Into the Wilderness
Hawkwind wasn’t sure how long she’d slept, but it hadn’t been deep or comforting. Under her wings, two children on one side were stirring. The other two were completely still. Concerned, she lifted that wing, but they were just sleeping, far more deeply than she herself had. She checked the other side. There, the two girls were snuggling closer to each other for warmth. The older girl looked up.
“Hawkwind?” she asked.
“Oh, you know my name,” Hawkwind said, surprised.
“Mother made us learn the names of all the Feathyrs. She said it was important for the family.”
The family? Hawkwind stared at the little girl. Her long brown hair was tangled and her face smudged with dirt, tears, and probably blood. She had a long lavender dress on. White lace and beading decorated it finely. It was ripped across one shoulder so it slipped a little down her back, exposing her shoulder blade. There, as clear and obvious as the coming dawn, was a tattoo done in golden ink of a stylized wing. There would be a matching one on her other shoulder blade.
“You’re,” Hawkwind breathed, trailing off as her chest tightened.
She’d rescued the child princess, the youngest member of the royal family, and so tattooed shortly after birth, as all members of the family were, with wings on her back to symbolize the alliance between the royals of Northnest and the griffin Feathyrs.
“Jessa,” the girl murmured.
Jessika, the child princess: she was probably the only surviving member of her family. There had been three children: a teenage princess, a child prince, and a child princess. There was the ruling couple, and their parents, plus a few aunts and uncles and cousins. Hawkwind had seen most of them dead with her own eyes.
“What are we doing now, Hawkwind?” the girl asked.
The griffin tried to adjust the girl’s dress to cover her back, ignoring her big, scared eyes. In response to her action, the girl reached up, found the two torn ends and tied them together above her shoulder, shifting how the dress sat on her, but keeping it from falling off.
“We’re going up the mountain,” Hawkwind said.
“Into the mountains?”
“Yes. Get up.”
Hawkwind pushed to her feet, nearly staggering when the pain hit. On the ground, the other children stirred, objecting to the loss of their heat source.
“I’m hungry,” said the littlest boy. The others concurred with varying levels of timidity and implied demand: provide food.
Hawkwind clenched her jaw. Human children didn’t eat raw meat. She wondered if it would make them sick. It was spring; there would be no berries yet. Her training had never covered how to provide for humans without a camp and a fire—neither of which she had nor could risk making. She looked back in the direction of the castle and strained her ears. All was quiet, for the moment. She didn’t pause to allow her imagination to provide images of what might be going on back in her home; she focused on her current situation. Did she dare search for food, leaving the children in the tree-ring, while still this close to the castle? Younglings of any species needed to eat frequently: she knew that. What could she find? What if she were seen? What if drakes found the children while she was away?
“No,” she decided. “We have to travel now. I know you’re hungry, but you have to wait.”
Three of the children immediately voiced their objections.
“Hush now,” the child princess commanded, surprising Hawkwind. “Hawkwind is in charge. We have to do as she says. We can’t eat yet, but she will take care of us, and we’ll eat soon.”
The others quieted, pouting.
Hawkwind moved to the northern edge of the tree-ring and poked her head out. A scan of the underbrush revealed nothing obviously dangerous. Looking up, she could see the dim sky through the leaves. Dawn was coming, and the storm had abated. She could think of no better course of action than to get moving, to get as far away from the castle as possible, but to where?
She knelt. “Come get on.”
The children tottered over and climbed onto her, holding onto her harness straps again. Her back and legs ached at the weight.
“You’re hurt,” Jessika, the princess, commented as Hawkwind began moving off into the forest.
“I’ll be all right,” the griffin assured her.
“See? Hawkwind is taking care of us, even though she’s hurt,” the girl told the other children. “We have to be good, too.”
Hawkwind moved on, into the undergrowth, lifting her wings to shield the children from branches. She climbed steadily up the rising hillside.
“Will they follow us?” whispered the princess.
She, at least, understood something of what had happened to them, Hawkwind reflected.
“They might,” the griffin answered truthfully. “I’m not sure if they know how many children were in the nursery with you, and if they’ll notice if any are missing, if they do a count.”
“But those things,” she went on, her voice even quieter, “they saw us get away.”
“Rainbow drakes,” Hawkwind named them for her. “They can’t speak. They won’t be able to tell their masters what they saw.”
“So they’re not like you?”
“Correct. Drakes are nothing like griffins.”
“Why did they come here?”
“I don’t know, Princess.”
“You can call me Jessa, or Jessika.”
Hawkwind climbed over a large fallen tree trunk and dropped down to the other side with a heavy thump. The princess suddenly grabbed at her wing and Hawkwind worried she’d almost knocked the child off, but that wasn’t it.
“That looks like snow-celery,” she proclaimed.
“There. Let me down.”
Hawkwind knelt with a stifled groan and lowered her wing so the girl could reach the ground. She ran over on spindly legs and fastened her skinny hands around a bright green, stalked plant.
