Rainsoft studiously ignored her the evening of their return to the group. He couldn’t have missed her flying back in, and he seemed to greet Kassandra with genuine happiness when the girl trotted over to chat with him about her adventure. Did he look Hawkwind’s way even once? No. She did, however, catch him sending ambiguous glares at Thornwing’s turned back.
As night fell, after the children had devoured most of the most perishable food in the sacks, abstaining from a slice of the kills Starbright had made, Hawkwind found herself and Thornfire sitting and staring blankly at the Sunstone as others were settling down to sleep. He broke his gaze and looked over at her.
“Troubled mind, little Hawk?” he rumbled congenially. “My brother was not uncouth on your journey today, was he?”
“No, he wasn’t,” she said, “but there is a lot on my mind.”
“If there’s anything you feel comfortable sharing with an old vulture like me, my ears are open.”
“Rainsoft is ignoring me,” she confessed.
“That displeases you?”
“I thought we were friends.”
The mage rolled his shoulders. “As expected, you and he are both caught in different but related pinches. You’re aware of it; you shouldn’t be surprised.”
“I guess he didn’t like that I went off with Thornwing, not him.”
“You’re not in heat, you said Wing didn’t behave inappropriately.”
“I’m not and he didn’t, but Rainsoft still didn’t like it.”
“He’s also been reunited with his family. His focus may be elsewhere,” Thornfire suggested.
“And I don’t think he knows what to tell his family about me, because he doesn’t know what kind of relationship he and I have, and neither do I. I don’t even know what I want,” she pled softly, for what seemed like the hundredth time.
“Hawkwind, my dear little lost one,” Thornfire murmured, “regardless of what you want, I can tell you plainly what you will have, and it’s best you accept it, especially as you probably know this truth deep down. You will be Hawkmother, a matriarch, and you will have chicks eventually. There is just no way you are getting out of that, short of death. If you don’t want to have many chicks, try to avoid conceiving as much as possible and pass on the mantle to your oldest daughter as soon as she’s ready, but your nature—the nature of an awakened griffiness—is not something you can fight and win.”
Hawkwind swallowed with difficulty, gazing sightlessly at the Sunstone as she absorbed his words.
“That’s how it will be if you remain in society,” he went on.
Numbly, she nodded.
“All you get to decide is if you love Rainsoft and want to exclusively pair-bond to him.”
Hawkwind choked on her next breath and turned to stare at Thornfire, who just shrugged.
“We both know how rare a true love pair-bond is. If you think you have that with Rainsoft then your path is clear. Go and relieve him of his anxiety. If not, then your path is more discomfiting.”
She shook her head slightly. “I like him. I’m happy to be with him; it’s comforting. I don’t know what a love-bond would feel like, but—”
“You’d know,” Thornfire interrupted at once. “There would be no doubt for either of you. You wouldn’t leave each other. You’d never consider another, ever. Even if there were times you had arguments or disagreements, you’d still be paired, and you’d get through them. At least, that’s what I have read about the situation, having never experienced it myself.”
“What if he feels that way?” she wondered.
“I think he’s considerably confused. It’s not natural for griffins to live in pairs like these Snow-in-lee griffins do. Certainly they aren’t all true love-bonded, if any, yet they know no other way. It’s what he grew up with: being taught he’d have a fated mate. Then he meets you, who grew up in a Line where nobody pairs exclusively. Your expectations are completely different.”
Thornfire sighed heavily and stretched out on the ground into a more comfortable position. “All that’s coming, Hawkwind, is the moment when you and he have to have the talk where you sort it all out and potentially hurt each other’s feelings and ruin your friendship. That’s what you’re dreading.”
She kneaded the dirt with her claws. “I think you’re right.”
Thornfire had lowered his head now, eyes closed in the dim glow from the Sunstone. “Anything else bothering you?”
Indeed, there were things she wanted to ask about: things Thornwing had said she should ask a matriarch. Thornfire looked about ready to fall asleep, though, and she didn’t feel comfortable asking in the first place.
“Nothing I want to talk about right now,” she whispered.
A sleepy mumble was her only answer.
“Goodnight, Thornfire,” she murmured in reply, giving a quick little preen to his neck feathers.
Then Hawkwind, too, sought the land of dreams.
It was several days later that the group reached the mouth to the tunnel under the mountains. The pace of the freed griffins had improved with time, but they still weren’t bringing in quite enough food for everyone, so the adults were hungry and a little weak: never mind being unused to walking long distances.
“Finally,” Thornfire grunted. “Now we can find a cave for every family, make a proper long-term camp, and the business of learning to hunt and fly and communicate can begin in earnest.”
“There may be snow-screamers in the way first,” Thornwing reminded them all with a grim growl.
“We will take the caves away from them,” Thornfire promised, “and eat them. Let’s get this organized: no reason not to start today.”
Between Thornfire and Rainsoft, the whole group was informed of the situation. The announcement that they would all be expected to fight was met with much deflective feather preening, as if most of the griffins were saying, “please don’t choose me.” Rainsoft screeched to regain their attention, and asked for volunteers. About a dozen came to the front.
