It was hours later that Joy and Thornfire, with Rainsoft and a few other Snow-in-lee griffins, found them. Hawkwind and Swift had been painfully but steadily walking back with the children balanced on their backs. Thornfire called down through the trees as he flew over, and they met up a ways ahead in the nearest clearing.
“What happened?” Thornfire demanded.
“Rainbow drakes happened,” Hawkwind answered as the newcomers helped transfer the children onto their own backs, unburdening Swift and Hawkwind. “And a new creature, like a miniature drake, with spines and lots of teeth, attacked Jessika and me. One bit me, and another hurt Jessika, too.” Hawkwind pointed to two bags she’d filled on either side of her harness. “I’ll show you the bodies and collars later. The collars glowed when they were on the beasts, but stopped once they were dead, so I thought they would be safe to bring, so you could take a look at them.”
“A unicorn saved us,” Rikah piped up from where he was perched now on Rainsoft’s back.
“Really?” Thornfire murmured, “how unusual. This will be a tale worth hearing, once we’re away and safe.”
“Take a look at Jessika, please, before we go,” Hawkwind asked.
The girl was shivering and panting, still leaking tears and blood, although a lot of the bleeding had stopped.
“We should get her warm, and get some water into her. I brought a water skin for now, and Starbright is brewing some tea back at the caves. Her wounds need washing, and then I can apply the herbs I already sent Starbright to collect, for your wounds, too, Hawkwind and Hawkswift,” he said. “Can you fly? We need to get back as soon as possible.”
Swift had gone to Joy as soon as the young griffin had landed and Rikah and Karo had been removed from the older one’s back. Joy looked tired and battered, but she was nowhere near as badly injured as Hawkwind and Swift. Thornfire took a few moments to examine all of them for injuries serious enough to warrant immediate magical cauterization, and did some field healing. He promised more thorough repairs once they were back at the caves.
The children were strapped down onto their fresh mounts. Thornfire himself carried Jessika after coaxing her to swallow some water. The sun was westering as Hawkwind and Swift labored into the air behind their rescue party, and Hawkwind could think of little else than getting Jessika safe, warm, and healed.
When at last they landed at the caves, the other griffins crowded around with questions and Joy and Swift made some effort to answer them, but the main focus was getting the wounded into the Hawk cave so they could be treated. Thornwing appeared beside Hawkwind, offering his shoulder to lean on, and she accepted gratefully. He gave her feathers an affectionate nibble—at least the few he could find on her head that weren’t bloody, but then he turned and trotted off. In the crowd, she couldn’t tell where he went.
Hawkwind, Swift, Joy, Thornfire, and Rainsoft crowded into the Hawk cave. Karo, Rikah, and Kassandra were unhurt except for when they’d gotten some scratches rushing in and out of the underbrush. They all gathered around the cushion where Jessika was placed. She was still shivering weakly. She lay limp on the cushion, eyes closed, breathing soft but rapidly.
“She feels cold,” Thornfire observed. “Move her closer to the Sunstone. Rikah, Karo, Kassandra, if you snuggle up to Jessika it will help her get warm.” He picked up another water skin from beside the Stone and shook it. “This tea will be quite strong by now. You could all benefit from it.”
“Wait,” Hawkwind spoke up, “are you sure it’s safe for humans?”
“This is a tea we’ve all drunk before on this journey, including the children. It’s just to help warm us up and get some fluids,” Thornfire explained calmly.
They helped Jessika sit up and take some drinks of the tea. Though at first she only sipped a little, perhaps because of the bitterness, once the heat of it reached her core, she took deeper draughts.
“That’s good,” she commented.
When she gave Hawkwind a little smile, the lump of rocky fear in the griffin’s chest began to melt. The other children, plus Hawkwind, Swift, and Joy, also had some of the tea. It was strong and hot, and returned a little strength to pained muscles. Once they’d drained the skin, Thornfire immediately set to making another batch.
Starbright shouldered her way into the room with a bag stuffed full of something. “Master, I’m back,” she was panting.
