The children awoke before she did.
“Wasn’t there some meat left?”
“I can smell it a little.”
“Maybe it’s just the smell from last night?”
“Under the coals,” Hawkwind slurred. “Dig it up. Don’t burn yourself.”
She managed to pry her eyes open to the sounds of focused and efficient excavation, followed by subdued cheers and the crackle of charred leaves.
“It’s good. It’s cooked.”
All four were gathered around the remains, pulling bits of meat off bones and swallowing them down as though they hadn’t stuffed themselves like horses at a grain-spill last night. Hawkwind tried to rise, and groaned at the pain. The second day after an injury was always the worst. Her muscles were stiff and cramping.
“Here. We’re full.”
The princess was offering her a morsel of meat. It wasn’t much, as far as griffin appetites go, but Hawkwind wasn’t about to decline the kindness. Delicately, she took the scrap from the princess’ fragile fingers, and gulped it down.
The princess had a firm gaze. “Do we have to keep going? Today, I mean. Are we going to travel more?”
“Can’t we stay?” whispered the littlest girl.
Hawkwind took a moment.
“What’s your name?” she asked finally.
The girl pressed both palms to her chest in questioning confirmation.
“Yes, you,” Hawkwind nodded gently.
“Kassandra,” the girl said.
“And you?” she looked at the older boy.
“Rikah,” he answered, “son of Rikan, finest smithy in Northnest.”
“I have met your father,” Hawkwind told him. “A fine man, strong and honest. And your name?”
The smaller boy looked up from under long, blonde lashes. “Karo,” he murmured.
“Karolan,” the princess clarified.
“I’m Hawkwind, as you know. I’m a Feathyr of your kingdom. It is my duty to keep you safe.”
“We,” stuttered Kassandra, staring down at the ground, “can’t go home.”
“Not right now,” Hawkwind said to the teary faces. “Perhaps someday.”
They all brightened at that.
“But first you will have to grow up strong and smart and brave, and you can’t do that in this ravine. In winter, it will flood.”
“And what would we do for clothes?” asked the princess.
“And food,” Kassandra agreed.
“We’ll need weapons to take back the castle,” Rikah said.
“We must keep moving,” Hawkwind nodded. “Searchers, enemies, will come. They will find us before we’re ready to fight them. I must take you some place safe.”
“Snow-in-lee?” the princess guessed.
“Are you hurt? Can you even walk?” she asked the griffin.
“I will be fine. Now, wash your hands and faces, and anything else you can but don’t get your clothes wet or you’ll be cold. Then have a long drink, as much as you can hold.”
The children obeyed, even helping each other to wash off grease and dirt from hard to reach places. Hawkwind had decided to follow the ravine. It was going north anyway, and staying near it would provide water. When the children declared themselves ready, they climbed the ravine walls—the fallen tree blocking their passage along the ravine floor. The princess Jessika and Rikah the smith’s son climbed up by themselves. Hawkwind carried the other two. At the top, she found the adventurous ones searching for both more snow-celery and walking sticks.
Hawkwind began striding on her way, and the two followed, bringing snow-celery and early berries to the other children as they went. She let them wander a little, sometimes ahead of her, sometimes behind, always in sight, always coming back to her after a few minutes. She kept the river on her right wing, and in that way they walked through the day, taking occasional breaks, but making steady progress up the wooded slope, without any signs of pursuit.
Their evening camp was not as good as the previous. It was a dry sand bank, surrounded by trees and vegetation. It would shield them from view, but not from anything determined to attack them. She’d started watching for a good site starting mid-afternoon. With nightfall imminent, she’d selected the best option available. The children made sleeping nests and a fire while she went hunting. Luck brought her a deer this time, and she ate nearly her fill. It would keep her full now for a couple days. The children, too, had plenty for both dinner and breakfast.
In the morning, Hawkwind began to grudgingly believe that they had avoided pursuit. It seemed the threat that had taken Northnest was behind them. Somehow, they had evaded its net of danger. She led them on that day with a more confident stride, but it didn’t last.
