The scouting party had caused a stir among the Snow-in-lee griffins, but at least Rocksky and the others were being relatively calm and collected about the whole situation, now that the initial shock had worn off. Hawkwind had spent a good portion of the day translating for Swift and some of the others while Rocksky asked them questions. She’d considered calling on Kassandra or one of the other children, as they were much better at the hand-talking than she was, but she hadn’t wanted to burden them with some of the complicated topics that were covered, and children were better off playing and—in Jessika’s case—healing, anyway.
As dusk fell and the griffins began retreating to their caves, Hawkwind was starting to feel that they might have a tentative ally in Rocksky and her scouts. In a few days the scouting party would return to South-scree, and Hawkwind hoped she could go with them. Thornfire would certainly be going, and Thornwing, too. If Thornfire went, Starbright would probably go, and if Hawkwind also went, that would mean there would be only Snow-in-lee griffins at the cave camp. Some of the Snow-in-lee griffins were quite competent now, but it still gave her an uneasy feeling to leave them without the protection of their rescuers.
The children had already retreated to the Hawk cave with Joy, and Hawkwind saw Swift give her a wave as she, too, disappeared into the cave system. Hawkwind stood a few minutes longer, looking up at the sky as the stars began pricking their way through the darkening velvet of the heavens. The day sentries were going in and the first set of night sentries were coming out to take their places, although stationed closer to the cave entrance. Griffins had poor night vision, though decent hearing; they didn’t want to be too far from safety. Rainsoft passed Hawkwind and paused.
“Good evening,” she said and gestured, “starting your shift?”
He nodded. “How are you doing? Healing?”
“I’m a lot better,” Hawkwind assured him. “My rear leg is the worst still.”
“I got to see the thing that bit you. It looked nasty.”
Hawkwind extended her wounded leg. It was still well-bandaged, per Thornfire’s orders, so she couldn’t show him the bite, but she flexed it carefully. Under the wrappings it was thickly scabbed and stiff, and thanks to Thornfire’s herbal treatments, no infection had developed.
“I’m sure it will heal eventually,” she said. “I just hope it’s as strong and flexible as before.”
“Me, too. You’re going to have a lot of responsibilities.” Rainsoft’s gaze expressed more than what he said. “I want to help you. I’m just not sure how.”
“Your help is always welcome. Your presence is always welcome,” she assured him. “Don’t ever feel like you don’t have the right to,” Hawkwind groped for the words even as her nares heated with a blush, “be near me, or help me, or anything like that.”
“Do I?” he gestured sadly.
“You do,” she stated, and then she asked him something she wasn’t sure she should ask. “Do you want to join my Line?”
His feathers perked up.
“I don’t know what your family is planning to do, but I don’t think the current Rain Line is at South-scree,” she told him. “I don’t know where it is, at what Aerie, although I assume it still exists. It wasn’t at Northnest. I’m going to ask South-scree to let me add the Hawk Line to the Aerie. I don’t know what you plan to do, but I think it will be allowed for me to adopt any griffins I want, or you can go seek the Rain Line, wherever it is.”
“My parents are confused,” Rainsoft gestured. “My little sister wants to join a Line, like me. My brother, his mate, they are a little confused, too, but don’t trust the Line griffins. They might separate from the group. I have been trying to convince them to stay.”
“I don’t know what will happen to griffins who try to separate,” Hawkwind said. “There will be an all-Aerie meeting about it. The Aeries will probably not take kindly to them. I don’t know how they will feel about Snow-in-lee griffins joining Lines, either, but you and your sister, or any of your family, are welcome to become Hawks.”
Rainsoft bowed his head. “I thank you for the offer. I might take you up on it. We will see.”
They stood in silence for a few minutes.
Finally, Rainsoft gestured again. “I should take my post.”
“I won’t keep you,” Hawkwind agreed. “May you have a peaceful watch.”
