Days passed and a week out saw Hawkwind watching proudly as her students began lifting themselves into the air on their own wings. It had taken days of concentrated exercise to strengthen their flight muscles enough that they could do that much—flapping energetically and lifting a few feet off the ground. They landed with cries of joy, sounding rather like excited fledglings, as they turned to each other, gesturing rapidly.
“They’ll be swooping about in no time,” Thornfire said from behind her.
“As it should be,” she nodded back proudly.
“You’ve done a great job.”
“All I really did was give a few pointers and encourage them,” she shrugged. “Like any griffin, their passion for the winds did the rest. There’s none of us that can sit on the ground and not want to be in the sky.”
“And a good thing, too,” Starbright grumbled. “The fitter they get, the better they’ll be able to catch their own food. The prey is getting thin, and it’s too far to fly several times a day to find enough meat for everyone.”
“Hunting lessons will follow graduation from flight class,” Thornfire affirmed.
He turned his head to look over at another class in progress. A dozen fledglings that still had their speaking voices surrounded the four human children. The children were trying to teach the little griffins to talk. Adults and juveniles that had already been mutilated by the talis looked over at them with pained expressions, watching the little ones fumble through the first baby-steps of a skill they could never have.
Other griffins that weren’t in class at the moment hauled rocks, sand, branches, or bundles of grasses for improving their cave homes. Thornwing had led yet another group deeper into the cave system to thin the number of snow-screamers there and provide food at the same time. A few griffins that were not employed in any of those ways lay on rocks, sunbathing and preening themselves or each other.
“We’re safe and surviving here,” Hawkwind ventured. “Everyone is getting stronger. When will we tell South-scree about what’s happened?”
The muscles at the corners of Thornfire’s bill bunched and his brows lowered.
“We are going to tell them, right?” Hawkwind asked, by dint of will alone keeping it from being an order or demand. “You promised,” she added in a weak voice.
“You have to leave this to me, Hawkwind,” he said. “I know the mothers and elders of South-scree. You don’t. I know how and when it’s best to handle them. You’re safe now. You and the children have a suitable place to sleep and enough food and water. I must ask you to be patient and content with that.”
“Yes, sir,” she responded.
Without another word, she turned and waded into the sea of fledglings. The children scooted out of the way for her, and she took a seat among them.
“Hawkwind,” said Kassandra, pointing at her.
Immediately, the chortling chicks shouted a dozen different, half-formed versions of her name at her. The human children kept repeating her name, too, urging the little ones to keep trying until they got closer and closer to saying it correctly. Once most of them were getting really close, Kassandra stood and clapped her hands vigorously until everyone fell silent.
“Let’s introduce ourselves,” the girl said with words and hands.
The fledglings chorused their agreement with chirps, squeals, hands, and happy vocal yeses. Kassandra pointed at the first one, a dusty yellow female with black and white markings.
“Skystrong,” she said.
“Nice to meet you, Skystrong,” Hawkwind smiled at her.
The little one trilled happily. Kassandra pointed at the next.
“Eaglesong,” she whispered breathlessly.
Hawkwind stared, so stunned her breath had caught, forgetting to greet her, and making her start to whimper with worry. Hurriedly, Hawkwind rectified her carelessness, preening the little one’s feathers to apologize, but hearing the name had been as shocking as a kick to the bill.
“Are you all right, Hawkwind?” Jessika asked.
“Do you remember Eaglesong from Northnest?” Hawkwind asked weakly. “Maybe you never met him. And there was Eagleye, my friend, and more Eagles.”
“I don’t,” the girl winced.
“It’s all right, don’t worry,” Hawkwind assured her. “I should have realized it when I met Icemoon back in Snow-in-lee. I thought the Falcon, Eagle, Ice, Snow, and Cloud Lines were ended, because they all died at Northnest, but they all came from Snow-in-lee. All the griffin Lines came from Snow-in-lee, and they might still be alive here.”
She gasped again, sharply, and leapt to her feet. “There might be more Hawks—more of my Line, here, alive. I might not be the last.”
