Hawkwind's Tale

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Second Field Trip

Three days had passed and there had been little development in the possible talis risk. Thornwing and Rainsoft had continued to find some small signs of talis in places that held tracks, such as sand and dirt, but most of the nearby area was rock or gravel, and all the scents they’d picked up had been faint. With that hopeful reassurance that talis weren’t about to attack the temporary griffin settlement, Hawkwind decided it was time to make a foray to the village and see if they could get some more food and supplies for the children. Swift and Joy would accompany her.

Kassandra had walked over to Joy without being told, and asked the young griffin if she could ride her. Joy and Swift had only recently graduated from their flight training, and Hawkwind was hoping they were up to the task; they’d both been practicing flying intensely for the past days. Joy had agreed to carry Kassandra, and Swift—being the largest—had volunteered to carry Rikah and Karo: that left Jessika for Hawkwind.

“If you need to rest,” Hawkwind emphasized, “just call out and head for a clearing.”

The others signed their consent and the trio lifted off, heading back toward the village Hawkwind and the children had visited previously. The day was a fine one, warm with some cloud cover to keep the sun from being too harsh, and they had a smooth flight down towards the valley. The children knew by now to keep a good hold and not fidget and neither of the other griffins called for halt, so Hawkwind led them all the way down to the clearing they’d used for landing before, but once they’d touched down and Hawkwind took a look, she saw that they were panting rather more than she was, and were quick to sink down to the ground to rest.

“Are you all right?” she asked.

“Good exercise,” Swift gestured.

“We’ll have more weight going back,” Hawkwind commented.

“We’ll be fine,” Swift assured her.

“I’m going to go hunt for a buck deer,” Hawkwind informed. “I’ll be back shortly. Wait here?”

“We’ll have a rest in the sun,” Swift agreed.

“And we’ll look for anything we can gather to eat,” Jessika added.

“Just be sure it’s not poisonous,” Hawkwind cautioned as she headed into the underbrush. “And if anything attacks you, run away.”

She felt fairly confident that this close to the village dangerous wild animals, including talis, would be scarce. The human hunters would have seen to that. No human wanted big cats or wolves or anything else that might snatch a defenseless villager to live close to the settlement. She did, however, have to search further from the village to find suitable prey, so Hawkwind kept her ears and eyes and what little olfactory ability she had wide open for any hint that she was becoming prey. Once she spotted a small herd of bachelor bucks, it was hardly difficult to sneak up, launch her body towards them, and catch the slowest runner. What was more difficult was dragging the dead prey animal back through all the underbrush to where she’d left Swift and Joy with the children.

“Look, look, Hawkwind,” Karo crowed immediately upon her return. “We found wild strawberries again.”

“Not many,” Jessika added, “it’s still early for them, I think.”

“You got a deer,” Rikah said.

“Yes,” the griffin nodded. “Here’s what will happen. Swift and I will take the deer to the riverbank where we left it last time. I am going to wait for the right moment, fly over and land on the roof of their house. From there, I will listen as Rikah goes to talk to them again. Have you all decided what you want to ask for this time?”

The children chorused an affirmative.

“And I memuriz’d—momerzud—mumurizid—I know it all,” Rikah added sheepishly.

“All right then. Swift and Joy will stay with the rest of you here in the forest. Watch for predators; they might follow the scent of the deer here. Swift, please help me with the deer. Joy, guard the children.”

Hawkwind and Swift dragged the deer through the bushes to the edge of the stream. After a furtive look around for anyone watching, they heaved it onto the bank and retreated to the others.

“Rikah, wait until you see me lying on the roof,” Hawkwind instructed.

She loped back into deeper forest until she found a clearing and then launched upwards into the air. It was the hardest of hard work to try to get airborne by leaping straight up. Hawkwind labored higher and higher, eventually being able to get a boost from some slightly rising air that took some strain off her burning flight muscles. Once the village below shrunk into tiny toy houses around skinny trails in the dirt, she adjusted the angle of her head to use her far distance vision and check if any villagers were out and about near the house she intended to land on. Griffins were hard to miss. If anyone were nearby she would likely be spotted.