Rainsoft began walking into the deeper darkness and Hawkwind headed for the cave entrance, which was slightly lit by a glowing stone Starbright had placed there. Then she heard a scuffle behind her, and turned to see Rainsoft dashing back towards her with wings mantled.
In the oddly still silence, he gestured at her.
Something moved in the darkness behind him as Hawkwind’s blood chilled and adrenaline sent vibrant spikes of urgency to her muscles. She couldn’t believe it. The night was so calm, so peaceful.
“Talis,” Rainsoft signed again, forcefully. “Run. Tell them.”
A sharp hiss came from the darkness and something struck at Rainsoft. He wheeled with a shriek, and Hawkwind’s body propelled her into motion. She was sprinting towards the cave mouth. She opened her bill and shouted out.
“Talis. Attack. To the caves.”
Cries of surprise came from the other griffin sentries. They fled to the cave with her, not trying to turn and fight the hypnotic creatures. Hawkwind shouted out her warning again, and again. She reached the cave and ran right into Thornwing.
“That way,” she pointed breathlessly. “Rainsoft’s in trouble.”
“Run them into the caves, deep into the caves,” Thornwing ordered. “Rainsoft and I will hold them back.”
Thornwing leapt away and Hawkwind could spare no thought for him, but unbidden came the memory of Hawkcall and Eagleye throwing themselves upon the rainbow drakes at Northnest. Again, Hawkwind was running away.
She stopped to shout into every cave she passed. “Talis are here. Run into the caves, deeper into the caves.”
She didn’t have time to be sure the griffins obeyed.
“Swift, Joy,” she summoned as the cave passages began to get crowded.
The two griffins of her Line waded through to her.
“There are talis attacking. Swift, take the children,” she ordered. “Go deep into the caves and keep going. Stay with other griffins: whoever is going the fastest. Keep the children safe. Tell them I will come soon.”
Swift nodded and dashed away.
“Joy, try to get these griffins moving. Urge them to go deep into the caves, but if they won’t go, leave them. Stay safe.”
The younger female was trembling, but she nodded, too, and turned to the nearest griffins, encouraging them to move. Hawkwind ran for the Thorn cave. Thornfire was strapping the Moonstone onto Starbright.
“Hawkwind, get going,” he scolded as soon as he saw her. “Take the Sunstone. Go deep into the caves. Bright will go with you. Her magic will keep you safe.”
“Where are you going?” she demanded.
“I go to help Wing and Rainsoft. We’ll buy you time. Now go. Go.”
Starbright left the cave without so much as a farewell. Thornfire followed her example. As Hawkwind stepped back out, she could hear the hissing screeches of talis and the battle cries of Thornwing and Rainsoft. They would buy her time? Did that mean they were sacrificing themselves? Hawkwind felt like a mini-drake had wrapped around her throat and heart, choking her.
“Let’s go,” Starbright called.
There was no time. As Icefeather had said during the attack on Northnest, they’d made their choice. Hawkwind ran to the Hawk cave. Swift had been true to her name; the children were already gone. Starbright rushed to help fasten the Sunstone to Hawkwind’s harness, and they left without a second look. The corridors were filled now with pushing, shoving griffins, although they passed a few caves where griffins looked blankly at them. When Hawkwind shouted at them to come along, they just backed away, frightened.
Despite the pushing and shoving, the griffins were moving along at a good pace. There were many tunnels and no one seemed to know where to go. Hawkwind even heard the shrieks of snow-screamers and the sounds of fighting. She and Starbright had a better idea than the others of how to get through, although they didn’t have it memorized. The glow of the Sunstone cleared the way for Hawkwind, and the pair pushed to the head of the pack. There, Hawkwind encountered Swift although Joy was nowhere to be seen.
“Hawkwind,” the children cried in unison.
“It’s alright, I’m here. Stay on Swift.”
Hawkwind took a position in front of Swift, and Starbright came up to stand beside her.
“We need to keep going,” the apprentice mage said.
“I know,” Hawkwind agreed as she led them deeper. “There’s no way of knowing how many talis are out there or if Thornfire, Thornwing, and Rainsoft will be able to stop them.”