“Excellent, Bright,” Thornfire greeted her, taking the bag.
The two bent over a flat rock and began messing about with the herbs, the first water skin that held just plain water, and some strips of cloth while Hawkwind made sure the children, Swift, and Joy were comfortable. Hawkwind examined their wounds. Swift had taken the most damage, besides Hawkwind herself, but all the wounds were clotted or cauterized now. That didn’t mean they wouldn’t become infected, but at least the bleeding had stopped. They could be grateful that drakes were cleaner creatures than snow-screamers and lacked the venom of talis.
Thornfire and Starbright came over carrying bandages smeared with pungent globs of herbs. The sharp scent of the bruised greenery alone brought some clarity to the mind and brightness to the lungs. Starbright attended to the griffins, while Thornfire knelt by Jessika, tenderly laying the poultices onto her wounds.
“These herbs have anti-infection properties,” he explained. “They will help keep the wounds clean and healing. Do rainbow drakes have any venom?”
“None that I know of,” Hawkwind said. “I’ve been bitten and clawed by them before and never had any symptoms of poisoning.”
“What about that new creature you mentioned? Did it bite Jessika? It bit you, you said?”
“It did bite me. It didn’t bite her, but its spines and claws did hurt her.”
“You have one of the beasts?”
“Both of them,” Hawkwind confirmed.
She opened one of the sacks she still had strapped to her harness and carefully pulled out the bodies and severed heads. Thornfire put them on another rock, separate from the herb rock, and examined them.
“I’ve never seen their like,” he said. “Exceptional spines they have.”
“Look in their mouths,” Hawkwind suggested.
“Ah,” he exclaimed upon looking. “Once a dried fish showed up at the Harvest Trading Festival in South-scree. It had a mouth much like this, all these thin teeth pointing down the gullet.”
“So anything it bites can’t get away, right?”
“So is my understanding,” he confirmed. “Let me see your leg, where it bit you.”
“It hurt,” she told him, “so bad.”
“All those teeth in close proximity? It mashed your flesh, destroyed its structure; I expect it hurt excruciatingly. This wound will need close watching and attention.”
“Thank goodness it didn’t bite Jessika,” she whispered.
“Indeed,” Thornfire said, giving her a serious look. “And why did it not, Hawkwind?”
“I don’t know,” Hawkwind prevaricated. “Maybe it was because she wasn’t resisting.”
It was true that she didn’t know exactly why, though she suspected it had something to do with the girl being the Northnest princess and her being wanted alive.
“They were trying to kill us griffins the most,” she went on.
Thornfire had returned to examining the mini-drake. “This could have killed a human child very easily. I don’t see any venom pouches or perforations in claws, spines, or fangs that would suggest a place for venom to be injected, though I can’t be certain of course, but it doesn’t look like this beast could have poisoned you or Jessika.”
“That’s good to hear.”
“Let’s get some more poultices on you all, and then you’ll need to rest.”
As the injured submitted to having the herbs and bandages pressed to their wounds, Thornwing came back into the room. He had a chunk of raw flesh in his mouth, head tipped up to try to prevent blood from dripping on the floor.
“Wing?” Thornfire greeted, but his brother ignored him, going straight to Hawkwind.
Thornwing nudged her, pointed at the meat he was carrying, then at her, and then finally signed with the language he’d learned from the Snow-in-lee griffins, “for you, eat.”
Hawkwind spluttered and blushed. No one had fed her like that since she was a chick, but it was normal behavior for males bringing food to those they felt an obligation to feed. Not giving herself too much time to think of it, she accepted, opening her bill and tilting her head so he could transfer the meat over to her. She swallowed it whole with a few bobs of her head.
Rikah got up from the cushion. “Thornwing, is there more? I’ll make food for us.”
“There is. Come with me.”
Rikah fetched his knife, and as the two left, Swift gave Hawkwind a playful nudge. Hawkwind nudged her back, but despite the embarrassment, the food felt fantastic in her gizzard, and it would feel even better once it moved to her stomach to start getting digested and feeding her taxed body.
