Future and Past
The sun had set by the time Hawkwind and Rainsoft stumbled to a landing through the entrance of the camp. It seemed Starbright and Thornfire had gone hunting. There were the remains of a fresh kill, and a whole additional beast left cooling on a boulder at the edge of camp.
“That’s for you two,” Thornfire said even before they could give greetings. “Eat.”
Hawkwind didn’t need telling twice. Ravenous, she ripped into the offering, and Rainsoft let her have all the best bits. Once they’d preened the blood off of each other, Rainsoft walked to his chosen room and curled up with his back to the common area: clearly wanting to sleep and be left alone. Perhaps he was as uncomfortable as she.
Starbright was already sleeping in her room, and the children likewise. Thornfire stood over the magic stone in the campfire pit giving Hawkwind a glare that commanded her to come and talk and broached no possibility for dissent. She wanted to disobey him anyway, but another force brought her to him. He was an elder; he might have answers to her questions; it was clear he already knew what had happened.
Hawkwind walked up to him, sat primly a couple feet away, and braced herself.
“Don’t be embarrassed. It’s perfectly normal and if your story was indeed true, I expected it from the beginning,” he said with a shrug. “I’m just glad you didn’t try to rip my feathers out.”
“What happened?” she asked helplessly. “Why did this happen?”
He chuckled and then seemed to restrain himself, as if noticing that Hawkwind’s distress was genuine. “My dear Hawkchild, you told me your home was destroyed, your entire settlement wiped out, correct? Except for yourself?”
“Yes,” she confirmed.
“You are the last of the Hawk Line. Your matriarch was killed. There are no other females of your Line alive. Of course you would wake up. There is no other female Hawk in dominance over you, so it’s your turn.”
“What are you saying?” she demanded.
“You are the new matriarch of the Hawk Line,” Thornfire said simply. “Your body woke up and told you to mate. That’s not a command a matriarch can easily ignore. If Rainsoft hadn’t been here, you might have even gone for me.”
Hawkwind could help but make a sound of disgust, and Thornfire laughed out loud.
“I knew you’d take him, and it’s one of the reasons I wanted him along,” the mage continued. “I didn’t expect it quite so soon, but I think getting to fly again after such a long period of frustration must have acted as a catalyst on the situation.”
Hawkwind stared at the glowing firestone, unsure how to feel about this new development.
“I’m afraid, other than isolating yourself from males, that there’s little you can do about this. It’s possible you could ask to fight another matriarch, back at South-scree, and if she is able to thoroughly beat you, and you join her Line, you might go back to sleep, but without a close blood tie to her, it might not work.”
“So I’m going to feel like this all the time?” Hawkwind pled.
“No, certainly not, only when you’re ready to conceive.”
“Conceive?” she gasped.
“What do you think matriarchs do? You’re not aware that matriarchs are the only female members of a Line that have chicks?”
“Of course I know that, but,” she trailed off.
“You might not conceive this first time,” Thornfire said gently. “It was rushed early, triggered by the flight, and you are young for a matriarch.”
“I’m fourteen winters,” she whispered.
Hawkwind shivered. She might have a chick, and Rainsoft would be the sire.
“Even if you do, you won’t be able to tell for a month or more, and it won’t bother you for another month or two after that. It would be about eight months before the birth. If you don’t conceive, then you’ll keep having heats for a day or so once every month or two until you do.”
A low keen built in her throat. “I don’t know if I want this,” she said.
“Should I have told you sooner?” Thornfire asked.
She darted a glance at him, but he looked honestly contrite, and even a little uncomfortable.
“It’s not normal for a male to be telling a new matriarch about all this, even though males know it, and share it with younger males, when they become mature, although I don’t know if anyone told Rainsoft anything. Usually, the retiring matriarch passes on this sort of thing and more to her successor.”
“All males mate?” Hawkwind asked.
“Possibly,” he answered, now looking even more uncomfortable in his turn. “It depends on if they are chosen by a matriarch they like. Sometimes matriarchs have particular favorites, or, very rarely, just one favorite, but it’s not healthy for the Line if all offspring have the same sire. It’s best for a matriarch to choose many different males, including ones from other Aeries if ever visiting.”
“And males come into heat, too?”
“Males get interested in mating if there’s a matriarch around who is in heat. We can tell, and it affects us. We behave differently depending on our age and personality and if we like that matriarch. If we don’t like her, we just stay out of the way until she has chosen someone else and recovered. Even if we do like her, we have to be careful. If she doesn’t want a particular male, but he’s pushy anyway, she might claw him up to make her point.”
