Hawkwind’s touchdown at the caves brought a variety of reactions from the surrounding griffins. The mating urge was rapidly dwindling now, but young males still dropped whatever they were doing to look towards her. If he had a young female at his side—presumably his mate—it sometimes earned him a hiss or a growl or even a slap to the head. The chicks and fledglings were oblivious to her being any different from normal. The older adults gave her knowing smiles, or confused glances because they knew she didn’t have one exclusive mate, or just ignored her altogether.
Thornfire was supervising the flight class, and Hawkwind sensed him staring at her as though he were a sunbeam on a cold morning, which was promptly hidden by a dark cloud. Hawkwind didn’t pause to look at him or give him a chance to come confront her. Of Rainsoft she saw no sign. The four children were in the midst of another speaking lesson and waved cheerfully at her, likely oblivious. Joy was actually in the air in flight class and coasting on the warm updraft from the sun-heated rocks where her mother, Swift was sunbathing.
Hawkwind went straight to Swift, who stood at her approach, smiling and nodding without hesitation. She gestured, “let’s talk,” and Hawkwind followed her away towards a quiet corner of the mountainside.
“Swift, what’s chick-pain?” Hawkwind asked immediately.
The older griffin nodded again. “I think you mean,” she corrected Hawkwind’s terminology; Hawkwind had just combined the hand-words “chick” and “pain” but it seemed there was an actual separate hand gesture for the term.
“I can only tell you what my mother told me,” Swift went on. “You have to have the male do it if you want a chick, and by clenching muscles in certain ways you can stop him from doing it if you don’t.” She went on to describe how it felt for her, although she used some hand signs that Hawkwind didn’t know, and Hawkwind encouraged her to start drawing words in the dirt.
“It doesn’t have two parts? One pain and then another?” Hawkwind asked.
Swift eyed her and gurgled a chuckle. “Oh dear. No, it’s one pain, but it can happen twice. That means there’s a chance of twins.”
“Twins? Is that what he meant?” Hawkwind gasped.
“May I ask who?”
Hawkwind felt herself blushing, giddy at the same time. This was almost like having her sister Hawkcall back, to tease and giggle with, except they’d never giggled over such a topic.
“Rainsoft and Thornwing,” she admitted, “but it was Thornwing who—”
“I see,” Swift gestured. “Rainsoft hasn’t been told about it yet. They are both fine young males, each in their own way. Good choices.”
“I just hope it works this time.”
“With two chick-pains, I’d say it’s very likely you’ll get at least one chick. Has Thornwing sired chicks before?”
“I don’t know, except that he knows how. I can only assume he’s had the chance to try. Who can say if he’s sired any of the chicks of South-scree? Usually, in griffin Lines, the chicks aren’t told who their fathers are, if the matriarch even knows.”
“With more than one male, the chances are better, just in case a particular male isn’t fertile and doesn’t know it,” Swift nodded thoughtfully.
Hawkwind shrugged. “I guess we’ll see.”
“And if it doesn’t work, you can try again, but any female that lets the chick-pain happen has a really good chance, to my knowledge.”
“I suppose Thornwing knew what he was talking about then.”
“I suppose so,” Swift agreed. “Take it easy today. Nature needs to take its course. I think sunbathing would be ideal.”
“It sounds delightful. I didn’t get much sleep, and a warm rock would suit me perfectly.”
Without talking to anyone else, Hawkwind went to join Swift on a nice patch of smooth granite, and let the sun bake her into drowsy slumber.
Sometime in the afternoon, Hawkwind was awakened by three children calling her name, and a fourth jumping onto her back.
“Hey now, what’s this brutal attack?” she chortled as she sat up, Rikah clinging to her shoulders. “I am defeated.”
Taro immediately snuggled himself down between her front paws, using her forelegs as a backrest. “I want more cakes,” he whined.
“We want to go back to that house and get more food,” Jessika explained, “but I tried to tell them that we maybe can’t go back.”
“You have been eating only meat again, haven’t you?” Hawkwind mused. “Four growing children go through food so fast.”
“We can eat just meat again for a while,” Jessika declared. “I told them to save some of the stuff, but they ate it all except some salt and herbs and the dried peas.”
