.
“Jessika, Rikah, Karo, Kassandra,” she called gently, “it’s over.”
The princess lifted her head. “We’re safe?”
“For now. Sleep if you can. There may be more food soon.”
Under Thornfire’s direction, Hawkwind took a brightly glowing stone in her bill, and started dragging the carcasses to the trash cave. It was usually dangerous to go alone, but Thornfire said the fight would have the screamers intimidated for a while, so it would be safe enough. When she’d finished and returned to the main cave, Starbright was working on Thornfire’s wounds, Rainsoft was curled up, shaking a little, and Thornfire gestured her over, so he could begin cleaning and sealing her wounds.
“This is a variation on creating fire,” Thornfire explained conversationally. “We just make the fire very tiny and very hot, right at the tips of our fingers. It hurts just as much as getting burned by real fire does. You’ll just have to bear it.”
Hawkwind endured it, impressed by Thornfire’s ability to be treated by Starbright and maintain enough concentration through the pain to use his magic on Hawkwind and talk at the same time. He had to switch arms when Starbright finished with one, but it didn’t break his stride.
“We’ll go cook a few snow-screamers after this,” he continued. “They’re so filthy, they’re safer cooked, or we’d all have belly aches tomorrow.”
“Especially the children,” Hawkwind agreed.
“They would probably make the children deathly ill,” Thornfire agreed, “without thorough cooking. Starbright and I will be exhausted. We will probably have a long sleep here, but at least we have faced the first threat of the tunnels now. We have the respect and wariness of the snow-screamers.”
“The first threat?” Hawkwind repeated.
“You wish to know how many more there are?”
“I’m not sure,” she admitted, scared of the answer.
“I’ll let you know how many we encountered, of the total, when we are safely through to the other side,” he teased.