Afternoon sun warmed fur and feathers all around as everyone turned their eyes onto the unlikely pair perched on a ledge above the camp. Kassandra and Rainsoft were in the middle of a lesson. The gathered griffins were learning the spoken names of their rescuers and basic, essential spoken words. Kassandra was doing the talking and Rainsoft the translating: his hands moving so quickly that Hawkwind could hardly follow half of it. It seemed he was explaining a lot more than just the meaning of each word Kassandra felt was important for them to know. There was a lot of pointing and miming going on among the freed griffins as they were given directions to test their understanding.
Starbright was oblivious, sleeping now that Hawkwind and the others were awake again, after she’d fetched a couple more prey animals for everybody to get a nibble of. Thornfire and Thornwing were seated side by side, watching the lesson and talking intently but quietly together at the same time. The other three children were sitting with or on Hawkwind, chattering among themselves in hushed voices, mostly about the proceedings and how cute the griffin chicks were. Hawkwind hoped that all the parent griffins had firmly explained to their chicks that the little humans were not food. Chicks were likely to take a peck at anything that moved, and their bills might be smaller than an adult’s, but they were still wickedly sharp.
Hawkwind let her gaze wander over the group, spending a lot of time looking at Rainsoft’s family. His father was a light grey griffin, with some black in his wings, and was just a little bigger than Rainsoft. His mother was almost all black, but with white wing bars and edging to her tail feathers and white on her belly. Rainsoft’s little sister looked a lot like her mother, but her fur lightened to a rich grey on her head and feet. His older brother was a much paler grey, with stronger black markings and a white underside. It seemed he had been mated to a tawny female with chocolate brown feathers banded with black. There were no chicks yet.
Rainsoft had pointed them all out from a distance. He hadn’t offered an introduction yet. Hawkwind wasn’t sure why, but even as he’d informed her who they were, he’d looked like he just wanted to get it over with, and had found an excuse to talk about something else immediately afterwards. Hawkwind hadn’t felt the courage to go introduce herself. Somehow she knew Rainsoft wouldn’t have wanted that.
As Kassandra and Rainsoft finished their lesson, Thornfire and Thornwing hopped up to join them and the gathering rustled with sharpened interest. The mage said something to Rainsoft, who nodded in reply.
“We must leave this place,” Thornfire began aloud, slowly. Rainsoft, it seemed, was going to translate. “We will walk to a safer place where there is more food. You will all learn to fly and hunt.”
A ripple of excited movement erupted. From what Hawkwind could tell, everyone was eagerly commenting about learning to fly.
“We will all learn to talk together,” Thornfire went on, bringing their attention back to the front. “We from South-scree will learn better to talk with our hands, and you will learn to understand our voices.”
That also got an interested response, although not as great as one as when he’d said they’d be learning to fly.
“We will leave tomorrow. For tonight, rest here. Any questions?”
Hawkwind was a little surprised to see that there weren’t any. All the griffins were turning to each other, talking about things.
“I guess that’s all then,” Thornfire grumbled, hopping back down from the perch.
Hawkwind, the Thorn brothers, Starbright, and the children had claimed the area near the Sun and Moonstones as theirs. The children were vulnerable to the cold, and Thornfire’s group had been the one to steal the Stones after all, so Hawkwind felt it was a rightful place for them.
“We might as well relax too, enjoy our evening,” Thornfire said as he came up to Hawkwind, Thornwing trailing him.
“Where do you intend to take them?” Hawkwind asked.
“To the nearer end of the tunnel, where all the caves that the ancient armies sheltered in are,” the mage answered readily. “There, each family can have its own cave. We can get everyone educated in flying, fighting, hunting, and listening. We’ll stay there for at least a few weeks, I expect.”
Hawkwind hadn’t thought of the caves. “What about the snow-screamers?”
“If there are any, we’ll have to take the caves away from them,” Thornfire shrugged. “It can be done. It will be fighting, hunting practice, and food source all in one.”
The next day, the group moved.
“At least they aren’t very noisy,” Hawkwind commented to Thornwing, who was walking beside her.