“That’s enough,” Thornwing declared. “No more than that will fit in the tunnels anyway.”
“As we go, the others will come in behind us, taking over the caves. We’ll keep teams of fighters always on the advancing fronts,” his mage brother agreed. “Hawkwind, will you and the children organize the distribution of families into the repossessed caves and begin any cleaning necessary? You and the children are second best at hand-speaking.”
“I can do that,” she agreed, both annoyed and relieved that she wouldn’t have to be fighting the snow-screamers.
Thornfire and Rainsoft began organizing their task force of adult male and female griffins and moving towards the tunnel opening.
“Kassandra, will you ask the others to separate into small groups that they want to live with?” Hawkwind asked the girl.
“All right,” the girl said, and began walking into the gathering, talking with her hands as she went.
Rainsoft had already explained a lot, but Hawkwind sat back on her haunches and raised her hands. “Who wants the first caves, near the door?” she asked with the best words she knew.
A few groups raised their hands and Hawkwind gestured for them to follow her. Thornfire and the fighters had already disappeared into the tunnel, so she assumed the first caves were safe. She noted that Thornfire, Rainsoft, and Starbright had dropped their things in the first cave she stuck her head into; that one was claimed. Leaving the cave across the hall from it empty, Hawkwind dropped her packs, including the Sunstone and the new sacks the children had received, in the next cave in, beside the one Thornfire and the others had claimed. Having a buffer of a pair of mages and a fighter between her children and the open mountainside felt like a good idea.
“Who wants this cave?” Hawkwind asked the griffins who had followed her, indicating the cave across the hall from Thornfire’s.
After a moment, someone raised a hand and Hawkwind nodded in acknowledgement. A pair of young griffins without chicks claimed the carved rock room. Hawkwind led the others on to the next caves, finding tenants as she went. When the tunnel branched, she headed down one, finding another half dozen empty caves before a dead end, and then turned around. By then, the initial volunteers had been sorted and Hawkwind went deeper by herself to see how the cleansing crew was doing. She found them down another branch with a tumble of snow-screamer corpses underfoot.
“Let’s drag these out,” Thornfire was saying. “Who ever takes these caves will need to do a little cleaning first.”
A glance into the nearest showed Hawkwind piles of refuse: bones, fur, and droppings. The stink wasn’t pleasant either.
“If possible, we won’t use these ones, then,” she said.
She helped them drag out the bodies, which, although stinky on the outside, still had edible meat on the inside—not the best, but they couldn’t afford to be picky. They did, however, discard the digestive organs to avoid picking up internal parasites. Once the bodies were outside, the other griffins ripped into them readily enough once Starbright had roasted the meat as an added precaution, and Hawkwind invited another group to join her in selecting semi-permanent cave homes.
By evening, the cleanup crew had gone deep enough into the cave system to clear out enough caves that each family could lay claim to one. The volunteer fighters were the last to choose, and were given the ones at the edge of the cleared area. Even the fighters actually weren’t more than a few minutes’ walk from the entrance. Most of the now-claimed caves were along branching paths that ran parallel to the mountainside, which allowed for airshafts down into many of them. Those that did not have such shafts had horizontal shafts to neighboring caves. Combined, the shafts allowed airflow through the caves, but they also carried sound, so keeping secrets from neighbors wouldn’t be possible unless those secrets were conveyed with whispers. Luckily for the Snow-in-lee griffins, they could communicate silently with their hands.
Enough snow-screamers had been evicted and slain that everyone had been able to eat, and they spent the rest of the evening cleaning up their caves: moving out rubble and moving in armloads of grass or leafy boughs for bedding. If they stayed long enough they might be able to cure hides and stuff them for cushions, but temporarily they would have to make do. They’d been sleeping on the ground for the past week, so they’d started getting used to rougher conditions than the rooms they’d had back in Snow-in-lee, and having anything at all as a cushion was welcome.
Hawkwind spent the last bits of daylight gathering materials for her children to sleep on, as they didn’t do as well as griffins at sleeping on rock. The big sacks they’d gotten from the woman in the village had been emptied and filled with the grasses to make a pair of mattresses. Additionally, most of the caves had included a patch of sand or pea gravel. With the mattresses on top of that, on either side of Hawkwind, the children would sleep better than they had in a long while, Hawkwind hoped.
Conveniently, Hawkwind was also still in possession of the Sunstone, which both warmed her cave and gave off some light. Starbright and Thornfire went around to all the other caves to enchant stones with light and then trooped back to their own cave, exhausted from the effort. Thornwing stopped by Hawkwind’s cave to say goodnight, but Hawkwind saw not a sign of Rainsoft. She assumed he had gone to sleep in the cave his parents had claimed. The children fell asleep over the last of their dinner, and Hawkwind moved them onto their stuffed sacks. She crossed three arching branches over the Sunstone, leaving a plentiful gap between them and the hot Stone, and cast another scrap of cloth over them to dim the light for sleeping. Tired but satisfied, Hawkwind snuggled down between the children for the night.