She stared all around, at the chicks, at the adults, as if she’d be able to spot them by sight alone. She hadn’t met all the griffins by name by any estimation. Names weren’t as easy to translate from hand gesture to words, so often she’d learned only the hand gesture, if there had been any exchange of names at all. She hadn’t yet met a griffin who used the same gesture for “hawk” that Rainsoft used for her name, but that didn’t mean there wasn’t one.
“And if there’s an older female who is still having chicks,” Hawkwind panted, seized with the need to find such a female right then. “I wouldn’t have to,” she trailed off breathlessly. Might her body go back to sleep? Maybe she would return to being just a normal, infertile female griffin, a mere supporter of her Line, and not the progenitor of it.
“Are there any Hawks?” she asked her children urgently. “Have you met any Hawks?”
“There are no little Hawks here,” Jessika said, indicating her students.
“I met some,” Kassandra offered. “Did you want to meet them?”
“Yes,” Hawkwind answered. “Why didn’t you tell me before?”
The girl wilted under Hawkwind’s emphasis. “I didn’t know.”
“Kassie doesn’t really understand yet, how the griffin Lines work,” Jessika stood up.
Hawkwind forced herself to lower her fluffed feathers. “I’m sorry, Kassandra. I didn’t mean to shout. I got too excited.”
The girl got up and hugged Hawkwind’s foreleg. “It’s all right,” she whispered. “I’ll take you to them now.”
“Later, then,” Hawkwind soothed, patting the girl’s black hair. “Let’s finish introducing all the chicks here.”
Hawkwind waited patiently, biting down on her anticipation, as she greeted the rest of the chicks, meeting another Sky, a Rock, a Snow, a Rain that she assumed was a cousin to Rainsoft, a Stone, a Storm, two Winds, and a Fire. She continued to wait patiently as the children wrapped up the class and encouraged the chicks to return to their parents, most of whom actually dropped what they were doing to come pick up their babies as they noticed that the class was over. Then, Kassandra tugged on Hawkwind’s feathers and led her to a griffin who was sunbathing on a rock. He looked up congenially when Kassandra tapped him.
“I know you,” he signed. “You rescued us.”
“Are you a Hawk?” Hawkwind asked.
“I am.” He gave his name but Hawkwind didn’t know the word for the second half of it. Once they got him to write it down, scratching it out in the dust, she was able to read it.
“Hawkdash,” she said. “I’m Hawkwind.”
“I know,” he smiled at her.
“So, you’re in my Line,” she went on.
“Line?” he repeated.
“You don’t remember Lines? We both share a female ancestor of the Hawk name,” she managed to say.
“Yes, I suppose we did, a very long time ago.”
“So we’re in the same Line. All griffins in the same Line are supposed to live together and help each other.”
His expression became uneasy. Hawkwind startled when another griffin suddenly trotted over to join them, and Hawkdash looked up at the newcomer with what seemed to be relief. It was a female, and Hawkwind could smell right away that she was awakened.
Hawkdash gestured awkwardly, “my mate, Snowstar. This is Hawkwind.”
“Yes, you rescued us,” Snowstar nodded.
“I was looking for other members of my Line,” Hawkwind explained, “other Hawks.”
“Oh? Why?” she asked.
“I thought I was the last. My home was destroyed and all the other Hawks there were killed.”
“I’m sorry to hear that,” Snowstar said gently.
“Where I came from, all members of a Line, who share the same ancestral mother, live together, and help each other. I thought I could find other Hawks, and live like that again.”
“Hawkdash lives with me and our chicks,” Snowstar gestured, and Hawkwind detected just the slightest hint of warning.
“Of course,” Hawkwind agreed. “I’m sorry to have bothered you.”
“Go talk to my older sister,” Hawkdash suggested. “Hawkswift: she’s over there learning to fly right now.”
There was an older sister? Perfect. “Thank you very much.”
“I’m sorry we couldn’t help. It was nice meeting you,” Snowstar gestured hurriedly, and somewhat apologetically.
“You, too,” Hawkwind replied.
She turned away, a private, wry expression on her face. Snowstar had thought Hawkwind was after Hawkdash for a mate, but she didn’t understand; as Hawkwind had been raised, she would never have been interested in mating with a male from her own Line. She did want him, but as a protector, provider, and supporter for the Hawk Line. Males in a Line defended it and brought food for the chicks of the Line—their nieces and nephews. Non-mother females did that, too, although more often they were the direct daily caretakers of chicks: keeping them warm and clean, feeding them bits of the prey the males brought, and educating them.