“Hawkwind,” whispered little Kassandra, tugging at her fur from where she was astride the griffin.
“I think something’s out there.”
Hawkwind sharpened her eyes and swung her head around, scanning the underbrush. “Rikah, Princess,” she called, just barely loud enough to reach them.
The two children trotted back obediently, and Hawkwind led them all into the shelter of some large shrubs. Once they were all crouching among the bracken, Hawkwind addressed Kassandra again.
“What did you see?”
“Nothing,” the girl said, “I just think there’s something there.”
Rikah scoffed under his breath, but Hawkwind persisted.
“Why do you think there’s something there?”
Before the girl could answer, a painfully sharp, high-pitched squeaking assaulted the griffin’s ears, although the children gave no sign they’d heard it.
“Drake sonar,” Hawkwind hissed. “Get down. Lie flat. Burrow into the dead leaves.”
The children obeyed, scuffling down until they were completely covered. To drake sonar and eye both they would hopefully look only like lumps in the forest floor, and drakes had a sense of smell poorer than even griffins. Hawkwind, however, could not hide so easily.
“Stay here,” she ordered. “If a drake comes, if it attacks, you must run all in different directions, as fast as you can. Otherwise, do not move from here until I return.”
“What if you don’t come back?” the princess asked.
There was little time for discussion, but Hawkwind thought rapidly. Four human children alone would likely not survive the trek into the territories of the wild griffins—if they existed—and would not be welcomed, Hawkwind assumed, even if they did.
“Go due east, the direction where the sun rises, and look for a village in Northnest, and people who will hide you,” she instructed. “But I’ll be back.”
Hawkwind hadn’t flown since the battle at the castle, but she partly extended her wings now to make long, light leaps through the forest, which was quieter than running. If a drake found her, she would fight, but she hoped she could find someplace suitable to hide herself before that happened. Several leaps ahead, her keen eyes picked out a fallen tree with a gap below it; that might do.
She never made it—a roar of excitement turned her eyes up, to where a pair of rainbow drakes was streaking down through the canopy. Hawkwind aborted her run, skidding about on the forest floor, shredding ferns and kicking up detritus, as the nearer drake slammed its body full into hers. It darted its long body around her, trying to wrap her in its snake-like coils, and snapped at her neck. Hawkwind scrunched herself down and back, ducking her head, dodging the attack and the wrapping coils, but this drake was too quick. It sunk claws into her wherever it could, latching on gamely.
Then, Hawkwind heard screams of terror from the throats of the children. The second drake: somehow it had found them. She struggled, trying to break out of the drake’s hold, adrenaline shooting through her as she kicked and kicked with her back legs like a cat toppled by a larger adversary. Her talons ripped into the drake, making it howl with rage, and she thrashed, sinking in her own hand talons and trying to get a shot at its neck with her wickedly hooked bill. She had to kill it fast and go after the one chasing the children.
The drake writhed and bit into her shoulder as she frantically leaned out of the way of another lunge for her throat. It hurt, but the drake had made itself vulnerable with the move. Now, Hawkwind could seize its neck in her bill, and she did, holding on hard, only needed better footing for the leverage to snap its spine. She had to let go with her talons to get that. The drake didn’t realize what she was doing, perhaps because it hadn’t felt fangs in its neck, only the pressure of her bill mandibles, and hissed with glee when she nearly released it, but then she re-gripped, rolling the drake under her body, twisting it around with all her strength.
Then, the fight was over. One vicious yank and turn, accompanied by a sickening, wet crackle, and the drake went limp. It might have still been alive, but it wouldn’t be running or flying ever again. Hawkwind left it, leaping with all her speed towards where she’d left the children. The commotion in the brush led her easily on, and she tumbled through the trees into a small, ferny clearing where the rainbow drake was wrestling with—
Hawkwind pulled up short, bill agape as she tried to accept what she saw. There was a deer-sized beast fighting the drake. It had one broken drake wing trapped under its hind, hoofed feet. The drake snarled and spat, half-pinned to the ground, lashing at its enemy with its long, sharp-scaled tail, and slashing with claws and jaws whenever the leggy beast thudded back down from its rearing position, trying to crush the drake.