“We’ll go back,” Hawkwind decided on the spot, “but not today. I’ll plan it, and we’ll go see if we can trade another deer sometime in the next few days. Try to make soup with the peas and salt and herbs.”
The children exchanged looks like she’d just told them to go compose a symphony.
“I don’t know how to make soup,” Rikah, the cook, admitted.
“Hawkwind, are we going to live here forever?” Taro asked, twisting around a bit to look up at her.
“No,” she answered him. “We might stay here a while longer, but not forever.”
Kassandra and Jessika came to sit on either side of her, and she shielded them from the sun with her wings; she knew that human skin could be burned by the sun, unlike griffin feathers.
“When we grow up, we’ll take back Northnest and live there again,” Jessika whispered.
“I hope so,” Hawkwind said simply, not giving voice to any of her doubts or concerns about their ability to do that. The time for that—if it ever came—was far in the future. Finding a safe place to establish the Hawk Line and raise the children now was the matter at hand.
“When can we go get more cakes?” Taro prodded. “Tomorrow?”
“I’ll start arranging it,” Hawkwind agreed, “but not tomorrow: in a few days.”
“I wonder if we can ask for certain things?” Jessika mused.
“What do you want?”
“Blankets and pillows and soap and towels,” the girl said. “But I could make the pillows, if I had fabric. I don’t know how to make fabric.”
“We can get you more fabric in South-scree,” Hawkwind assured her.
“And packs to carry all this stuff in,” Rikah added. “Now the bags are sleeping pads.”
“There’s always more things you could use, but this isn’t our permanent home, so we shouldn’t accumulate too many things. Packs or bags to carry what you have do sound like a good idea.”
“Again I could make them, maybe out of canvas,” Jessika offered.
“We can try writing a note and leaving it on an offering of venison,” Hawkwind said. “We can arrange a price, supplies in return for meat. Swift and Joy will help us.”
There was a deep relief in that. She had Linemembers she could depend on for help now. She wasn’t alone anymore.
“Joy is funny,” Kassandra spoke up with a soft smile. “I like her.”
“Wonderful,” Hawkwind beamed.
“She’s kind of like us, just a little older,” Jessika agreed.
Hawkwind took a moment to gaze at the girl, the princess, eyes becoming unfocused as she let herself imagine what the child would be like in a year, two years, five years, ten years. Like Joy, she would grow into an adult. It was pleasantly wistful and scary at the same time; Hawkwind had no idea how to raise a human girl—or a human boy for that matter—into an adult. She hadn’t really paid attention while still living at Northnest; raising humans hadn’t been her job. It was now.
As Hawkwind was discussing the evening hunt with Swift and Joy she was interrupted when Thornwing landed a few paced away, flopping down a bled buck deer. He gestured at it, the lay of his feathers conveying a degree of shyness she hadn’t expected from him.
“For you,” he grunted.
Swift beamed at him as Hawkwind tried to find her words.
“Yay, thanks Thornwing,” Rikah exclaimed at once, oblivious to the unspoken interaction among the adults. “I’ll get my knife.”
The boy ran off and Hawkwind gathered her wits enough to yell after him. “Don’t run with the knife.”
Rikah waved awkwardly over his shoulder as he pelted into the tunnel mouth.
“Thank you, Thornwing,” the other children chorused.
Kassandra ran up to him and hugged his foreleg.
“You’re very welcome,” he said.
“Yes, thank you,” Hawkwind nodded as Swift and Joy gestured their thanks as well.
Rikah came back, walking as quickly as he could manage without actually running. The griffins waited until the children, working together, had carved out a hefty chunk of meat from one haunch.
“We’re going to go eat,” Jessika informed them, giving them a parting wave with a bloody hand.
“All right, don’t burn yourself on the Sunstone,” Hawkwind cautioned.