Hawkwind looked around at the griffins struggling through flight class. She identified a few females, and spotted a large one with coloring similar to Hawkdash. When that griffin seemed to be taking a breather, Hawkwind walked up to her.
“Pardon me, are you Hawkswift?” she asked.
The griffin smiled at her. “Hawkwind? Yes, I am. I’ve wanted to meet you personally.”
As Hawkwind got closer, her hopes fell. Hawkswift no longer smelled like she was awakened. Hawkwind noticed details like the dullness to her feathers, the thinness of her fur in certain areas, and the wrinkles on her visible skin. She was too old; her body had decided it would have no more chicks. Hawkswift must have noticed Hawkwind’s disappointment. She tilted her head with concern.
“What’s wrong?” she asked.
“I was looking for members of my Line,” Hawkwind began to explain. “Where I came from, all the other Hawks were killed.”
“I have begun to get the sense that the griffins not from Snow-in-lee are quite different from we that are,” Hawkswift said shrewdly. “I noticed the female with you, who is your age, Starbright, who still smells like a fledgling, unlike you, and yet you seem to have no mate and no chicks, despite there being males with you, and those males traveling without their mates. I don’t know that everyone else is taking the time to observe these things—they are very busy with their own families—but I am not, and I have noticed.”
She’d spoken slowly with her hands, and Kassandra—who was much better at Snow-in-lee sign language—translated for Hawkwind, although she did it with some confusion, as she didn’t seem to understand the significance behind much of what Hawkswift was saying. Hawkwind didn’t expect a five year-old girl, even one so wise and toughened now as Kassandra, to understand the social aspects of mature griffins.
“You are right,” Hawkwind replied. “Outside Snow-in-lee, all griffins live with their Line. That is, all the Hawks live together, all the Stars, all the Thorns, and so on. Only one female has chicks, and the others take care of them. The males mate with females from other Lines. There are no mated pairs.”
“Your Line,” Hawkswift picked up, “was killed except you? So you are the last.”
“The last female, so I turned into the matriarch, the mother, the one that has chicks,” she twitched her feathers as she admitted it, like blushing. “I don’t want to be the one. I realized I could find other Hawks now, from Snow-in-lee, that maybe my body would go back to sleep, and I would not be the Hawkmother.”
Hawkswift nodded in understanding and brushed her gently with a wing. “I have passed my days as a mother,” she said. “My mate has gone to the,” she stopped, flinching and seeming to wrestle with something internally. “My mate was taken and killed by the talis,” she gestured out, “not to serve the talis king as we were told, I know now. My brother has Snowchicks, not Hawk. I had two sons who have been placed with mates, Eagle and Wind. I do have a daughter.”
Hawkwind perked up, but Hawkswift squashed her hope quickly enough.
“She was my last child, and fledged last year.” Hawkswift gestured to the side, and Hawkwind saw a small juvenile female practicing at flapping and hovering some yards away. “She won’t be mature enough to awake, as you put it, for several years.”
“Are there any other Hawks?”
Hawkswift shook her head. “I’m sorry, Hawkwind.”
The weight of her new position settled upon her again; there would be no escape. Hawkswift touched her shoulder, and she looked back up.
“I can’t take your burden from you,” the older female said, “but I would help you bear it.”
Hawkwind made a gesture of confusion.
“You say that in the world now griffins live together with others of their Line. My mate and my sons are gone to their varied destinies now, but for myself, and more for my daughter, I wish to be a part of the world of griffins, and not cling to a vestige of how we lived in Snow-in-lee. You will have to teach us a lot, but if you will have us, we would join you and be a part of the Hawk Line.”
Hawkwind stared, stunned. For her part, Hawkswift stood tall, but also humble in her request. The implications of this were profound. Hawkwind would not be the only, would not be the last Hawk. She would gain an immediate heir-presumptive in Hawkswift’s daughter. She would gain a mentor and guide in Hawkswift herself, with her experience and maturity an ideal resource. Hawkswift could tell Hawkwind all the things she needed to know about mating and birthing and raising chicks.