It seemed that Thornwing wasn’t the only one with the bright ideas. In another minute, Hawkdash came hesitantly into the cave, bearing a bloody mouthful that he fed to his little niece, Joy. Swift signed to him her gratitude, and he brought her a chunk next. Thornwing came back with another piece for Hawkwind, and Rikah strode in with a steak of whatever kind of meat it was they were eating to place on the Sunstone to cook.
“Thank you, Thornwing,” Hawkwind said.
“I’m here to help,” he replied. “How do you feel?”
“Better with the food and the poultices, but it was a close thing. I can’t remember being more injured,” she confessed, “although the escape from Northnest might come close.”
“I should have gone with you,” he grimaced.
“You had important things to do here. Any more sign of the talis?”
“There are signs here and there, but nothing that has alarmed me yet, and we haven’t actually seen any. Don’t worry about anything other than healing.”
“The tea is ready again,” Starbright announced, and the skin was passed around to the injured.
With everyone covered with bandages, full of tea, and either getting fed by Thornwing and Hawkdash or waiting for Rikah to cook the steaks, the room slipped into the calm of resting and recovering adventurers. Only Thornfire, examining the mini-drakes and their collars, and Rikah, prodding the meat, stayed alert. Even Starbright, exhausted from her frantic search for the herbs her master had needed, dozed by the Sunstone. Once Thornwing had brought all the meat he could, he took position by the door, keeping watch. Rainsoft didn’t make an appearance, and as she drifted off to sleep, Hawkwind wondered if it was because he was jealous or angry that Hawkwind had accepted Thornwing for mating as well as him.
Too sore and weary to worry any more about it, Hawkwind drifted into an uneasy sleep.
Swift and Joy had gone for a walk, testing sore muscles and taking care of the necessary, while Hawkwind sat, watching Jessika work on standing and moving around a little, with the help of the other children. Everyone’s bandages had been changed that morning, and Thornfire had pronounced all the wounds to be healing properly, with no signs of infection.
“So,” the master mage said from beside her, making Hawkwind jump a little; she hadn’t noticed him approach. “What do the golden wings on Jessika’s back mean? I saw them when I dressed her wounds.”
“Nothing,” Hawkwind lied. “They’re just a decoration applied by eccentric parents. It’s not unusual in Northnest.”
“I don’t believe you, Hawkchild,” Thornfire murmured gently. “The mini-drake only attacked her? The other children follow her orders—even you follow her orders at times—even though Rikah is bigger and bolder. She shows a confidence and poise that the others lack. There is something about her that is different, special, and not just those golden wings.”
“She is a special girl,” Hawkwind acknowledged, “but so is Kassandra. The boys are special, too. The tattoos are nothing to worry about.”
Thornfire’s gaze, patiently awaiting an explanation, did not waver. “I knew when I heard your story that there was the chance those who attacked Northnest could still be hunting you. I knew that could create some risk to anyone travelling with you, but I did not think you were so special that your enemy would make a considerable effort. I did not think it was a personal enemy. Is there anything you need to tell me?”
“I don’t know who attacked Northnest,” Hawkwind emphasized. “I was a trainee, barely a Feathyr. No one told me anything, although I knew there was some unrest, and that something was going on. Feathyr flights were going out more often but I didn’t worry about it. I didn’t think it was serious. The attack was shocking to me. All I fought were the minions. I don’t know who was in charge.”
That was all true, but directly denying Jessika’s identity meant lying. She could talk about how she was less than nothing all day, but to touch upon the children would require concealment, and she’d already lied about the wings once. Hawkwind’s throat choked of its own will; she couldn’t lie. Instead of speaking an untruth, she remained silent. Under Thornfire’s heavy countenance staying silent became harder by the minute.
“My feathers may have lost their shine and my bill is indeed dented with use, but I am a mage, a good one. Do you know what kind of mind is required to become a good mage?” he asked.
“I don’t,” Hawkwind confessed.