Hawkwind clenched her hands on the rocks around the campfire. “It doesn’t overwhelm you and control you and make you lose your mind?”
He smiled a little. “Not until it’s clear the matriarch has chosen and the flight comes to its end. You know, it may be disconcerting now, but some would consider you lucky. I don’t think you can say this situation is all unpleasant.”
Hawkwind looked back at the firestone, still not knowing how to feel.
“Starbright is my daughter,” he said suddenly, and Hawkwind gaped at him. “Don’t tell her. She doesn’t know.”
Hawkwind nodded agreement. She’d suspected their relationship was close and wondered about it, but hadn’t suspected that the mage had sired his apprentice. Their colorations were somewhat similar, however, and now that Hawkwind knew, she could think of more ways they were similar, too. She suspected that he’d passed on his magical abilities to her if that was the way it worked.
It was normal that a griffin wouldn’t know its sire. Hawkwind didn’t know who hers had been although she’d had a suspicion: not that it mattered anymore. There were reasons why chicks weren’t told. Sires always came from other Lines, and regardless of a chick’s sex, its duty was to be loyal to its birth Line. Withholding the information could also prevent bullying or teasing in some situations. It was also sometimes the case that a matriarch would mate with more than one male during her heat and wouldn’t know which was the father of the chick.
Male chicks found mentors among the older males of their own Line. Both females and males were almost never raised by their mother, getting passed to other members of the Line, so it wasn’t like either of their birth parents played a major role in their lives. Hawkwind had been raised by her grandmother. To her, Hawkbrave had been her most important family member, closer to her than her actual mother, who had been busy with leading the Line and having more chicks anyway.
“Starkind, her mother—retired now of course—is a particularly good friend of mine, and we made a couple other Starchicks, too, but only Bright inherited my magic. Mages are always popular and I never rejected other matriarchs either. So, I’ve been through what you’re going through, in a way,” Thornfire continued. “Yet you also have so much more to deal with. I want to help you, Hawkwind, but it won’t be easy. You are now the matriarch of the Hawk Line. If you embrace that, it will give you power and purpose, even more than you had when you took on the goal of seeing those human children to safety.
“We have a task here. I will find my brother. You and Rainsoft will retrieve the Sun and Moonstones. If Rainsoft did indeed come from Snow-in-lee, there may be even more we accomplish. His past, whatever it may be, waits down there in that city full of talis. If we can get through all this, we will go back to South-scree with whatever and whomever we find. Then I will do everything in my power to help you find a home, where you and your children—both human and griffin—can be safe.”
Hawkwind awoke curled up with Rainsoft in his room. The wind had whistled all night long, covering any sound of their companionship. She should have been exhausted, having gotten only intermittent sleep, but somehow she strode to the sunrise side of camp feeling alert and ready. Her spirit had settled and now waited patiently for the right moment to leap to action. Today the investigation of fabled Snow-in-lee would begin.
She felt a touch on her shoulder and turned, expecting Rainsoft, but it was Jessika: shivering slightly and with sleep-grit still stuck to her umber eyelashes.
“Did you sleep well, Princess?” Hawkwind asked, softly enough that no one else would hear.
The girl ran her fingers through Hawkwind’s fur. “I’m not a princess anymore, Hawkwind,” she objected, eyes on the rocky dirt.
“Sure you are,” Hawkwind smiled. “You’re my princess, the Princess of Northnest, and I am your Feathyr, sworn to protect you. Don’t forget it.”
Jessika’s face twisted up for a moment, about to cry, but then the girl forced herself to take a shaky breath and calm the tears away.
“You’re going to Snow-in-lee today?” the girl asked.
“I think so. We’ll at least investigate around it. We might not go in.”
Jessika hugged her foreleg. “Be careful. You’re my Feathyr. I need you to protect me, like you said.”
“I’ll be careful,” Hawkwind assured her. “I need you to take care of Rikah and the others, and do what Starbright says, all right?”
“We will. I’ll see you later, then?”
“Of course,” Hawkwind smiled.
The girl ran back to the room she shared with the other children. Rainsoft and Starbright were both emerging from their rooms with much stretching and groaning. Thornfire strode out of his nest, giving a nod of good morning to Hawkwind, and took a look over the gravel entryway, towards Snow-in-lee. Hawkwind caught Rainsoft’s eye and gestured, “good morning” to him. He returned it and they both trotted over to join Thornfire.
“I trust you both will stay with me today,” the mage said, “and not go flying off. Things should have settled down by now, hmm, Hawkwind?”