As Hawkswift had said, the older female would gain a place in griffin society by being a part of a Line, instead of a stubborn member of a randomly matched mated pair, who would be rejected by all Aeries. She would save her daughter from that fate, too. Her daughter would have the potential to rise up in rank and become Hawkmother, leader of a Line, with all the power and respect attached to the position. Even if she didn’t, she would still be a respected and valued member of a Line, and one of its first elders.
All three of them would benefit. It still did not relieve Hawkwind of the—to her—burden of being the mother, but if there indeed were no other choice it might make it bearable, and it would increase her status and influence. Having griffins in her Line would legitimize her position. Having a chick would secure it; she would have to do that as soon as possible. With Hawkswift and her daughter around, especially once they became competent hunters, raising a chick and caring for her human children would no longer be all but impossible.
“Yes,” she said and gestured firmly to Hawkswift, unable to hide her growing delight. “Yes, you and your daughter are welcome in my Line. You are Hawks. We belong together.”
Hawkswift’s burgeoning delight overflowed into quivers all along her skin and through her fur as her every feather lifted with elation. Hawkwind trembled herself as she felt a new and sudden pulse of connection swell inside her. This griffin, this was her griffin, her Hawk, a member of her Line. No matter how distant or lost in the mists of Time, she shared with Hawkswift the blood of a common mother, and it linked them.
Hawkswift called for her daughter, who glided over with hardly a bobble in her flight, and rapidly explained the situation. Hawkwind had a brief fear that perhaps the juvenile wouldn’t like what her mother had done. Perhaps she had been looking forward to having her own exclusive mate like her parents had and her brothers now had. Hawkwind eyed her, watching for her reaction, and what she saw made her anxiety flow away like water from an upturned bucket.
Within moments of the explanation, the juvenile’s nervous feathers slicked down with relief, and then Hawkwind was startled again to feel a second, new pulse of connection to the young one. Hawkswift’s daughter had immediately and naturally slipped right into the role she was supposed to take: obedient and loyal Hawkdaughter. She turned bright and happy eyes onto Hawkwind, smiling as she gave a little bow.
“This is Hawkjoy,” Hawkswift introduced.
“Nice to meet you,” Hawkjoy gestured. “Should I call you Hawkmother?”
Hawkwind shook her head. “Not until I’ve had a chick,” she explained. “Only then will I truly be the mother. We won’t be an official Line until I do, although Swift could still be considered the Hawkmother, actually. We could say that we are in transition between mothers.”
Swift shook her head a little. “I don’t know how to be a Hawkmother. I’m sure you will have a chick eventually, if you keep trying. If you don’t, in some years perhaps Joy will awaken, and she will have a chick instead. We will stay together until one or the other of those things happens and we become official, as you say, and then we will still stay together.”
Swift extended her wings to touch both Hawkwind and Joy lightly across their backs, and Hawkwind reflected that Swift was acting and saying things rather like a mother, even if she declined the title. Her mere presence would be inspiration and guide to Hawkwind.
Hawkwind took half a step and then choked it back. She had the urge to snuggle up and preen her new Linemembers, but she didn’t know if they’d like it. Her bond to them was tugging, making her want the physical closeness to cement it. Swift acted instead, reaching out to preen Hawkwind’s cheek feathers, and then Joy did, too, and Hawkwind stepped up close to them, and they all crowded up against each other, bills full of each other’s feathers and fervent trills rumbling in their chests.
Hawkwind had a glimpse of Kassandra standing confused and silent, and she realized she needed to introduce the rest of her family, although Swift and Joy probably already knew their names and had met them at least cursorily. After a minute, Hawkwind put an end to the group preening and called over the children.
The children knew about Lines, of course, even if they didn’t know all the details. With a proper introduction, even Kassandra’s anxiety appeared to melt away, and Joy looked giddy at the chance to meet the little humans directly and talk to them and ask them questions. Hawkwind, with the children to help translate and contribute bits, ended up retelling her entire story to Swift and Joy. By the evening time they were found circled around the Sunstone in Hawkwind’s cave, sharing stories and other conversation.
Hawkwind helped the children to bed, and then fell asleep snuggled against one side of Swift, with Joy sleeping soundly on the other.