“Magery is about more than raw ability,” he said. “It requires study and discipline, memorization and willpower, focus and mental agility. I do not flatter myself when I say that it requires a brilliant mind. I can tell, Hawkwind. I know she’s different. I know there is more than what you’re telling me. What is she?”
Hawkwind’s mouth had gone dry. Before she could come up with something, she felt little fingers touch her shoulder, and she turned her head to see that Jessika herself had tottered up behind them.
“I’m a Northnest princess,” the girl whispered. “Please keep it a secret, Thornfire.”
The mage let out a sigh. “I thought it might be something like that.”
“Please don’t tell,” Jessika repeated.
“I don’t care what you are,” he said, “as long as you being it doesn’t cause problems. I won’t tell anyone, but in return I think you had better stay away from human settlements. It’s obvious to all of us that the drakes were after you, little one. How did they find you in the forest?”
“I don’t know,” she said. “We were looking for things to eat, plants and stuff. I was searching, and then suddenly the thing jumped out at me and grabbed me.”
“And another grabbed you, Hawkwind. None of the other children or griffins got attacked.”
“That’s right,” Hawkwind confirmed.
“So the drakes aren’t just looking for any griffin or any child, but you two in particular, and somehow they know which child and griffin you two are.”
“How could they? Those drakes couldn’t have ever seen us, been introduced to us, or anything,” Hawkwind mused. “There might have been a painting of Jessika in Northnest, but certainly not of me.”
“I doubt they are looking for you with their eyes,” Thornfire all but scoffed. “Those collars you brought back are magical, although now that they aren’t attached to a living mini-drake, they seem to have lost their power source. I’m not certain about everything they do, but I have little doubt that the collars identified you to the mini-drakes, so they knew whom to bite.”
“And how would the collars know?” Hawkwind asked.
“The easiest way would be if the mage who made the collars had something of yours—your blood, a hair, a feather—and used it in the spell. They tell the collar to seek something like the item they’ve given it, and somehow indicate it to the bearer. You told me the collars glowed. That might have been the signal for the mini-drake. Or, the spikes of the collars were digging into the mini-drake’s skin, and might have created a conduit directly to the beasts’ little brains.”
“Magic can do things like that?” Hawkwind marveled, partly revolted.
Thornfire nodded somberly, and his voice dropped even further. “It would be a combination of dark, blood, and earth magic,” he muttered. “That’s not nice stuff, and it would take a powerful and unscrupulous mage to create such a complex spell. You said that when the mini-drake found you, Hawkwind, it attached itself to you, and then you saw the rainbow drakes rising into the air to hunt you.”
“Some went after me. Some headed for the children,” she confirmed.
“Suggesting that they were called magically, since you detected no visual or auditory calls,” he nodded. “I’ll hold onto those collars, keep them safe. As for you two, there will be no more village visiting. It seems that you’re wanted by someone. Do us all a favor and stay away from anywhere mini-drakes are likely to be.”
“So I can never go back to being with other humans?” Jessika murmured.
“For now,” Hawkwind told her. “The situation will change eventually.”
“I want to go lie down,” she said, and turned and limped back to the cushion by the Sunstone.
“So that’s a human princess,” Thornfire stared after her.
“Sort of,” Hawkwind shrugged. “She had older siblings. If Northnest had never been attacked, she would never have become the heir, and never ruled. She might have married a royal of some other country and been a queen there, although that’s not common for Northnest. Probably she would have just supported her siblings in some role in the royal cabinet and married whomever she wanted, or not at all.”
Thornfire grinned at her. “Like you, she finds herself assuming a social position she’d never expected.”
“So it would seem, but Jessika might never regain the throne of Northnest. Whoever has it now will be difficult to unseat,” Hawkwind said.
“That is a problem for the future,” the mage commented, “and of no concern at present. I’m glad to know more about your true situation. I’ll keep it to myself. Please continue to rest and heal.”
Thornfire got to his feet and took himself out of the cave. Hawkwind laid her head down and, like Jessika, partook of some more sleep.