“If they don’t,” Starbright whimpered.
“Then there’s no telling how far the talis will follow us. We must keep going.”
Hawkwind and Starbright, conversing sometimes to agree upon a path, wormed their way through the tunnels. It was days to the other side of the mountain, and they couldn’t keep their pace up forever, but neither could the talis. They could only hope to outrun them. The caves were cold; maybe that would slow the talis down.
The chaos of the shuffling, shoving griffins and the sounds of battle reverberating from the walls meant that Hawkwind had little idea of what was going on beyond the dozen or so griffins around her that she could actually see. Surely the griffins were fighting snow-screamers, but had the talis reached the back ranks of the griffins and started fighting? Were the talis fighting with snow-screamers, too?
As they went, Starbright periodically picked up stones from the tunnel floor and lit them with magic. Some she dropped, lighting a path, others she passed to the griffins around her, who in turn passed them on to others. The light would help keep the snow-screamers away, but Hawkwind wondered if darkness might be better for fighting talis. Maybe if it were dark the griffins wouldn’t be able to see enough of the talis to become entranced? But then they wouldn’t see the talis’ attacks coming.
Hawkwind started talking about it, trying to pass the information on. “The light will discourage, keep away, snow-screamers,” she repeated, “but let you see the talis. Hide the light stones if you suspect talis. Hide the light stones if you see talis. Use them if you see snow-screamers. Tell others. Pass it on.”
It was difficult for the Snow-in-lee griffins to hand-speak while walking, but it seemed they tried to pass on the message. Hawkwind couldn’t know how far the message would travel, or if it would get lost in the many passings of it. Most of the Snow-in-lee griffins already knew that snow-screamers didn’t like light. Maybe they would remember that, at least.
Hawkwind had to stop talking as they came upon a startled pack of snow-screamers. The beasts winced away from the light of the Sunstone. A few Snow-in-lee griffins leapt courageously over the heads of Hawkwind, Swift, and Starbright, and engaged the animals. The snow-screamers didn’t last long. They could see for themselves that there was a crowd of griffins. That, plus the bright light, sent them scurrying away in retreat, and the fighting griffins let Hawkwind take the lead again.
All she could do was lead them on. The talis hadn’t reached them after hours of walking, and Hawkwind didn’t know when it would be safe to stop. She pushed on, walking so long that soon she wondered if it were day or night. Some of the griffins were falling behind. Surely any talis that were chasing them would have tired as well?
“Let’s stop,” Hawkwind said finally, when they had reached an extra wide part of the tunnel where it seemed it opened up into a cave and then resumed on the opposite wall.
“Are you sure?” Starbright asked, but she, too, was drooping.
She had been marching as well as making magic, and carrying the Moonstone. Hawkwind had been carrying the weight of the Sunstone, and Swift the weight of four children. Plus, they’d had the pressure of trying to choose the correct route: one that wouldn’t result in a literal dead end. All three of them had been plodding on only by dint of will.
“The talis like warmth, right?” Starbright was babbling. “The caves are cold. Maybe they gave up.”
“We have to rest,” Hawkwind repeated. “This is sort of a wide spot. Let’s stop and let others catch up. We’ll set a watch behind us and in front of us, and everyone else can rest.”
The children got down off of Swift and moved as a pack to a little corner of the cave, where they huddled with skinny arms around each other. Starbright sat where she was. Swift moved ahead, pausing only to gesture, “I will watch the path ahead.”
More griffins were already limping into the cave. Hawkwind went to watch the entrance.
“Rest here,” she told the arrivals, repeating it as they came in. “Starbright, do you have any magic that would detect a talis approaching, not a griffin?”
“That would be very advanced,” she answered. “Thornfire might be able to come up with something, if he had time to think about it.”