Hawkwind hadn’t spent much time high above any human settlements other than the capital of Northnest itself: the castle-palace where she’d lived her whole life. She wondered if the streets were supposed to be empty or busy. The streets of this town looked strangely deserted. The few little human-dots she did see looked like they were urgently scurrying from place to place, not out for pleasure strolls. She widened her examination and noted a set of plain canvas tents and awnings set up on the northern side of the town in a fallow field. A carnival? A fair? There was no crowd of people that would indicate either of those, and she couldn’t see what might be resting or living under the canvas. Blue flags with a yellow dot crossed by a red bar flapped weakly from the sides of the tents. She didn’t recognize the standard.

The scene felt a little strange, but she didn’t detect any immediate threats, so saw no reason to call off the plan. The lack of people on the streets made it easier to dive down to the roof of Judit Rania’s house. Hawkwind pulled up at the last second and settled as gently and silently as she could onto the thick thatch, quickly pulling in her eye-catching wings. The house didn’t even groan as it took her weight. Griffins were light for their size but still heavier than a human, for example. It was a sturdy house. Hawkwind flattened herself to the thatch. Her coloration helped her blend in a little. If anyone specifically looked at the roof she would still be impossible to miss, but she hoped that no one would have reason to.

After a few moments, she saw Rikah emerge from the forest and cross the stream, heading to the house. He made his way through the vegetable garden and to the back door, disappearing from Hawkwind’s view. She heard him knock. A minute passed before footsteps went to the door and then the latch lifted and the hinges groaned a little.

“Oh, you’ve come back.”

The woman’s voice did not sound as pleased as Hawkwind had expected. Perhaps it was the voice of the younger woman from last time, who hadn’t seemed as friendly as the older lady Judit, but the voice did not sound young.

“Is that all right?” Rikah asked, already with an edge of uncertainty.

“I don’t think you should be here. It isn’t safe.”

“You said you’d help us.” There was a quaver in his voice now.

“I’m sorry, truly sorry, but it would be safer for you if you weren’t here, and I mustn’t be seen talking to any strangers.”

What was going on? Hawkwind furrowed her brow with concern. Did this have something to do with the tents with the unfamiliar standard on the outskirts of town? Her neck began to prickle as her fur-feathers started lifting.

“You should go,” the woman’s voice went on, gentle but firm.

“You even said we could live with you,” Rikah argued. “Why won’t you help us?”

“I want to, but I could be risking my life to do so, and you’re in danger, too.” Her voice was a whisper now, and Hawkwind had to strain to hear. “There are people asking after unclaimed children. They might be looking for you. I think you should go away and hide.”

Rikah didn’t make a reply; Hawkwind just heard and then saw him running for the trees, making no attempt at stealth. Now her feathers were definitely prickling. She could either try to investigate, or follow Rikah’s example.

Before she could make a decision, she heard a raspy growl behind her, and then something small and sharp clamped onto her left hind foot.

Hawkwind stifled a shriek of surprise. She kicked back violently, but whatever it was held on. She rolled over on the roof, making the timbers groan, and swung around to take a look. What appeared to be a small, wingless rainbow drake had wrapped itself around her lower leg, but rather than being colorful like its bigger brethren, it was solid black.

Now she did shriek, and thrashed her foot wildly, tearing up patches of thatch from the roof. Below, she heard the women of the house exclaiming with shock. The door banged as they came running out.

“A Feathyr,” one gasped.

“I knew it,” said the other.

Hawkwind was too preoccupied with the little beast clinging to her to give them any reply. The thing was only about a yard long, nose to tail tip, but its scales were hard and spiny, and it was about as thick as Rikah’s forearm at its widest. It had wound itself around her limb three times, its spines and barbs hooking into her fur and scratching her skin. She met its slit eyed gaze as it opened its long, narrow jaws, revealing rows of dense needle-like teeth all pointing backwards down its gullet. Anything it bit would have great difficulty getting free. It growled again, with what Hawkwind would almost have said was gloating triumph as it sunk its claws through her fur into her flesh.

