“The rest of the trip should be less difficult, or at least only as difficult as the caves on the other side of the big cavern were,” Thornfire told them the next time they woke up. “We near Snow-in-lee. The presence of the talis there keeps other big predators away.”
“Do they come into these caves?” Hawkwind rushed to ask.
“No. I have never seen one here. Snow-in-lee will still be a walk of a few days beyond the tunnel exit. We will still encounter snow-screamers, as I mentioned before, but these ones, like the others, fear light. We will pass swiftly and silently through their territories. Keep the light stones visible. Now, let’s get ready to go.”
The tunnel floors and walls passed around them as they made their way, following Thornfire’s lead. They ate mostly bats and blind, cave-crawling rodents, although they did encounter a few packs of snow-screamers and feasted on them, after the flesh was cooked and their own wounds cauterized.
It had been over a week underground and the children especially, became weak and slightly ill, spending most of their time sleeping. Jessika had finished making sandals for all of them, and she, too, mainly dozed, only rousing for eating. There were dozens of caves in this section of tunnels, where the great griffin armies had rested, and even with snow-screamers taking up many caves, finding places to sleep was not difficult. No one had energy for teaching or learning new words, even though it would have been a wise way to use time.
Hawkwind had no way of counting just how many days had passed, but some several sleeps after the big cavern with the not-griffins, she noticed a change in how well she could see her companions. The light of the small stones the children carried never wavered; Thornfire and Starbright renewed them after every sleep. Hawkwind had the thought that perhaps her own eyes were just getting better. Maybe she was becoming a not-griffin, too.
After yet another turn in the tunnel, after hundreds of turns in the tunnels, however, she noticed that she could see more colors in the rocks and the shadows were different, cast in new directions. Ahead, Thornfire stopped. Starbright almost bumped into him, and Rainsoft into her. The mage turned his head back at them.
“We’re near the exit.” Even he sounded baffled, as if leaving the maze of tunnels had become a fantasy never expected to come true for him, too.
As one, the children sat up.
“Hurry, let’s go,” Rikah demanded.
“Patience,” Thornfire countered. “We do not know what might wait outside, and our eyes will take time to adjust to daylight again. There is still the chance of running into more snow-screamers at any moment.”
He began leading them off, but Hawkwind could tell that his steps were quicker. The brightness in the tunnels grew until she was nearly blinded. Within only a few more turns, the group stepped out into the open air.
Moonlight: it was only moonlight soft as a flower and clear as a river that bathed the mountainside where they emerged. It turned the grass silver and the dirt black, the mountain white and their feathers pewter and onyx and ivory. The children tumbled to the ground and walked aimlessly around with their palms upraised as if bathing in rain, laughing and crying at the same time.
The full moon was too bright to let the stars show, and not a single cloud fought it for a piece of the sky. Under that bare iron dome, against the naked mountain, Hawkwind felt exposed to the eyes of anything that might be passing, but no one made move to seek shelter. After the confinement of the tunnels, the vaulted air was both searing and freeing, and she took deeper breaths than she felt she’d taken in weeks, as if trying to suck in all the space she now had to spread her wings, and hold it inside her.
The others, too, were stretching their wings wide, worshipping the night, and Hawkwind noticed that Rainsoft’s new feathers were coming in nicely. A check confirmed that hers were the same. They’d both be borderline flight worthy in a few days. The open air and hope of flight infected her with a double freedom that bore her to the ground until she stretched out on the cold grass, rolling to her back and opening her eyes wide to the endless sky and its icy moon. Without meaning to let it, sleep snuck up and took her deep under her dreams.
The morning dawned bright and crystal yellow glowing around the mountains, turning the sky fresh white and chasing off the night’s solemnity. Hawkwind awoke feeling like a chick again, both fragile and full of untarnished wonder, all fear and sadness like a foreign thing she’d never felt.
Her companions were scattered across the little field by the tunnel exit. Karo was surprisingly clinging to Thornfire. Starbright had curled up near her master: looking so flattened she seemed very young. Rikah, Kassandra, and Jessika had collapsed near each other, holding hands or with heads pillowed on other body parts. Hawkwind was most startled to find that Rainsoft was tucked against herself, back to back, but she didn’t mind.
They hadn’t built a fire before sleeping, and no one was on watch. Anything could have attacked them, and for a moment, Hawkwind’s heart pounded—but nothing had, and she calmed again. Her stomach rumbled, loudly enough that Rainsoft awoke behind her.
“Sorry,” she told him.