She only blushed a little as she nodded. Indeed, the roiling passion of the previous half-day had all but vanished, and she felt calm and ready now: back to her old self.
“Rainsoft,” Thornfire summoned, “you lived in Snow-in-lee?”
The grey griffin nodded in confirmation. “It’s all I remember,” he gestured, and Hawkwind translated aloud.
“Your mother, father?” Thornfire questioned.
“They were there,” he confirmed, brows lowering like rain clouds.
“Thornfire,” Hawkwind interrupted, “you could write your questions in the dirt, and Rainsoft can read them and answer them fluently the same way.”
“A good idea,” the mage agreed, sweeping away an area of gravel and extending a claw for writing.
“But say everything aloud, if you don’t mind,” she went on. “I want to know everything, too, and I can’t read quickly yet.”
“What was life like there?” Thornfire said, as he wrote in the dirt. Rainsoft scratched out a reply and Thornfire read it. “We lived in one big room,” the mage reported. “We never left it. We were fed. Meat was dropped in through a hole near the roof. There was also a door, but it rarely opened. There was a window, too, high in the wall, and narrow. We could see only a stone wall through it.”
“You were prisoners?” Hawkwind commented, stunned.
“We could not leave the room,” Thornfire went on reading as Rainsoft wrote. “I was born there. I never flew more than a flapping hop. I can’t speak. My parents and siblings can’t speak either.”
“Why not?” Thornfire asked.
Rainsoft touched his throat and wrote with his other hand. Thornfire read, “I saw, when my little sister was born. The—I don’t know this word: brakil?” Thornfire pointed to it, and Rainsoft made a gesture that Hawkwind assumed was the sign language for the word, but it didn’t mean anything to her. Thornfire kept reading. “The brakil came into the room after she was born. I was terrified. I had never seen them before that I remember. I was only a few years old. My parents let them take my sister. They cut into her throat. She screamed. They kept cutting until she couldn’t scream anymore. Then they left.”
Rainsoft stopped writing. His wings were trembling and Hawkwind wrapped one of hers around him. “Thornfire, let’s stop,” she whispered.
“No,” he refused. “I need this information. I have to know what the situation is down there.” He brushed away Rainsoft’s writing and scratched his own. “Draw a brakil, please.”
In the blank area below the command, Rainsoft started sketching with a claw. A long, round body with no limbs but spiny fins along its length and around its head emerged. It looked like some sort of snake. It had the first quarter of its body reared up, much like a snake. Rainsoft drew a quick sort of scale pattern along some of its back. “Big,” he wrote beside it; Hawkwind could read that word. “Sharp,” he went on, drawing an arrow to indicate its pointed, barb-like tail.
“That is a talis,” Thornfire said softly. “As I suspected, they are keeping some of our people captive.”
“Why?” Hawkwind asked, shivering.
“They need them to keep the Sun and Moonstones running,” he said briefly. “Rainsoft,” he began writing again. “How did you escape?” Rainsoft started writing, and Thornfire continued to read out his words. “The brakil, talis, came again, years later, and took my older brother. My parents didn’t stop them; they just stood still. My brother, too, just stopped, and let himself be taken. I wasn’t as scared this time, but didn’t know what to do, so I just stood and watched, too. I didn’t know why no one tried to stop the talis. I never saw my brother again. A few years later, they came again. They came for me.”
“Why?” Hawkwind asked. “Why did they take you and your brother?”
“Later,” Thornfire told her. “What happened when they tried to take you?” he wrote for Rainsoft.
“My parents stood still, like times before,” Rainsoft wrote for Thornfire to read aloud. “When they had taken my brother, they wrapped him up in their coils and dragged him out the door that way. They approached me. The door was still open.”
Rainsoft stopped writing and stared at the ground, as if thinking hard. He swept away the words and slowly and deliberately, starting writing again.
“My parents taught me to read, write, and speak with my hands,” he wrote. “We had some books. The room we lived in was big enough to walk and run around in. The ceiling was high and we flapped and hopped but never flew. Most of the time we read or slept or told stories. My parents told us hundreds of stories, mostly about the talis. They said the talis were powerful beings that ruled over us. They didn’t seem to fear them, but rather they thought that the talis were caring for us.”
His brow furrowed and he wiped away the words in the dirt so he could keep going, the strokes of his claw getting more vigorous. “They said the talis had brought them together, and kept them safe, and fed them. They told me that when my brother was taken, it was so he could be given to his fated mate, to be with forever and have a family with. They told me that I would be taken, too, for the same thing, that it was a day I could look forward to, and not something to fear.”