Then she noticed the collar it wore, and recognized it; the drakes at Northnest had worn something similar. The device looked rather like rusted barbed iron wire. Some of the barbs seemed to be digging between the creature’s own scales, where old, crusted blood had accumulated. Before her eyes the collar began to glow, turning rapidly red and then red-white. From across the village came a call that sent icy shivers down Hawkwind’s back: the hunting cry of a rainbow drake. Was the thing calling them?

“Run,” cried the women below.

Hawkwind took one panicked look at them, and then launched into the air with adrenaline-born strength, the spiny drake still wrapped around her leg. One thing she knew: she must not lead the drakes back to the children. As she fled, she saw the beasts rising into the air from the vicinity of the tents she’d noticed earlier: about a half dozen of them, in an assortment of colors.

She started flying south, away from both the children and the drake tent. Three drakes peeled off from the others and headed straight towards her, but then she heard the screams of children and the battle cries of two griffins—the children were also in danger.

Hawkwind would have kept leading the drakes away, the odds might have been better for the others, but she was the only one with drake fighting experience, and maybe she could take on all the drakes, allowing Swift and Joy to escape with the children, if they hadn’t been latched onto by a mini-drake yet. She dipped a wing, turning sharply, and dove towards the clearing where she’d left the children. The screams dug into her like spears, worse than the claws of the little beast on her leg.

The drakes were almost within reach of her when she clapped her wings in and dropped like an arrow into the clearing, snapping her wings back out to slow herself only at the last minute. The drakes followed her down, and Hawkwind had only fragments of a second to assess the situation.

Jessika was the center of attention. She was on all fours, holding perfectly still, with the strange paralysis of any animal that fears the slightest movement could end its life. Another miniature wingless drake was wrapped around her torso, it’s spines already sunken into her soft skin so blood streaked her sides and stained her makeshift shirt, which the beast had in its jaws. It had ripped away the fabric on her back, exposing the golden wing tattoos there.

Swift, Joy, and the other children were gathered around her, all poised with the need to get the thing off her; all scared that any attempt to do so could make the thing kill her; its sharp tail was hooked around her neck. Then the drakes hit them from above. Hawkwind threw herself over Jessika, straddling her and turning to face the drakes.

“Run,” she shouted at the other children, and they scampered into the underbrush.

Swift and Joy went down under the weight of the half dozen drakes.

“Fight,” Hawkwind screamed at them next.

Feathers flew and snarls and shrieks ripped the air. Joy managed to wiggle out from under the pile and flop herself over to Hawkwind, fumbling and flailing. A pair of drakes turned towards them and Hawkwind struck out before they could: getting a lucky slash across one’s face. It recoiled with a hiss of pain. Joy, showing more fortitude than Hawkwind could have hoped for, followed up the slash with an awkward swipe and scored a slice in its neck. That drake pulled back slightly, but the other snapped forward with sharp jaws. Hawkwind ducked the attack and shot forward a double punch with the wrist joints of her wings, powered by her hefty flight muscles. She heard the drake’s jaw break and hissed with satisfaction.

Beside her, Joy reared up and leapt back into the fray before Hawkwind could stop her, but nor could she blame her; her mother was still tangled up with the other drakes. All Hawkwind could do was guard Jessika, slashing and punching every drake that got near. With the distraction of Joy and Swift rolling around with the drakes in the main area of the clearing, Hawkwind was able to keep them off and score a few good hits, but she knew if reinforcements arrived the griffins wouldn’t be able to hold them off forever.

Swift and Joy suddenly surfaced, throwing the drakes off except for one, which Swift had gripped in her bill, the point of it buried behind its head. Now with room to work, she pinned the rest of its body and twisted her head. The wet, crunching crack was audible even over the shrieks and hisses. Swift shook her head, dislodging the corpse, and flung it towards the other drakes.