“It’s all right, good morning,” he gestured to her, and then stretched, ran, and leapt up onto one of the boulders surrounding their little field with a burst of vigor, wings half open like a cormorant drying off after a dive.
The rising sun brought out some deeply hidden notes of umber in his charcoal feathers and frosted his white chest with gold. Hawkwind jumped up to join him, squinting against the light.
“I’m hungry, too,” he said with his hands.
“Rainsoft,” she began hesitantly. She touched his throat with a gentle finger, indicating the scar below his fur. “Why? Why can’t you speak?”
He rolled his shoulders in a minor shrug; brow furrowed, and folded his wings. “Always,” he told her. “Everyone. No speaking.”
“Someone hurt you, on purpose?”
Rainsoft tilted his head, and then signed, “I don’t understand.”
Hawkwind searched for a way to explain. They hadn’t yet covered how to talk about intentional versus accidental. She pointed again at his throat. “Your parents, too?”
“Who hurt you?”
His jaw clenched along with his claws. After a moment he let out a breath and hesitantly gestured something, but Hawkwind didn’t know the words.
“I don’t understand,” she apologized.
Rainsoft nodded as though he had expected as much.
“When did it happen?”
“I don’t remember. I was a chick.”
She didn’t want to press any further. Somehow, she was feeling like she was asking things that were far too personal, and yet, talking about it with him made her feel closer to him.
“Thank you for telling me,” she said.
The tension was gone from his face when he glanced at her, smiling a little, even, and then leaned in to preen her neck feathers. She returned the favor.
“Hawkwind, Rainsoft,” called Starbright from below. “Let’s go hunting.”
Hawkwind jumped back down to the little field. Everyone was awake and squinting at the sun.
“Is it safe to hunt here?” she asked. “Aren’t we close to Snow-in-lee?”
“We’re getting there,” Thornfire confirmed. “Since I know the area, perhaps I should lead, taking just one of you, so two others can watch over the children.”
The three young griffins looked around at each other.
“Perhaps it would be best if Starbright went. You two can’t fly yet,” he went on.
Hawkwind resisted a sigh. She extended her wings and flapped, but it was immediately evident that her feathers hadn’t grown in enough yet, although the vanes were unfurling. Thornfire nodded at her.
“Soon enough,” he assured her. “Starbright, let’s go.”
Hawkwind and Rainsoft retreated to the huddle of sleepy children as the two flighted griffins took off. The children got up to hug Hawkwind, and then went on to hug Rainsoft, too, clearly surprising him, but he seemed to take it with good grace.
“We’re so happy to be out of the caves,” Jessika beamed.
“Yeah, now the hard part starts,” Hawkwind groaned, but when the children’s faces fell she regretted her comment. “Not for a while yet, and you’ll all be safe here with Starbright. Jessika, maybe you can get a fire ready.”
They hunted for downed wood in the general vicinity while Jessika built a small fire pit against a rocky wall. By the time they’d accumulated a pile of twigs and branches, Thornfire and Starbright were sailing over with a bled mountain-deer. Starbright lit the fire, a chunk of deer was ripped off for the children, and the four griffins took the rest of the animal a short ways away to fill their stomachs with the best food they’d had in weeks.
“There is a camp we’re heading towards,” Thornfire explained after they’d eaten and while they waited for the children to have their meal. “I’ve used it before, and its location makes it very difficult for talis to get to. We’ll use it again. Starbright and the children should be safe there. It’s still two nights away, however, and the territory between here and there is not safe. We must be extremely cautious.”
Once the children had eaten, they mounted up. Starbright extinguished the fire with a thought, and Thornfire led them off, down a narrow trail, ever closer to Snow-in-lee.
Two days passed with a few sightings and skirmishes with snow-screamers and a far away spotting of a pair of ice-lions, but no sign of talis. As noon approached, three days out from the tunnel exit, they topped a rise that gave them their first view of Snow-in-lee. White towers stuck up above the rim of peaks that surrounded the valley. No flags flew from them. No griffins wheeled in the air above them. Steam, however, rose steadily out of the valley, drifting gently upward among the spires, and seemed to have inspired moss and lichens to grow in any crack or crevice on the towers, making them look lined with green and orange.
Rainsoft made a whimpering noise, and when Hawkwind looked over she saw that he was half crouched, as if cowering, feathers and fur slicked flat with anxiety. She looked back at the white towers. They were going there, and she had little idea of what they would encounter. Rainsoft was tasked with fetching back the Moonstone. Would he be capable of it?