The risk from talis was not gone, now that they were out of the safe camp high on the mountain. Rainsoft and Thornwing were the most aggressively vigilant, being the only ones who could hope to fight talis if they appeared. Rainsoft was currently the aerial scout, while Thornwing was on guard on the ground.
“I think most of the adults understand that we need to stay together,” Thornwing replied, “but I can’t imagine how difficult that is for them. They’ve never seen grass or flowers or trees, or all these other things that we just pass by without giving any undue notice.”
“And some of them are scared of the new things, and others want to go run out to touch everything.”
“Once we’re closer to the tunnel it will be safer,” Thornwing sighed, “but we’ll have a few nights in the open before that.”
Hawkwind and Thornwing jerked to a halt as an ungainly chick barely old enough to run came loping across their path, giggling and lunging for a red and black butterfly. Its parent rushed after it, hissing in consternation. The adult caught the baby and tucked it up under its wing. It made a one-handed apology as it hopped on three legs back into line, the chick wriggling and complaining with both voices.
“I hadn’t thought of that,” Hawkwind gasped. “Some of the chicks, the youngest ones, still have their speaking voice. They’ll be able to learn to talk.”
“The talis hadn’t gotten to them yet, I suppose,” Thornwing mused. “We’ll have to teach them.”
The adventurous chick wiggled free of its parent’s imprisoning wing, tumbling to the ground in a tangle of arms, legs, and wings just starting to show pin feathers.
“They’re awfully cute,” Hawkwind admitted softly. “I’m so glad we could free them.”
Thornwing eyed her slyly. “You want some of your own?” he murmured after a moment of hesitation.
Hawkwind felt her nares heat with a blush of blood and she fought to control the lay of her feathers from giving her away.
“I would take care of chicks someday,” she deflected, “happily. I never got to back at Northnest; I was too young.”
They walked a few more steps in silence, but Hawkwind’s skin was prickling, sensing that Thornwing hadn’t accepted that answer.
“You smell like all the other adult females here,” he whispered finally, “like a matriarch, like a mother. You’ve awakened. It makes sense, doesn’t it, if your story is true. You are the last of your Line.”
Hawkwind swallowed hard, forcibly stilling the trembling of her wings. “You can tell?” she asked reluctantly.
“If there is anything a male griffin can smell, other than talis, it is the difference between a sleeping female and an awakened one,” he said. “I wonder what the males here think of Starbright. She is mature enough, but sleeping still, and they can surely smell that she is different. I wonder if they know what it means. They were all placed with a female to be their mate. Do they remember how her scent changed?”
Hawkwind didn’t know what to say. All she could think was that Rainsoft might have noticed. He might be doing some heavy thinking, wondering why she and Starbright were different, although close in age. Rainsoft hadn’t really been told much about griffin society beyond Snow-in-lee. Perhaps he had grown up thinking it was one male to one female and all were fertile. Maybe he was confused. Maybe that was why he hadn’t directly introduced Hawkwind to his family.
“So what do you plan to do about it?” Thornwing asked a few minutes later.
“Do about it?” she echoed.
“How do you expect to be welcomed at South-scree? Do you think you can make a home there?”
“How are all these paired griffins going to make a home there?” she countered. “Where is there a place for dozens more Lines?”
“You think they will adopt the idea of having Lines?”
“They won’t be able to help it, if the females stay anywhere near their mothers,” Hawkwind reminded him. “They won’t awaken and the males won’t be interested in mating with them. Unless they scatter to great distances or isolate themselves from their mothers they’ll keep sleeping.”
“Yes, you’re right,” he nodded. “And that’s a good thing. If all females were fertile, we’d be so overpopulated we’d eat the prey to nothing, and then we’d all die.”
“It’ll be hard enough feeding all these mouths. Plus, the awakened females might have more chicks.”
“And so might you,” Thornwing remarked, throwing another sly glance at her.
“You don’t want to have chicks?”
“I don’t know,” she growled at him.
“Going to try to wait?”
