They went out through the door Thornfire had first shown Hawkwind as the way in. The freed griffins stared at dirt and grass in wonder. It was sometimes hard to keep moving, as they would stop to gaze at plants and stones along the path or the clouds and mountains in the distance. They learned quickly not to stare directly at the sun. The talis, at least, did not pursue them, so it seemed their lack of speed would not invite disaster this time, and Hawkwind finally felt safe for the first time since entering Snow-in-lee hours ago.
She set her mind instead to wondering if they would all fit in the high mountain camp, and how they would all be fed. One by one, the huge group filed into the camp, crowding in closer and closer. When it was Hawkwind’s turn, she passed a stunned Starbright with a nervous Karo clinging to her back.
“Hi,” Hawkwind greeted, and it took a moment before Starbright responded.
“Hi,” she murmured dreamily. “Where did they all come from?”
“Snow-in-lee. They were the prisoners the talis were keeping, like Rainsoft.”
“How are we going to feed them? I only caught one buck this morning, and I was going to share it with the children. How did the talis feed them?”
“The prisoners never did much exercise,” Hawkwind surmised. “I don’t suppose they needed to eat every day. The talis just fed them enough to stay alive. It will be a problem now though, especially since none of them know how to hunt.”
“They have to learn,” Starbright demanded, still staring around dazed at the crowd.
“Where are Jessika and the others?” Hawkwind asked, noting that only Karo was with her.
“They’re somewhere among the griffins. Kassandra walked right up to the first new one and started talking to it with her hands.”
Thornwing stepped up to them. “I guess none of these griffins can speak?”
“Not aloud,” Hawkwind confirmed. “They talk with hand gestures.”
He nodded towards Rainsoft, who was wandering among the milling griffins. “So does he? I haven’t heard him speak.”
“Rainsoft was a prisoner, too, but he can resist the talis entrancement, like you can, and he escaped. South-scree caught him. He knows how to write the same language you in South-scree use, so eventually we started finding ways to communicate. I’ve been learning how to speak with my hands and write your way, and he’s been learning to understand our spoken language, but he’ll never be able to speak, and nor will these others. According to Rainsoft, the talis destroyed their vocal cords when they were chicks.”
“I see,” Thornwing frowned. “Where are you from then? You speak of South-scree as if it isn’t your home. Your name is Hawkwind but there is no Hawk Line anymore. And, is that a human child on your back? And you’re Starbright, right? You’ve grown.”
“It’s not, and he is,” Hawkwind confirmed, as Starbright nodded, saying, “I am.”
“I’m Karo,” the little boy whispered.
“The human children are mine,” Hawkwind went on explaining. “We’re from Northnest.”
“Northnest,” Thornwing echoed, “is not a myth?”
“Not a myth,” she nodded. “I’ll tell you all about it later.”
Thornfire came up to the group. “That’s all of them. They’re quite packed in, aren’t they?”
The freed griffins had started settling down on the bare stone in their family groups, but the families were crowded so closely together that they could hardly be told apart. The camp wasn’t that big, and a hundred and thirty-something griffins filled it to capacity.
“At least they shouldn’t be cold, packed so tightly together,” Hawkwind mused. “Are we staying here overnight?”
“We should get moving as quickly as we can, but a night here wouldn’t hurt,” Thornfire shrugged. “They’ve already had a lot of trauma for one day, and we need rest.”
“Then we go back to South-scree?” Thornwing asked. “Where do you expect to put this many new arrivals? This is almost the population of an Aerie.”
“Will they even be welcomed?” Hawkwind remarked darkly.
Thornfire gritted his bill. “You both make excellent points,” he ground out. “I will handle it.”
“It’s like we need a new settlement for them. Too bad they couldn’t safely live in Snow-in-lee,” Starbright shrugged.
“After what they’ve been through, I’m not sure how they would feel about that, if it were even possible. With the talis there, I think it would be impossible,” Thornfire shook his head. “Even without the Sun and Moonstones, the original spring will remain and the talis might continue to use it; they are water-dwellers. We might someday drive out the talis, but I suspect a population of them will remain there for now.”
Hawkwind noticed a few of the griffins poking at the buck Starbright had deposited on the rocks at one side of the camp. The golden griffin growled when Hawkwind pointed it out.
“You handle who eats it. I’ll go catch more,” the apprentice grumped.
Karo took the hint, sliding down from her back and then clambering up onto Hawkwind’s. In a few bounds Starbright was airborne and circling away. Many of the freed griffins followed her with looks of awe and longing in their eyes, succeeded by rapid and silent hand communication among themselves. Hawkwind strode over to the buck, making the curious griffins around it look up guiltily.
“Hungry?” she asked them by hand.