One less drake—but Swift had paid in blood for the kill. There were bloody gashes on her body and good number of her feathers looked broken, but by her posture, Hawkwind didn’t think she had any broken bones. Another drake darted at the big female, and Swift slapped it to the ground, stomping down to trap one of its forelegs. It cried out and other drakes jumped to rescue it, but not before Joy punched it in the head with the same wing maneuver Hawkwind had used and stunned it.

Hawkwind couldn’t spare her attention to watch the others any longer; another drake was heading for her. She lifted her wings up and spread them to try to intimidate it. When it snapped at her, she dodged and slapped back at it. It dodged, and the exchange of testing blows continued, each fighter taking a little damage but avoiding serious hits until a second drake spun around to take a swipe at Hawkwind. In ducking one attack, another glanced off her shoulder and hit her cheek, making her struggle not to stagger and bump Jessika below her. Another strike hit her upper arm, leaving shallow grooves of blood.

She retaliated, snapping out to catch the hand of the offending drake in her bill. Without hesitation, she bit down, crushing bones and making the drake scream. She twisted and shook her head, getting another cracking sound from a wrist or arm bone. Drakes were fast and vicious, but they didn’t have the strength or durability of griffins. Before she could let go, the other drake she faced struck again, swiping out one of her forelegs so that she fell to her elbow. She released the broken drake and tried to get up, but drake jaws suddenly clamped around her skull from above, clenching down, teeth piercing her skin and grinding against her bone.

Another drake bit down on her other foreleg and pulled it out from under her, too. Jessika screamed as Hawkwind fell halfway to the ground, shoving the girl back towards her hindquarters. Hawkwind punched forward with her wing wrists again, hitting the drake that had her head hard enough to make it release her, but the other still held gamely to her forearm, fangs sunk to the gums.

Out of the bushes, Rikah suddenly rushed, carrying a stick thicker than his own thigh. With a warbling yell, voice cracking, he slammed the branch down atop the biting drake’s head. It barely noticed him.

“Rikah, get back,” Hawkwind commanded.

The boy raised the stick again and smacked the drake a second time, a third time, with all the strength in his little body, but Hawkwind had no doubt that the drakes would make short work of him. Kassandra dashed out of the bushes, too, carrying a short and pointy stick. She skidded to a stop beside Rikah, took careful aim, and jammed her stick deep into the drake’s eye. Blood and fluid squirted from the pierced orb and the drake recoiled, shrieking, dropping Hawkwind’s arm.

Hawkwind immediately swept out a wing and hooked the children closer, tucking them under her body with Jessika, as she climbed back to her feet, lamed by the drake’s bite. She had a moment to survey the scene. Swift and Joy had killed three drakes, but Joy was barely on her feet, leaning against her mother’s shoulder. Her wings at least, seemed intact.

“Joy, Joy,” Hawkwind called until the battered young female looked up. “Get Thornfire,” she ordered.

Hawkwind wasn’t sure why he was the griffin she knew they needed, except that the miniature drakes with their glowing, spiky collars that still gripped Jessika and her own hind leg had to be some kind of magic. Perhaps only magic could get them off. The drakes might not stop coming until the mini ones were killed, and if Hawkwind and the others fled back to the caves, it might lead an army of drakes right to them.

Joy half spread her wings, tottering with fatigue and uncertainty. Swift gave her a push, gesturing firmly, “Hawkmother told you to go. Go. Get Thornfire.”

While the remaining drakes were still regrouping, Joy turned and stumbled off into the trees. Swift turned her gaze back to Hawkwind.

“Thank you,” the older female signed.

Hawkwind was puzzled. Maybe Swift didn’t realize that Hawkwind really did need Thornfire. Maybe she thought Hawkwind had given the order so that Joy, at least, could escape. It didn’t matter; the drakes were attacking again and Hawkwind had no more leisure to worry about it.

Swift stepped up beside Hawkwind, on her lamed side, and extended a wing to help support her on that side. The three live drakes were all injured, too, and seemed reluctant to continue the fight, but after a moment of shuffling and posturing they advanced nonetheless, slightly spread out so that Hawkwind and Swift would have a harder time defending against them. It was only then that Hawkwind had the leisure to notice that they wore spiky collars, too, just like the mini-drakes, and just like the drakes Hawkwind had faced in Northnest. Theirs were glowing red.