“Let’s keep moving,” Thornfire said. “We’ll be seeing plenty more of that place.”
A shiver ran over Hawkwind’s skin and she went to Rainsoft, giving him a gentle nudge of encouragement. He responded, standing up faster that she had expected and leaning into her, butting his forehead against her neck. Uneasiness swam through her.
“Let’s go, Rainsoft,” she urged him.
When she walked off, Rainsoft following, she saw Thornfire watching her with a blank glare, and she chilled.
“What’s his problem?” she remarked to Starbright, who was a little ahead.
“What?” she replied, appearing baffled.
“Thornfire,” Hawkwind indicated with her chin.
Starbright paused. “I didn’t notice anything. Is something wrong?”
Hawkwind clenched her bill. “Never mind.”
Starbright gave her a confused glance and trotted into her place in line. Thornfire leapt to the head of the group and took them onward, along a narrow, rocky path with a sheer drop on one side and a vertical cliff on the other. It wound upwards, becoming more broken and unsteady until the griffins were taking long hops between outcroppings. They had to open their wings slightly for precision landing, and Hawkwind was gratified to feel that her wings were now supporting her; her feathers were recovered enough that she could probably fly again. At last, they alit on a gravel-choked landing in a gap in the cliff, and passed through into a slanted but spacious little plateau among the jagged peaks.
“This is the camp,” Thornfire announced. “The only other way up is by flying. This is the safest place close to Snow-in-lee. It would be all but impossible for a talis to get up here.”
The spears of mountain rock all around enclosed the camp, helping to keep out the wind, but it was still rather cold. The ground was rocky, but in places it seemed the rock had been planed smooth. Lichens subsisted in most of the sheltered spots. There was a deep fire pit, well blackened, with a big stone in the center that Hawkwind suspected was for magical light and warmth when wood was not available, but there was a pile of old, weathered wood in one corner of the camp that she supposed had been flown up by previous occupants.
Another corner of the camp appeared to be the refuse pile, devoid of all but some bone fragments. The third corner had rocks piled up in a way to make a private spot that Hawkwind assumed was for personal disposal of waste. In other places along the walls, rocks had been piled to create separate rooms. Old disintegrating pieces of leather on the floors and walls might have once been roofs.
“It’s not the warmest place,” Thornfire admitted, “but we’ll make it work. With luck, we’ll only be here a few days.”
Hawkwind winced and turned away. She didn’t even want to talk about how the scouting of Snow-in-lee would start.
“Children, let’s choose a spot for you to camp in,” she called, and the four little ones clambered down off their mounts.
She insisted they claim the smallest of the rock rooms for themselves and that they sleep together. Their shared body warmth would be a big benefit on the cold mountain. Hawkwind’s pack had been mostly full of blankets for the children and they managed to make a fairly comfortable nest. Since the mages could make the stone produce heat and light, Hawkwind took the weathered pieces of wood and made a sort of roof over the children’s’ room to help keep out the wind. She even managed to add some old pieces of leather that weren’t completely disintegrating yet.
“The biggest problem with this spot is lack of water,” Thornfire was saying as Hawkwind rejoined him and the others around the now magically lit campfire. “Starbright, you’ll need to fly down to refill the water bags most days. Of course, you’ll also have to hunt, for all of us, if you can. You may also want to gather boughs of greenery for roofing the rooms and cushioning our nests. This is a secure camp. Even snow-screamers and ice-lions can’t make the climb up here, much less the talis, so the children will be safe while you’re gone.”
“Don’t worry,” Starbright asserted. “I’ll take good care of the children and the camp.” She nodded at Hawkwind. “I can put a warm stone in their bedding at night so they won’t be cold.”
“For now, let’s settle in,” Thornfire concluded. “Then, perhaps Hawkwind and Rainsoft will be ready to accompany me on a little flight over the area and a hunt.”
Thornfire walked off to claim a spot to sleep, leaving Hawkwind gaping behind him. She sure hoped her wings were ready.
Hawkwind had taken the room beside the children’s. Starbright was on their other side, with Thornfire on her other side. Rainsoft had taken the room on Hawkwind’s other side. Bedding, such as there was, had been set up. It was now past noon. If a scouting flight was to be done, it had to be started soon.
Hawkwind watched Thornfire stride out to the magical campfire. He wore only his tough leather harness with its pouches and loops full of tools and weapons and other supplies. Hawkwind had never asked what he kept in the bags; mage stuff, she assumed. She and Rainsoft had unburdened themselves, too, and now wore only their harnesses: old but still functional ones borrowed from Starbright and Thornfire.