“Are you certain, Princess?” Hawkwind cautioned. “What if it’s poisonous?”
“It looks just the same,” she grunted, tugging at the stalks now.
Hawkwind extended her talons and cut the clump away.
“It smells right.” The girl took a crunchy bite. “It tastes right.”
Another child jumped down, and the princess gave him a stalk.
“It’s good,” he said.
The other two got down also and within seconds all four were feasting on the juicy plant. Hawkwind furrowed her brows. She had no idea if it was the right plant or not. She ate almost exclusively meat. Sometimes she partook of prepared dishes that included vegetables, but she’d never paid much attention. She’d have to trust the princess.
“All right, eat while I walk,” she prodded. “Get back on.”
The children, gripping the stalks in their teeth and grubby fists, climbed back up onto her back. The sharp snow-celery scent and the sounds of crunching filled the air.
“I really hope it’s the right plant, Princess,” she muttered worriedly.
“It is. It’s safe. I’ve seen it bunches of times.”
“In the kitchens. They give me extra cookies there.”
“I don’t like snow-celery,” commented another child, “but this is really good.”
“That’s because you’re hungry and thirsty,” Hawkwind said.
She was relieved that they’d found something, at least, to put in their stomachs, as long as it didn’t make them sick. The sun rose, sending bright spears of light through the misty trees. The drakes could hunt at night or in the day; their sonar and excellent vision made them versatile fliers. The trees would help conceal the escapees, and the variety of textures and shapes might confuse the sonar—or so Hawkwind hoped—but if an intense search was underway, there was a good chance they’d be found.
She tried to quicken her steps, ignoring the pinch of hunger in her own belly, and the sparks and aches of injuries. Keeping part of her attention attuned to listening for danger, she tried to recall maps she’d seen of Northnest and the surrounding countries. She and the children were heading north. There were no countries that the people of Northnest knew of up there. To them, it was a wilderness of rough, untamable mountains that no one but the rare hunting party ventured into.
A memory, a faint voice teased Hawkwind, echoing from her chickhood.
“O’er the rocky breezes flew,
The wild, the flocks of Snow-in-lee,
Free on the wind, my heart will be,
Top o’ the world, and home to me.”
The princess paused in her snow-celery crunching. “What’s that?”
Hawkwind twitched her feathers in embarrassment, realizing she’d sung it out loud.
“Great-grandmother Hawkmoon sang that to me, in the nest, when I was a chick,” she explained.
“What does it mean?”
“I’m not sure. Princess, do you know what is north of Northnest?”
“North of Northnest?” she echoed. “Nothing.”
“Nothing?” Hawkwind retorted, amused. “Then what are we in now? This is nothing?”
“This is still Northnest, isn’t it?”
“I suppose it could be. So the land will soon vanish, when we reach the border?”
“Uh.” The girl seemed caught without an answer. “I guess there will be something, but not people.”
“Snow-in-lee,” Hawkwind murmured.
“Perhaps my people are north of Northnest.”
“Griffins?” the bolder boy chimed in. “There are more than just the Feathyrs at home?”
“There were, many generations ago,” Hawkwind explained. “The Feathyrs came from them, originally.”
“I know the story,” the princess put in eagerly. “My great-great-great-great many times great-grandmother saved Featherfire’s life, and they made a pact to help each other, and together they called for peace between the people and the griffins, who were all fighting, and in the end, some of the griffins joined Featherfire and chose to live with the people, in the castle, where they would be safe from more griffin wars, and wouldn’t have to hunt, and would defend the people in return. Then the other griffins went away.”
Hawkwind nodded. “Yes, that’s just about right.”
The version she’d been told was slightly different, but close enough. The point was that the other griffins, the defeated ones, had gone north, deeper into their remaining territory, and no one had seen any since.
“So what’s Snow-in-lee?” the little boy asked.
“It’s the griffin city, I think,” Hawkwind said. At least, that was what she had always assumed Snow-in-lee was. She supposed it could be something else: a mountain, a forest, a waterfall, just a named rocky outcropping, or a fictional place entirely.
“Is that where we’re going?” Jessika asked.
Hawkwind hesitated. She didn’t know where they were going, but perhaps the children would feel better if they thought they had a destination.
“Yes,” she told them.
“A trip?” the formerly silent littler girl said.
“An adventure,” the bold boy corrected her.
Jessika patted Hawkwind on her head. “Teach us the song, the one about Snow-in-lee.”
“All right,” she agreed, “but you must sing it quietly, or you’ll disturb the forest.”
It might make it easier for the drakes to find them, if four children were caroling at the tops of their voices. The lungs of young human children were remarkably effective, Hawkwind had observed.
“We will, Hawkwind,” Jessika agreed for all of them.
As softly as she could, she began to sing.
“O’er the rocky breezes flew,
The wild, the flocks of Snow-in-lee,
Free on the wind, my heart will be,
Top o’ the world, and home to me.”