The outer two feinted to try to distract the griffins. Hawkwind recognized it for what it was, but Swift shifted her attention over. The center drake took a swipe at Swift. Hawkwind was already weak with her limb nearest Swift, but snapped out with her bill. The drake dodged. Then the drake on Hawkwind’s outer side lunged in. Hawkwind managed to get her wing up just in time, although her attempt at punching the drake only glanced off its chest.

This time, the drake tried something it hadn’t done yet. It reached out with both of its own wings, using the hooked claw-like horn on its wrist joints to snag Hawkwind’s now-extended wing. It yanked, pulling Hawkwind off balance. Then, a blindingly sharp pain burst in Hawkwind’s hind leg and shot up to her back and down to her foot. The shred of her mind not swamped by agony realized that the mini-drake must have bitten her at last.

Hawkwind lost her balance and fell to her side, not crushing the children under her, but leaving them unprotected. The bite burned—a hot coal of pain with shimmering waves of fire radiating from it. The drake above her dropped its jaw open in a grin of conquest and lifted its hooked wings and long claws, preparing to strike. Beside her, Jessika gave a sobbing cry. Hawkwind could feel the girl trembling where her hip touched Hawkwind’s belly.

Swift keened a defiant battle cry and adjusted her stance to try to guard Hawkwind and the children as Hawkwind tried to gather her strength to stand back up. The drake above her attacked before she got anywhere. She threw up her free wing and felt the impact of claws rip out some feathers and break others. The drake tried to stomp down on her head, but her flexible avian neck allowed her to dodge and rotate her head right around and clamp her hooked bill onto its foot instead, digging the point of her bill between its foot bones until it screeched.

Meanwhile, the other two drakes attacked Swift with rapid, vigorous slashes and bites, sensing the end was near for the griffins. Hawkwind heard the exchange of blows and impacts, and then Swift’s cry of pain and fury. There was a choking sound, a gasp, and another cry. Hawkwind tried to see over her own body—all she saw was that Swift wasn’t standing beside her. She could get a glimpse of a shoulder and a wing tip sticking up with broken feathers.

Hawkwind wrenched her head viciously side to side with a final burst of adrenaline, getting rewarded for it with the combined sounds of snapping drake bones and drake pain-squeals. The other drakes attacked. They slashed at her. One grabbed her wing in its jaws and pulled. She’d lowered her free wing to cover Jessika, Rikah, and Kassandra—their last blanket of protection. Now, the drake pulled against the remaining strength of her wearied pectorals.

Hawkwind struggled, but fatigue and numbness was spreading through her body. Her vision was getting blurry around the edges.

“No, no, no,” Kassandra screamed as Hawkwind felt her wing dragged up and forward.

The drakes pressed it to the ground. One stood on it. The drake whose broken foot she still held reached down and slashed across her cere. The pain and her growing weakness made her let go of its foot and it tottered away and collapsed.

Hawkwind looked up through fading vision. The drakes were rearing back like snakes ready to strike.

“Help,” Kassandra cried out.

A blurred black shape, moving too quickly to be discerned, flashed from the undergrowth behind the children and rammed the drakes. It wheeled about and struck out once, twice, and all was still.

Hawkwind squinted, trying to focus her eyes. It wasn’t a griffin. She took a gasping breath, suddenly sensing a fresh, heady breeze, like liquid life: made of all the things that grew and pulsed, from flowers that opened their petals to the sun, to wolves that buried their muzzles in the steaming blood of their prey. The breath restored a fragment of her health and she recognized the creature standing atop the dead drakes, their blood splattered on its hooves, one drake corpse still impaled on its heavy, spiraled horn.

Kassandra stuttered to her feet, took a few stumbling steps, and half fell against the unicorn’s bloody foreleg, wrapping her arms around it in a hug. It bent its head down over her, its head almost as long as her whole body, and the drake corpse slid off its horn to join its fellows with a wet thump that sprayed more blood across the torn up clearing.