Rainsoft cleared his slate again, with a furious swipe. “I could not accept what they said. They comforted me and assured me that someday I would understand. I did not know why they so calmly accepted the situation. I was curious. I wanted to know what was outside the room, where the talis were. The meat we received looked like another kind of creature to me, and I wondered what it was, where it lived, what it ate. I did not want to live the same life my parents had lived. I did not know why they never resisted the talis, but I decided that I would, when the talis came for me.”
This time, after he rubbed away his words, Rainsoft sat for a while, staring at the ground, Hawkwind retracted her wing from around him, now that he seemed less traumatized. He noticed, looked up, gave her a smile, and briefly preened her neck feathers.
“I didn’t want to cause a problem around my parents or sister,” he wrote for Thornfire to read. “When the talis came, I stood quietly and let them wrap me in their coils. My parents didn’t even bid me farewell. My brother hadn’t told them goodbye, so I didn’t either. They took me out of the room I had spent my whole life in and into a long narrow room. I now know it is called a hallway. They took me down the hallway a long way, to another door. I looked around. The hallway turned. I had no idea what was beyond it. The talis put me down to open the door. I ran.”
Hawkwind stared at him, an intense sensation of pride making her chest tremble like a newborn butterfly’s wings. Rainsoft cleared his writing again.
“At first, they didn’t notice. They weren’t paying attention to me. Then I heard them hiss with anger. I had never heard them make a sound before. I ran, and I was sure they would catch me. I got tired right away; I had never run so much. I didn’t know where to go. I got lost in so many hallways. I ran up and down stairs searching for a safe place. I was surprised I outran the talis. I found an exit to the building I was in. I saw the sky.”
It was Thornfire’s voice saying the words, and he was using an even and measured tone, but looking at Rainsoft’s face gave all the intonation needed. His orange eyes lit up much like a clearing sky.
“I tried to fly,” he wrote, “but I could hardly even hop, so I ran. I saw a few more talis, but they couldn’t catch me. It took me hours to find a way out of the city. I located a warm river. There were talis along it, and they were faster than the others had been. I was exhausted, but the talis were mean, trying to bite me and stab me with their tails, so I dared not stop. I knew then that they were not our gods, or not any gods worth living forever in a single room for. I ran and I kept running. I had no idea where I was going, or what this world was. I didn’t know how I would survive or what dangers I would face out in the world, beyond some old legends my parents had recited.”
“Your journey is remarkable,” Thornfire said, writing it at the same time. “I see why you were so confused and scared when you were captured and wing cut and locked up in South-scree.”
“I learned to hunt and learned to fly,” Rainsoft wrote. “I almost died of hunger before I managed to catch my first prey. I never saw other griffins until your people caught me. I am afraid to go back, but I also want to save my parents, and brother and sister. I don’t see why the talis have the right or power to keep us captive.”
Thornfire quickly cleared away his words and started explaining. “Rainsoft, you are special. The talis, brakil, hypnotize griffins. Most griffins can’t stop staring at them, and lose their ability to think, move, or resist. Very few griffins are immune to that. The reason you were able to escape is because you are. Your parents and siblings were helpless against the talis. That is probably why your parents learned to accept their fate and love the talis. There was nothing they could do.”
Rainsoft’s jaw muscles were bulging. He wrote curtly, “I didn’t know.”
“They hypnotize me, too,” Thornfire admitted. “That is the biggest danger to us. You have a unique immunity.”
Hawkwind wondered if she would be immune, too, but expected she wouldn’t be at the same time she hoped she’d never have to find out.
“Do you have any idea how many griffins are in Snow-in-lee?” Thornfire asked.
Rainsoft shook his head. “And I don’t know how to find them. I got lost getting away. I don’t think I’d be able to find the room I lived in again.”
Thornfire straightened. “Well, today we’ll just fly over. The talis can’t hurt us from the ground, and they have poor distance vision. They probably wouldn’t be able to see us, even if they looked up.”
Hawkwind filed away that morsel of information and nodded her agreement. “Are we ready then?”
“Let’s have a nice flight,” Thornfire smiled. “Rainsoft,” he said fervently. “Thank you.”
Rainsoft nodded and gestured, “you’re welcome. It felt good to be able to tell someone.” Hawkwind translated his signing.
The three of them launched, one after the other, off the gravel entryway. Wings stretched to catch the air, they took up the formation they’d briefly had the previous day, and Thornfire led them over the mountain peaks towards the steaming valley of Snow-in-lee.