The four children scampered back to the tunnel and the griffins gathered around the prey to begin tearing it apart. There was no better way to eat it. Without knives or other culinary preparation, they ate by holding the body down with their fore claws and ripping bits off with their bills, which they then tossed one way or another into the deeper part of their mouths for swallowing whole. Hide and hair went down with the meaty bits. Small bones were broken and eaten in pieces. Larger bones were cracked for the marrow. In the end only the largest bones and the hooves remained. Griffin digestion, including a gizzard that ground the food, would take care of it all.
“How do you feel?” Thornwing asked Hawkwind softly as the four griffins huddled up to preen the blood off each other.
“I feel good,” she told him truthfully. “Thank you for,” she hesitated, feeling a little embarrassed, “everything.”
“My pleasure,” he said, and Hawkwind detected the return of his slightly smug and over-confident nature. He gave her a grin and she had to smile back, but shaking her head. She wondered if any chicks he happened to sire would be just as snarky.
“I’ll be taking the children back down to that village to try to get some more supplies in a day or two. One child per griffin would make things easier. Can I count on you?”
“Completely,” he answered at once.
“I’m going to ask Rainsoft, too,” she said. “I’d rather not risk Joy.”
“Whomever you like,” Thornwing commented without sign of displeasure. “You think it will be dangerous?”
“I don’t know,” she told him truthfully, “it just feels risky somehow, going down there, hiding, trying to talk with humans. I don’t want to keep it up. I want to find ways to provide all the children need wherever we end up living.”
Thornwing took his time replying, and when he did, it was hesitant. “You don’t think it would be a better idea to help the children find human families to live with, maybe in that village?”
Jessika had wings on her back. She was a princess. She was the heir of Northnest: probably the only surviving member of its royalty. Maybe she’d never take the country back, but those wings did mark her, and the invaders of her country might be looking for her.
“I promised to take care of those children,” she said, purposefully not telling him all that had just run through her mind. “They don’t want to leave me now. If they ever do, of course I will let them go, whatever makes them happiest.”
He nodded, seeming to accept that without argument. “I’ll help you, whenever you need me.”
The descent of evening darkness had encouraged all the griffins to finish their outdoor activities and retreat to their caves. Hawkwind was one of the last to file in; making sure that none of her charges—children and Linemembers—had been left outside. She almost expected it, but winced nonetheless when Thornfire called her name as she walked past the cave he shared with Thornwing and Starbright. Hawkwind stopped obediently, out of habit, but a part of her mind made the comment that she was, or soon would be, a Linemother, and as a mere male, Thornfire’s power over her was diminishing. He was still an elder, and she did still owe him her freedom from the dungeon of South-scree, but the balance of power between them was shifting.
“Hawkwind, a word?” he summoned quietly, and still politely.
She gestured back towards the dark hole that was the tunnel mouth and led him back that way.
“You found some other Hawks among the Snow-in-lee survivors, I noticed.”
“I did,” she nodded.
“They have,” he paused, “inspired you to commit to the position of Hawkmother?”
It was only half question, for his sense of smell and observation of recent activities had surely informed him of the events of the last couple of days.
“Yes,” Hawkwind said simply, and waited, letting him put together his words.
“It seems your objectives may be solidifying in new ways?”
This was more of a question. He wanted to know what her intentions were. Well, so did she—want to know his intentions, that is. Thornfire had been shut-beak about how he was intending to work out Hawkwind’s future all along.
“I think so,” she said, giving nothing else away.
This appeared to inspire him to regard her more firmly. “You still want to become a part of South-scree? I’ll no longer need to pressure the Thornmother to take you into her Line, but now a new tactic will be required. All the matriarchs will need to be convinced if you intend to add the Hawk Line to South-scree.”
“I wonder what place you’ve had in mind for me and my children from the beginning,” she remarked blandly, “but I was having faith that you would work it out.”
“Well, now everything is changed,” Thornfire stated, apparently not willing to give away whatever his former plan had been. “You’ve collected Linemembers, and made another attempt at a chick, I sense?”
“You know well enough,” Hawkwind breathed, sternly keeping her voice from becoming a hiss, almost trembling with her own temerity to say such a thing to the elder mage. “I doubt you’ve missed anything.”
Thornfire locked gazes with her, but he didn’t look completely angry—more resigned. “I should have realized my brother’s impetuous nature would make him brave enough to approach you. I hope he was gentlemanly.”