Hawkwind had seen some horses, though not as many as some. She’d seen sturdy little ponies and lithe runners and middleweight plow horses and knight-carrying warhorses and a few heavy draft horses. This unicorn transcended all of them, of course, but was what Hawkwind would have called perhaps a “draft unicorn.” It was black, hoary where its coat grew long, with a mixed white and silver mane and tail. Its horn was thick and densely ridged, chipped in places like a mountain ram’s horns. Its cloven hooves were near to the size of a human’s spread hand, but all but hidden under the gossamer feathers of its long foot fur.

At the moment, its eyes were closed as it bent its head over Kassandra. Wondering, Hawkwind took a glance between its hind legs to ascertain that it was a male: his eyes, then. Around the girl and unicorn, all the drakes were lying still now except for final nerve twitches. Swift slowly straightened up: testing her legs, wings, and tail for damage and stretching her spine. She was coated with quite a lot of blood, but turned calmly to Hawkwind.

“I think I’ll be alright,” she gestured, “but maybe no flying.”

Both Hawkwind and Swift had a number of broken feathers, plus flying when injured was always an extra strain.

“Are you badly hurt?” Swift asked Hawkwind.

Hawkwind tried experimentally moving her legs and wings. Everything hurt, and the sharp, burning bite of the mini-drake on her haunch had not relented.

“Not badly, but not good, either. Jessika, are you hurt?” she called, remembering the girl had a mini-drake of her own wrapped around her chest.

“Hawkwind,” the girl sobbed, “help me.”

The griffin shoved to her feet above her charge, and then limped around to face her. The drake was still there: spines still digging into the girl’s skin and the fabric of her shirt still clutched in its toothy maw. The end of its sharp tail was still wrapped around Jessika’s throat.

Hawkwind looked imploringly at the unicorn. “Can you help?” she pled.

The beast opened dark eyes and lifted his head from around Kassandra, who was still tightly embracing his leg. He didn’t say anything, just stared.

“More drakes will come, if we don’t get rid of these little drakes,” Hawkwind went on. “The children will be endangered again.”

“We have saved you twice now. I will take her away, and she’ll not be in danger again,” the unicorn spoke, into her head like the ones she’d seen before had done.

“Take her away?” Rikah repeated weakly. “Kassie? Don’t take her away.”

“I can’t stop you,” Hawkwind admitted, “but I swore before you did to protect her. Mine is the prior claim.”

“Your priority is there before you, with the golden wings on her back,” the unicorn countered with a slight pivoting of one deer-like ear.

At this, Swift seemed puzzled—her wings, after all, were slate grey, not gold—until she recalled the tattoo on Jessika’s back, which changed her expression first to one of comprehension, and then to one of more puzzlement. Hawkwind hadn’t explained the full significance of Jessika’s tattoo.

“I swore to protect them all,” Hawkwind countered.

“You swear to protect more than you can handle, Sky-cousin,” the unicorn accused.

Offended because he was right, Hawkwind turned away. “Swift,” she requested. “Can you kill the drake on my leg?”

She positioned her hindquarters towards the older griffin, and watched as she examined the clingy little wretch. It began growling. It sounded like an angry bee with a sore throat.

“It has already bitten me, it can’t do worse,” Hawkwind said. “Just bite through its neck.”

The mini-drake began to wriggle, digging its spines in deeper, its growl getting louder. When Swift lowered her open bill towards it, it began jerking its head—either trying to rip out a piece of Hawkwind’s flesh or loosen its fanged grip. Before it could do either, Swift had chosen a spot to grab it, clenched down, and with a gurgling crack, bit through its body. Hawkwind felt its grip loosen immediately, and sighed as Swift began unwrapping the body from her leg.

“Thank you, Swift. That’s one,” Hawkwind said, looking towards Jessika again as Swift began prying at the mini-drake head still clamped to her haunch.

The remaining mini-drake hissed threateningly.

“I’m scared, Hawkwind,” Jessika whispered. “It hurts.”