Thornfire looked around and motioned for Hawkwind and Rainsoft to join him. The pair exchanged glances over the half crumbled wall between their rooms, got to their feet, and walked out to stand with him. The mage gave them both a look over.
“Can you fly?” he said simply. “Show me.”
Hawkwind stepped away to give herself some room. Rainsoft did the same, perhaps copying her or perhaps understanding what Thornfire had said; Hawkwind still wasn’t sure of how much he understood.
“Fly, Hawkwind, fly,” cried Rikah from the entry to the children’s room.
“You can do it,” Jessika agreed, smiling.
Hawkwind opened her wings, taking a close look at her flight feathers. They were bright, unmarked and crisp like the petals of a flower opening for the first time. It seemed that the vanes had all unfurled completely. Her flight muscles would be a little weak from nearly a month of not using them, but otherwise, she should be flight worthy.
“Looks good,” she muttered.
Thornfire nodded. “Up you go,” he said, giving her little shooing motions with a hand.
She crouched; launching up from the ground was difficult. Then she remembered the entrance to the camp. Beyond it were wide-open air and a fall of hundreds of feet. She turned, facing the path.
“Follow me,” she told Rainsoft. He gave her a nod.
Wings half furled, Hawkwind ran. She kicked up pebbles as she struggled to get as much speed as possible over the short runway. The edge approached, she reached it, launched off it with a vigorous thrust of her hind legs, and snapped out her wings, falling into the void. She dropped several feet before her wings did their job, catching her on the winds and kicking her up towards the sky.
She could fly again, and joy surged through her chest in waves of heat. She glanced at each slotted wing, feathers stretched and bending up at the dark tips, just as she had seen them do hundreds of times before. Her muscles held them level, pressed hard against the air. She was airborne, exactly where a griffin was meant to be.
Hawkwind turned, looking behind to see Rainsoft launching off the same place she had. His dark grey wings reached out and caught the wind as surely as hers had: beautiful. He flapped hard, bringing himself up to her, and paced her. She caught his thrilled gaze and grinned at him.
He made a few gestures. “I’m happy. I love flying.”
“Me, too,” she replied in the same way.
“Last year,” he went on, as they circled, “I flew—” he followed with a few more gestures she hadn’t learned yet and she had to shake her head in confusion. He frowned briefly, but then smiled again and said, “It’s all right. Later.”
Thornfire caught up to them, his dull tan plumage reflecting the sun flatly.
“Fall in and follow me,” he called out.
Hawkwind and Rainsoft took positions to the side and slightly behind each of his wings, matching his flight path as he led them across the mountains. Flight: it had only been a month, but to be denied what Hawkwind felt was her right as a griffin, a month had been far too long, and to get to fly again made the world feel right. The joy that lit her up from within was almost overwhelming, and seemed to be reaching through vacant rooms inside her, lighting lamps and opening shutters, revitalizing places that hadn’t been used for weeks, and even discovering new places that Hawkwind hadn’t known existed.
She retained enough focus to follow Thornfire’s right wing tip, but any need to observe the landscape or watch for roving talis dissolved into the barest pretense as Hawkwind instead watched inside herself with awe as her body lit with life and heat. The desire to fly faster gripped her, and she had to throttle it down so she didn’t go zipping off at high speed. She wanted to race, to hunt, to—she wasn’t even sure what she wanted.
Her vision went fuzzy as she failed to focus. Her muscles burned, as if her body was feeding them too much energy, and she was ordering them not to use it. A cry of frustration backed up in her throat when she clamped her bill shut on it. What was wrong with her? Flying had never felt like this before.
Thornfire was shouting something into the wind, maybe her name, calling for her attention, but his command just made her growl. She didn’t want to follow his orders. She didn’t even want to be flying with him. In fact, she almost felt like trying to smack him, not truly hurt him, but just give him a little whack and knock him out of the sky, make him tumble, make him fly away from her.
“Hawkwind,” Thornfire was calling, “let’s go back.”
Go back? Go back now, when what she wanted was to fly, fly faster, fly farther, and outstrip the wind? Her vision and hearing returned enough that she was able to look at him and read his expression. He looked concerned. He was looking at her like she was ill or injured. She? Indisposed? And what did he know about it?
Hawkwind swerved, flashing her claws at him, a threat gesture, and he expertly slid out of the way, almost as if he’d expected it. Well, fine then: Hawkwind bolted. Her restraint vanished and the fire in her muscles leapt up with glee, shooting her ahead with rapid pumps of her wings. She didn’t know where she was going, and she didn’t care, as long as Thornfire didn’t follow her.