They made the deflecting, suppressive gestures Hawkwind had used herself that morning when speaking with Icemoon.
“Who is hungriest?” Hawkwind went on.
One dark brown griffin looked her squarely in the eyes. “The chicks should eat it,” he told her.
Other nearby griffins nodded in agreement.
“Jessika, Kassandra, Rikah,” Hawkwind called—an easy thing to do since the gathered griffins were mostly silent, despite their numbers and ongoing conversations.
The human children came running through the crowd, startling griffins who hadn’t seen them yet.
“You brought so many griffins,” Jessika exclaimed. “Kassandra has been helping us meet them all.”
“I’m glad you’re enjoying it,” Hawkwind smiled at them. “So tell me, have you all eaten this morning?”
“Not yet,” they answered, shaking their heads.
Hawkwind turned to the buck and sawed a ragged, bloody steak out of one haunch. Rikah lifted up his hands for it and she passed it over.
“I’ll cook it,” the boy assured her, trotting it over to the Sunstone.
“Kassandra, will you tell everyone that the rest of this buck is to be shared among the littlest chicks, and invite them to come over?” Hawkwind asked.
The dark haired girl nodded seriously and began wandering among the griffins, gesturing and pointing. Being so little, it was easy for her to wind her way between them. She even boldly tugged on fur or feathers to get their attention. The news rapidly spread as bewildered griffins told their neighbors.
“They don’t know what to make of her,” Thornwing said from behind Hawkwind. “I’ve never seen a human either, but I’ve at least heard of them. Are they all this small?”
“These are human fledglings,” she assured him with a weary smile. “They’ll get bigger, up to twice their current height.”
“You can talk,” Jessika said to Thornwing. “Are you Thornfire’s brother?”
“I am,” he answered, eyes crinkling with mirth. “What has he been saying about me?”
“Mostly that he really wanted to find you,” the girl told him.
“And who are you?”
“I’m Jessika, from Northnest. Hawkwind is taking care of me and the others.”
“I gathered that. I hope to hear your whole story soon.”
“All right,” she said, but Hawkwind read her expression as doubtful and evasive, although it was unlikely that Thornwing—seeing humans for the first time—would be able to read the subtleties of her expression. The girl was already grasping the idea that she should be careful about telling all the facts of her story. None of the South-scree griffins knew yet that she was the only living heir of Northnest. Hawkwind couldn’t decide whether they would even care, but had chosen to keep it secret just in case.
“Have you seen Rainsoft?” Hawkwind asked before the girl could scamper off to get some cooked strips of meat that Rikah was now handing to Karo and Kassandra.
She pointed. “Over there, with that black griffin and the grey one and the black and grey one and them.”
Hawkwind looked, finally spotting Rainsoft huddled in a tight mutual preening group with four or five other griffins.
“That must be his family,” Hawkwind murmured. “Thanks, Jessika. Go ahead and get some food.”
The girl ran off, dodging fearlessly between sharp bills and claws until she skidded to a stop by the Sunstone. The gathered griffins began shifting about as parents led or carried their littlest chicks over to the buck. Some were still coated with down on their heads and wings. Once all were gathered, they seemed to discuss the disposition of the meat and then began tearing off bits to feed to the shrill, piping baby mouths.
“I would go bring another kill,” Thornwing spoke up, “but I’m afraid I am too weak. I wasn’t fed much and lost a lot of weight.”
“How did they catch you?” Hawkwind asked him.
“Arrogance,” he answered grimly. “I observed them a long time. I thought I’d begun to understand some of their language. I finally thought I would try to communicate with them. They surrounded me, ignoring all my attempts at diplomacy. I tried to fight, to get away, but it was too late. I was overwhelmed by sheer numbers. They tossed me in that room. I don’t know what their eventual plans were for me, but they kept feeding me.”
“You know what they were doing to the prisoners?” Hawkwind checked.
“I do. I saw it.” His bill clamped shut for a moment. “I thought I could talk to them, eventually convince them to stop it. I couldn’t bear seeing and hearing another sacrifice.” A shudder ran the length of his body and he re-tucked his wings. “They didn’t kill the sacrifices before they put them on the hooks. They just ran the point of the hook under the ribs, lowered them over the Stones, and left them hanging.”
“I don’t want to hear this,” Hawkwind said weakly, her imagination creating vivid visions of what that would have looked and sounded like.
“Sorry. I suppose they would have tried to sacrifice me, too, but I was too difficult to handle, because they couldn’t hypnotize me. It seems like each room held a family group. I wonder if they would have eventually put a female in with me, but then I suppose I would have caused problems when they came to hurt my chicks, if I made any. I suppose I might have declined doing that.”
Hawkwind flicked her feathers in a shrug.