Hawkwind sidestepped away from him. “Why are you so interested?” she spat, trying to keep her voice down. “I’m not in heat.”
“Not yet. Some of these other, freed griffins are. You haven’t noticed the tensions?”
“That’s why,” she said. “Your blood is all up.”
“Is my company bothering you?”
“A little,” she admitted.
“You’d prefer Rainsoft’s company. I can switch with him.”
“Why would you say that?”
“You’ve got him doing some heavy thinking, and you curled up with him last night. I’m assuming he didn’t know how to give you a chick, or was holding back for some reason.”
Hawkwind’s ruff rose in confusion and anger. “What are you talking about?” she gritted out.
Thornwing’s playful teasing faded away to be replaced with a heavy sincerity. “When we get back to South-scree, you should have a chat with a matriarch; I can ask Thornmother to talk to you. There’s a lot you need to know.”
“Maybe you could explain what you’re talking about right now?”
“I don’t know it the way a mother knows it. I only know what the older males have told me.”
He wouldn’t say anything more, and Hawkwind was left burning with embarrassed curiosity. Before she could get up the courage to press him for more details, Starbright swung back to the group, carrying another prey. She landed, causing all the griffins to come surround her. Hawkwind elbowed her way to the center.
“Chicks again?” she asked aloud and with gestures.
Most of the other immediately agreed, and those that didn’t subsided with only the slightest signs of displeasure.
“I’ll go get another one,” Starbright panted, stretching her wings first.
“No, I’ll go,” Thornfire volunteered. “You’ve done enough for a while. Walk with the group and be ready to defend them should anything happen.”
The relieved breath Starbright let out clearly indicated her acceptance of that bargain. Thornfire took off in a flurry of feathers.
“I should go to the front,” Thornwing remarked. “I probably know the way better than anyone else.”
Jessika, who had run up beside Hawkwind, put a hand on her furry shoulder.
“We’re hungry,” the girl whispered, sounding apologetic.
“Don’t be sorry,” Hawkwind replied immediately, and walked without hesitation towards the prey animal slowly being ripped into bits for feeding piping chicks.
“I need some for my chicks,” she gestured, indicating her four human children, not having a gestural word for children.
The parents around the food paused to look plainly at the featherless, furless little ones. They tilted their heads with curiosity, but nodded agreeably. Hawkwind sawed off a piece. The four children together ate only about as much as one hungry chick, so it was no great loss for the others.
“What are they?” one griffin asked after tapping Hawkwind to get her attention.
“There isn’t a word for them with hands,” she explained, and then said aloud, “humans.”
Hawkwind startled as Rainsoft landed beside her. Hands moving quickly, he communicated something to the interested griffins, but it was too fast for Hawkwind to catch more than a few words. Those watching, however, seemed to nod in understanding. Hawkwind led the four kids away to a place where she could safely pull out the Sunstone she still carried in a well-wrapped bundle. Rikah took the bloody meat from her and began shredding it for cooking on the Stone.
Kassandra tugged on one of Hawkwind’s feathers. “We want fruit and vegetables,” the girl said.
“And bread,” Karo whispered. “And cookies.”
Hawkwind ground her bill. She knew the children needed more than just meat, but she didn’t know to get it to them.
“As soon as we can I’ll take you all down into the forest. You can look for other things you can eat,” she said.
Kassandra nodded silently, but Hawkwind suspected the girl wasn’t very pleased, and she didn’t know what else to do to help them. Hawkwind turned to face out from the group, standing on guard while everyone finished the food. Rainsoft came to stand silently beside her. Neither of them spoke. When at last the body was picked down to bones, and the smaller bones had been crunched up and swallowed, the group began moving again. Rainsoft resumed his guard from the air.
A while later they stopped again when Thornfire brought them another kill. This time older chicks and pregnant females got to eat. Thornwing volunteered to be the next hunter, which allowed the adults to get a swallow or two of food when he returned in the later afternoon, and the group moved on through the day until they picked a fairly defensible spot in a curve made by the mountainside and camped to sleep.