Several strokes ahead, she glanced back, but the mage hadn’t made chase; he was flying in a tight circle, holding his former position. Rainsoft, however, was in rapid pursuit. Terrified ecstasy sunk claws deep into her and more energy flooded her flight muscles. She was flying faster than she ever had before, so that the ground blurred by below her. Her heart pounded at an unsustainable rate.
She looked back; Rainsoft was, somehow, keeping pace. She pushed harder, making rapid turns, gaining speed on dives to send her dashing into brief climbs. A forest was below her now; she didn’t even know where she was, but it didn’t matter. Her breath was starting to burn her lungs and the tingling in her muscles told her they were soon to stop working: a little farther. She looked back; Rainsoft was gaining on her, had almost caught up.
There: a break in the tree canopy showed a tiny meadow. Three young buck deer went scrambling for the trees as she arrowed down through the opening at breakneck speed, half tumbling into the ground and tearing up some of the grass and flowers. Rainsoft landed practically on top of her, wings and arms and legs and tails tangling, and his panting breath a twin to hers. He bit her on the neck. It didn’t hurt but she shrieked at him. He did it again, with a strange sort of trilling rumble coming from his chest, and Hawkwind felt his whole weight shift onto her back.
They engaged in a novel sort of subdued struggle then, and Hawkwind didn’t understand what was happening until a few minutes later, when it became clear, and then after several more blurry but sharp shattering minutes of straining bodies and exploratory exclamations, when a resolution had been achieved. Rainsoft flopped to the ground beside her. She felt his thudding heartbeat reverberating in her own bones. Except for that, and Hawkwind’s own raspy breath, there was sudden quiet.
A sort of white noise invaded Hawkwind’s head and she stared straight off, not truly seeing. She felt awash with sensations she’d never felt before—not even hints of. They were feelings she didn’t know she could feel. She thought it should have scared her, but they were good feelings so, foreign though they might be, she didn’t fight them. Nor could she deny what had happened.
“We mated,” she breathed in wonder, but even if he’d heard and understood the words, Rainsoft didn’t respond. “But only matriarchs mate.”
Why? Why, why, why? Like a mouse trying to escape the shadow of a plunging hawk, her mind ran around in little circles while her body finally recovered, heart and breath slowing to normal. She had no need to get up, and no thought of her human charges, or the camp, or talis, or Snow-in-lee. In a half an hour it had all vanished.
Drained, Hawkwind put her head down and half slept until she felt Rainsoft climbing onto her again, and then afterwards, her same confused mouse of a mind ran in circles and got nowhere until she went back to drifting in the sea of satiation the sensations of her body provided.
The rest of the afternoon vanished in that repeating pattern and sunset crept upon them: nestled under the canopy without a care for the vulnerable position they’d spent several hours in. The growing darkness among the trees finally made Hawkwind sit up, and a measure of her customary sanity returned. She stared down at the sleeping Rainsoft, facing the fact that she’d let him—be honest—invited him to mate with her, and she’d loved every second of it.
She was no ignorant child. Although she’d never observed a matriarch mating, which was always a private thing, she’d seen the beasts of the field and forest, the farm animals, the dogs in the kennels, and she knew how mating went, but why had it happened to her? And now, Rainsoft was different; she’d mated with him.
Quivers of embarrassment and anxiety wormed their way over Hawkwind’s skin. The waiting was worse; impatiently, she poked him awake. With a trilling rumble, he stretched and sat up. Facing his orange eyes, Hawkwind didn’t know what to say. Even if she had been fluent in a form of communication with him, she wouldn’t have known what to say. He didn’t look quite as uncomfortable as she, but he still flicked his feathers too much to imply serenity. Seeming on an impulse, he reached out and preened her neck feathers.
“Are you all right?” she asked finally, with words and gesture.
“Yes,” he answered, “are you?”
“Yes,” she said, and then realized she didn’t have a good word for how she was feeling, so just shrugged, rolled her wings and ducked her head.
He nibbled her feathers again. The edge of his bill grazed her neck, sending a resurgence of heat through her and Hawkwind leaned into him, biting his neck in return. The conclusion was foregone. The sun was nearly down when they again resurfaced from that ocean of connection.
“We must go back,” she tried to convey. “It’s getting dark.”
Rainsoft nodded agreement and the pair leapt off from the ground, struggling into the sky, gaining altitude, and then trying to retrace their flight and find the camp again.