“This is another problem, isn’t it,” Thornwing went on. “There is no matriarch here. All these females are mothers with a single mate, and their bodies are not likely to go back to sleep, except maybe daughters whose mothers are still alive and awakened. You were right to wonder if South-scree would welcome them.”
Hawkwind tried to hide her discomfort at that. She was now an awakened female, too. She had no chicks but she assumed that any matriarch would be able to detect her condition somehow. They probably wouldn’t want her in South-scree, much less somewhere around forty actively breeding females.
“What do we do with them?” she wondered aloud.
“I don’t know,” he admitted. “The more immediate problem is how we’re going to feed them.”
“We can’t stay here. This is too crowded. I can’t think about it right now,” Hawkwind shook her head: the many questions and unknowns pressing on her like a stormy sky.
“It will work out,” Thornwing soothed automatically.
Hawkwind looked up as a shadow passed over: Starbright bringing another kill. She set it down near the other one, in one of the few remaining spots not occupied by dazed griffins. Hawkwind and Thornwing pushed their way over to it.
“For the pregnant females and older chicks, I suppose,” Thornwing sighed.
Hawkwind nodded in agreement and managed to communicate it to the freed griffins around her until the message was running through the gathering. There was more shuffling as certain griffins made their way to the kill, adult females and bigger chicks that could move about by themselves. Again an amicable discussion ensued and they divided up the buck on their own.
“At least they’re peaceable,” Starbright remarked.
“They’ve never had reason to fight and they’re all still too shocked,” Thornwing suggested. “I’m sure they’ll start causing all sorts of wonderful problems once they start to recover.”
He looked over to where Thornfire was still sleeping.
“I think I’ll rest a while, unless you need me,” he said.
“All of you rest,” Starbright nodded. “I’ll stay on watch, and wake you if there’s any problem. You, too, Hawkwind: you look ready to drop.”
Hawkwind was staring over towards Rainsoft as Thornwing walked to his brother to lie down. A strange sensation had fallen into her chest, like cold worms only slightly wiggling.
“He’s with his family again,” she muttered.
“So?” Starbright asked.
Hawkwind had to remind herself that Starbright wouldn’t understand, couldn’t understand. Hawkwind wasn’t even sure that she understood, herself. In fact, she wasn’t sure what she was even supposed to be understanding. Was she jealous, or envious?
“I’ll sleep,” she agreed. “Here is as good as anywhere. There are folks in my room.”
“All right,” the golden griffin shrugged, without asking any more about Hawkwind’s strange behavior, although the glance she gave her suggested that indeed, strange was the correct word.
Hawkwind curled up on the gravel: brows furrowed and face tight around her shuttered eyes.
“I mated with him,” she grumbled to herself, under her breath, “but so what? It wasn’t our faults. He was the only male around besides Thornfire, and there’s no way I’d, uh, no, I just wouldn’t, no, not with him. It’s just something griffin bodies do. It didn’t mean anything.”
Matriarchs had lots of different mates; Hawkwind knew that perfectly well. None of them meant much beyond a day of procreative exercise, although certainly they might be friends and allies. The males also might mate with a variety of matriarchs, if they were lucky, and that didn’t mean anything either, except that by doing so they kept the Lines healthy and flowing with new blood.
“I don’t even know if I want to be a matriarch,” she groaned softly.
And she had no one to talk to about it. There was no retiring mother to discuss it with, to get advice from. Plus, there wasn’t even anywhere for her to go be a matriarch in. Northnest was gone, taken, in the hands of hostile strangers, and there was little hope now of living in South-scree.
Hawkwind curled up as tightly as she could, tucking her head far under her wing, unable to quash or even consciously acknowledge that she wanted Rainsoft curled around her. She didn’t even have the excuse of being in heat, as she knew she wasn’t. That wouldn’t happen for some more weeks, if she weren’t pregnant already.
That thought scared her so much she failed to fight back a fit of trembling. How could she possibly raise a chick alone when she already had four human children and no Line to support her? As a random, lone griffin she would have had a chance to join a Line at South-scree. Now, the reality of her situation gripped her with icy claws. Again, she had nowhere to go; she was right back where she’d started when she’d escaped Northnest, except now it was worse. Now, she might be going to have a chick, and she was even marginally responsible for a whole bunch of helpless griffins that couldn’t speak aloud on top of that.
Her heart raced as her anxious thoughts beat down on her sanity and it was all she could do to not jump up and fly away, far away.
Then, someone tugged gently on one of her wing feathers, a preening nibble. Hawkwind peeked out between her primaries and saw charcoal grey fur: Rainsoft. Without waiting for an invitation he lay down and curled around her, still nibbling her feathers. He must have felt her pounding heart; he trilled gently, a sound used to sooth frightened fledglings. It worked.
Snuggled together, Hawkwind slept.