The children quickly picked it up, and Hawkwind walked on into the day, up and up the mountainside, surrounded by the young voices repeating back to her the old song.
They stopped for sleep that night in a gap under a fallen tree. It was at the bottom of a narrow ravine, overhung with branches, through which a trickle of water ran over mossy stones. At one spot, the water collected in a tiny pool among some rocks. Hawkwind directed the children to drink from the pool, and wash their hands and faces downstream of it, where the water cascaded in the most miniature of waterfalls. The children were fussy with hunger, and Hawkwind’s empty tummy, too, was no pleasant thing.
They were now nearly two days walk from Northnest. Hawkwind had seen no sign of pursuers. The camp under the tree, in the ravine, had been a lucky find. She felt safer there than she had in the past three days. Some things needed to be done.
“Princess,” she whispered, drawing the girl aside. “Can you make a small, smokeless fire?”
The girl’s face pinched with regret. “With what, twigs and branches? I could do it with flint and steel.”
Hawkwind pulled the small flint and short, sheathed dagger that she’d taken from the tunnel from the little pack all Feathyrs wore. The girl’s face lit up.
“You have them,” she exclaimed.
“Only you use them,” Hawkwind emphasized. “You’re the oldest and should be the best at handling them. I don’t want anyone getting carelessly cut. We’re all already injured enough.”
“I’ll be careful, Hawkwind,” the princess promised.
“Can I make you the official fire maker?”
“Yes, Hawkwind,” she agreed eagerly.
“You must burn only dry wood, with no moss on it, to help the fire stay smokeless. Understand?”
“Yes, Hawkwind,” the girl repeated.
“I’ll collect some for you. Stay here and make a ring of stones on bare dirt.”
The griffin climbed up the ravine walls, trying not to disturb any vegetation or leave any other signs of her passing. Finding dry wood was no easy thing, after the rain of the previous night. Dusk was well underway when Hawkwind returned, burdened with dead branches. The children were shivering and the two youngest were crying weakly.
“See,” the princess soothed, “Hawkwind came back, and she brought us wood for a fire, so we’ll be warm.”
“A small fire,” the griffin reiterated. “Keep it under close control.”
“I will be back.”
“Where are you going?”
“To hunt,” she explained. “I will bring back meat, and you will cook it, to eat.”
“Food,” caroled the other children.
“Hush,” scolded both the princess and Hawkwind.
“I might not return for a few hours. Sleep, be still, keep the fire small and hidden, and wait here for me.”
Hawkwind went up the ravine again. She hoped to find a buck deer, eat most of it for herself, and bring back some of the higher quality muscle meat, like a haunch, for the children. She followed the ravine north, away from the castle, and hopefully towards a place where deer were able to make a trail to the water, to drink.
In the end, she didn’t find a deer, but did discover a small group of young boar, probably a bachelor group. Boars were dangerous, but she managed to frighten them with her size and aggression so that they tried to flee instead of gore her with their tusks in self-defense. A pounce upon the slowest of the group, crushing it to the ground with her body weight, and a swift severing of the spine with her bill earned her a kill without any injury to herself.
The small boar wasn’t as hearty a meal as a deer would have been, but knowing she had starving human younglings to feed, she ate mainly the viscera, removed the head which might upset the children, and brought the rest back to the camp in the ravine. She landed amid drowsy but eager welcomes, and brought the boar to the tidy little campfire the princess had made.
“What an excellent fire,” she praised, gaining her a tired smile.
“I put this flat rock by the fire,” the girl explained. “I washed it off in the river. We can cook meat on it?”
“That sounds like a great idea,” Hawkwind said.
Between her talons and the princess wielding the little dagger, they cut strips and shreds of meat and passed them to the biggest boy, who used sticks to arrange them on the rock and monitor their status. The two littlest children huddled nearby, drooling and stuffing in each bit of cooked meat as fast as the biggest boy could hand them over.
When the littlest ones had bulging tummies and thoroughly grease-smeared faces and hands, and were falling over with weariness, the princess and the oldest boy paused to tuck them into beds made of piled leaves and grasses at the back of the under-tree camp. Then, the two older children devoured most of the rest of the boar, sating the rumbly hunger demons in their bellies, too.
Hawkwind nudged the two of them into their own grassy beds—which they must have constructed while she was out hunting—where they fell asleep immediately. The griffin was still hungry, but knew she could tolerate it better than the little ones, so she found some wide, thick leaves growing over the river, wrapped the remains of the boar in them, and tucked them under the glowing coals of the campfire, hoping the meat would cook by morning.
She noted that the children had arranged the beds in pairs, with the smallest children deeper under the fallen tree nook, and a gap between the pairs just right for her to lie down as she had before, putting two children under one wing, and two under the other. She did so, meaning to stay awake and on guard, but her weariness gripped her too firmly, and she sank into heavy slumber.