Hawkwind almost collapsed as Swift finally got the severed head of the little beast to release her leg. She glanced quickly around at the damage. It looked like a chunk of her flesh had been mashed where the beast had bitten into her with all those rows of needle-teeth. Her fur was soaked with blood and her leg felt weak, but it was nothing compared to what could happen to Jessika. She didn’t know if the beast would go so far as to kill the girl or not—perhaps it was just a lure for the big drakes, who wanted her alive so they could capture her—but she didn’t dare take the risk of trying to hurt it, in case it did drive that sharp tail through the princess’ neck.

“I don’t know what to do,” Hawkwind confessed to Swift as the older griffin stepped up beside her.

“Maybe Thornfire will know,” Swift gestured back. “I hope Joy will reach him.”

“It will take them time to return. It’s a long flight, especially since Joy is hurt.”

Both Swift and Hawkwind turned to look again at the unicorn. It was watching them steadily. Kassandra was still wrapped around its foreleg.

“The rest of you are not my business,” the unicorn spoke simply, emotionless voice echoing in Hawkwind’s head.

“She’s the princess of Northnest,” Hawkwind said.

“We know. We don’t care.”

Swift, however, looked sharply at Hawkwind. That hadn’t been in the story she’d heard.

“Why Kassandra?” Hawkwind asked.

The unicorn looked down at the little girl. “I can’t explain it in a way you would understand.”

“Leave her with her friends,” Hawkwind ordered. “She’s a human girl. How could unicorns take care of her?”

The unicorn stared at Hawkwind, as if saying something without saying anything.

“I’ll help you, Jessa,” Rikah announced, and before Hawkwind could stop him, he’d seized the mini-drake’s tail and was pulling with all his might to unwrap it from her neck.

The mini-drake apparently hadn’t foreseen that either, had been watching the griffins instead, and shrieked a growl in anger. It opened its mouth, thrashing its head to try to get the impaled fabric out of its mouth, at the same time that it tightened its coils around Jessika’s torso and dug its claws into her flesh. Jessika cried out with pain, but Rikah had pulled enough of the tail away from her neck that Hawkwind didn’t think she was in danger of death anymore.

“Swift, help,” Hawkwind ordered as she grabbed the mini-drake’s head to prevent it from biting.

Swift helped Rikah, grabbing onto the critter’s tail above where Rikah had it. With her strength, she managed to unwrap it further. Hawkwind began unwrapping, too. At this, the mini-drake pulled out its claws and slashed for Jessika’s neck. Hawkwind snatched at it with her wounded but free arm, managing to deflect the claws. There was no more time for messing about; she bent down and seized its neck with her bill. A sharp twist broke its spine. As soon as it died, the glowing barbed collar it wore went dark, returning to the appearance of plain cold iron.

“Let’s unwrap it, hurry,” she said.

Jessika collapsed to the ground once the mini-drake was off her. Both blood and tears ran from her, and Hawkwind hurried to check her for major injuries. The spines and claws of the drake had punctured her skin in dozens of places, so that she was peppered with little weeping wounds. It looked like a lot of blood, but none of the wounds were squirting blood, and Hawkwind knew enough to know that meant no major arteries had been pierced.

“See, you do not need my help,” the unicorn spoke up suddenly.

Hawkwind had the urge to growl at him, but not the time. “Rikah, Swift, use the remains of this fabric to wrap her up tight. Try to cover all the wounds.”

Rikah began taking off the fabric that functioned as his own shirt. “Let’s use mine, too.”

Hawkwind faced the unicorn. “We’re leaving now.”

They locked gazes. For a moment, Hawkwind had a disconcerting double-vision of a sturdy young man, dark of skin and hair, in long silver robes, standing where the unicorn stood, with a protective hand on Kassandra’s head. She blinked and the image was gone again. Without another word, the unicorn turned and walked off, pulling its foreleg gently from Kassandra’s grip. The girl stared after the departing beast in what seemed a stunned silence. Then she burst into tears. Karo made an appearance at last, busting out of some nearby bushes and running to Kassandra, where he threw his arms around her and held her tight.

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