Gripping her courage within, consciously keeping her feathers from flattening with embarrassment or submission—after all, a matriarch felt neither of those things—she kept her gaze even and said, “I wouldn’t have welcomed him if he hadn’t been, and he did me a great service, one that Rainsoft could not for lack of knowledge. This time, I have a chance of conceiving.”
Thornfire’s brows did not exactly lower with displeasure, but nor did they fly upward with surprise. Their little dance between the two extremes was almost comical.
“Elder Thornfire,” Hawkwind began sincerely, “I have great gratitude to you, for getting me out of the dungeon, for giving me hope, protecting me, and helping to free Rainsoft’s family and my new Linemembers. I really mean that.”
The flick of his wings and bob of his head conveyed his acknowledgement.
“I’m going to rebuild the Hawk Line,” she went on. “I don’t know where, but somehow I will find a place. If South-scree won’t have us, then we shall have to part ways. You can have the Sunstone, I suppose, if that will dispose of my debt to you.”
“Patience,” he countered. “There are many griffins here that will need a home. There’s no reason that you cannot go wherever they end up going. It may be time for a new griffin settlement. Skycall specified you to bring back the Sunstone and I suggest you do it and hand it over to her. Even if you do not make your home in South-scree, for whatever reason, you will have completed what she demanded for your freedom, and if you do not take a place in South-scree then she will not have repaid her side and the balance will shift slightly to your favor, and if you have a chick by then, she will be forced to recognize you as a Linemother.
“I am sure you are starting to realize some of these facts yourself. Your position in society will change rapidly. You are young, but you will demand respect nonetheless, especially with a retired Linemother in the person of Hawkswift.”
Hawkwind nodded absently, trying to process everything he was saying.
“I still want to help you, Hawkwind,” he said, and she observed what seemed to be sincerity in his eyes. “And if what you imply is true,” he continued softly, “it may be that our Lines will have a linkage in the chick you’re going to carry. As an unawakened female you may not have been aware of it, but such linkages between Lines create alliances. Of course the members of the Thorn Line will protect themselves first, but they will also think of the other Lines they have linkages with. If you have a chick sired by a Thorn, it will change how they view you for the better.”
Hawkwind chose not to mention that she had the chance of twins, or that it was possible only Rainsoft’s blood would mix with hers, that Thornwing—despite giving her the chick-pains—would actually miss out on the conception part. It wouldn’t even be completely possible to know after the hypothetical chick was in the world, although its appearance might suggest its sire.
“Thank you, Thornfire,” Hawkwind said instead. “I appreciate your continued support.”
“You helped me find my brother,” he countered. “I owe you much.”
They stood for a few moments in the silence before Thornfire spoke again.
“There is something else of some importance,” he began. “I found signs that could have been made by talis, some few days of ground travel away from here, back the way we came.”
That brought up Hawkwind’s neck ruff in an instant. “What does that mean? Are they tracking us, coming for us?”
“I don’t know.”
“What exactly did you find?” she asked.
“Tracks in an area of soft dirt,” he supplied. “I’m no expert tracker and they could have been made by something else, or talis that just happened to be passing through the area and have no interest in us.”
“What should we do?”
“I’m going to ask Rainsoft and Wing to do some scouting. They’re the ones with resistance to the talis’ hypnotism so they’re the only ones suitable to do it. I just wanted to make you aware. I’ll need to find a way to tell everyone without panicking them, but I’ll wait until the scouting turns up more details.”
“Thank you for telling me. In a few days I’m going to take the children back down to that village for more non-meat food. We’ll have to be careful. I don’t suspect that the talis can hypnotize humans, so the children can be my eyes. I’ll take Swift with me, and if Rainsoft and Thornwing can’t come, maybe Joy, too.”
“Be careful,” he warned seriously.
“We will, and thank you.”
They turned and headed back into the tunnel.
“Sleep well,” Thornfire said as he retreated into his cave.
“Goodnight,” Hawkwind responded, feeling considerably more relaxed than she’d felt before their talk, and went to her own cave to chat and groom with her Linemembers and put the children to bed.