An idea struck Hawkwind, and she dashed back down the tunnel. Where the tunnel curved, she piled up several glowing stones. When she returned to her post at the entrance to the cave, she watched the shadows of approaching griffins. Having the bright stones all in one spot threw a clear silhouette onto the cave wall. Hawkwind went back to adjust the location of the stones a few times until she had it just right; she could now easily tell from the shadows alone what kind of creature approached. It wasn’t much of a warning, but hopefully it would be enough to allow her to shout an alert if the shadow showed a talis-shape.
More and more griffins arrived; including all of Rainsoft’s immediate family, and Hawkwind began to be heartened by how many had so far survived. It was also possible that some had gone ahead of Hawkwind’s group. Some arrived with wounds from fighting snow-screamers, and Starbright gave more of her energy to magically cauterize the worst of the bites and scratches, since they would be so prone to infection.
Thornfire, Rainsoft, and Thornwing did not arrive. Nor did Rocksky and her scouts, and Hawkwind tried not to worry about them. After all, they had wings. If they had been cut off from the cave entrance, they could have flown to safety. Of course, if they had been cut off from the cave entrance that could mean that talis had entered the cave system, and Rocksky and her scouts were not immune to the talis’ hypnotism.
Hawkwind nearly wept with relief when Joy staggered into the cave leading several young griffins, some still unfledged and tottering on baby legs.
“Joy,” she cried out, and Swift came running to her daughter.
Hawkwind sent another griffin to take over Swift’s post at the other side of the cave.
“Why do you have so many chicks?” Swift asked. “Where are their parents?”
Joy shook her head heavily. “They are chicks of confused ones,” she signed. “When I went to the caves to tell the families the talis were coming, the adults looked relieved. They said that was how it should be, that now they could return to their masters. I tried to reason with them at first, but time was short. Some of the chicks followed the lead of their parents, and wouldn’t come, but many chicks argued with their parents, and said they wanted to run. I managed to get most of those chicks away, and here they are.”
“Bad,” said one of the littlest chicks aloud, with its voice, “talis bad.”
“Mom and Dad are wrong,” whispered another, and then burst into sobs.
That set off the whole group to crying, and the crying of fledglings brought the whole cave of griffins awake. A dozen adults and sub-adults came over to the chicks, gesturing: “come with me. We’ll take care of you. Don’t worry. I’ll keep you safe.”
Within moments, the orphans had been absorbed into other griffin families, and Joy was left alone.
“Some of them wouldn’t come,” Joy signed weakly. She keened softly under her breath. “I had to leave them.”
Swift put her wings around her daughter, comforting her as though she were a chick, too, and led her off.
“Perhaps the talis won’t have gotten as far as the ones that were left behind,” Starbright offered. “Maybe they’ll all be safe.”
“I’m glad some came at least,” Hawkwind said. “Young ones are resilient, and once they were free and saw the world, and began learning to talk and met each other, and saw us flying, they adapted quickly to being like normal chicks. It’s some of the older adults who spent decades in four walls that must not be able to feel safe in any other place.”
“But if the talis are able to reclaim any of them, they could start their breeding system again,” Starbright worried.
“Except that they don’t need it unless they recapture the Stones. They sacrifice griffins to power the Stones,” Hawkwind reviewed darkly. “If they don’t have Stones, griffins are nothing more than food to them.”
“We must keep the Stones away from them,” Starbright said. “It is the lesser of two evils.”
“I agree. Why don’t you rest, Starbright? I’ll wake you if we need you.”
The little mage put her head down and sank into almost immediate slumber. Hawkwind stayed on watch at her end of the cave, examining shadows as they approached, although they came less and less. Someone brushed her lightly with a wing. It was Icemoon.
“Rest,” the lady griffin told her. “I will watch for a while. You watch the shadows, right?”
“Yes. You must wake everyone up if it looks like a talis,” Hawkwind confirmed. “And we can’t rest long.”
“Just for a while then,” she accepted. “Get a few minutes of sleep.”
Hawkwind went to lie by her children, who were already asleep, but instinctively shifted to huddle up against her once she nudged them. She closed her eyes and dropped into blissful darkness for a while that was far too short.