The beast’s hide was blue, edged with rust, blotched and speckled along its back and neck with mist grey and moon glow white. Feathery plumes of hair trailed from its hocks and chin. Its mane and tail grew steely, bleaching to silver at the tips. Its tail was long, bare for the first meter from its haunches, but waving long locks from there to beyond the tip. A single, loosely spiraled horn the color of smoke crowned its forehead.
A unicorn: Hawkwind had seen illustrations, but those had made the beast look much like a horse with a horn tacked on. Although four legged and overall equine in build, Hawkwind would never have mistaken this creature for a horse with a horn. Its legs were longer, compared to its body, than a horse’s, its head rounder, ears more like a deer’s, with hooves cloven like a goat’s, but the biggest differences were how it moved and how it behaved.
It was calculating how to destroy the drake. It was moving with more grace, agility, and flexibility than any horse had ever known. It was fighting, having been given no command by a human rider, to defend the child shaking and crying under the ferns behind it.
The unicorn struck the drake’s head a cracking blow with a fore hoof, and then reared up high, tucking its chin to its throat, and plunging down to drive its horn through the drake’s chest. The rainbow drake shuddered and died. The unicorn stepped off the broken wing, lifted the beast, still impaled upon its horn, and dragged it into the bushes at the side of the little clearing. As it backed away from the corpse, Hawkwind saw that the drake’s barbed tail tip was imbedded in the unicorn’s haunch. The barb ripped away, sending a cascade of glistening blood down the unicorn’s leg. The area around the wound was starting to turn black. Hawkwind wondered why. None of the unicorn’s other wounds, or Hawkwind’s own, were blackening.
The unicorn staggered back into the clearing and collapsed onto the gouged dirt and ferns. Hawkwind detected movement beside her and started to spin about, but it was only the princess and Rikah, leading Karo. So the child across the clearing was Kassandra. Hawkwind looked over, and saw the unicorn extending its head and neck towards the little girl.
Kassandra uncurled from her ball and crawled slowly to the unicorn. Hawkwind’s breath caught, but her body felt paralyzed, perhaps with shock. Kassandra sat on her knees, nose to nose with the unicorn: its heavy breaths ruffling her filthy black hair. Then, she reached forward with both hands and put them on its face, between nose and horn. Then, she leaned forward, and rested her cheek there, too.
For a moment, all was still. Then, the unicorn took a long, deep breath, as if filling enormous lungs. Kassandra’s eyes closed as if with sleep. So closed, too, did the black, weeping wound in the unicorn’s haunch.
The little girl was trembling when she sat back up. The unicorn extended its neck, giving her a velvety soft nose-kiss. Then, it arched its neck up, tucking its chin like it had before, and gave a smart, rapid jab of the tip of its horn to the center of Kassandra’s forehead. The little girl toppled over with a surprised cry. Hawkwind’s strange stillness vanished with a surge of rage and she leapt towards the unicorn, which just as quickly swung its head towards her.
“Peace, Sky-cousin,” a rich but hard voice trumpeted inside her skull.
Hawkwind skidded to a halt in the ripped up loam. Kassandra was rolling onto her side. There was no blood: just a small pink mark, shaped rather like a tiny, five petalled flower, on her forehead. Wearily, she smiled at Hawkwind. Then, she snuggled into the tattered ferns and went to sleep.
The unicorn heaved to his feet, blood, dirt, and bits of foliage still clinging to his coat.
“What happened?” Hawkwind asked aloud, not knowing how the unicorn had spoken without using its voice.
It’s dark, liquid eyes gazed at her. “We knew there was a lone griffin, with four innocents, in our forest,” it rumbled in her head. “I came to watch.”
“We?” she asked.
“Why did you fight the drake? What did you do to the girl?”
Dark eyes closed and the beast said nothing.
No sound of rustling brush announced them. Just suddenly, there were two more unicorns behind the battered male. One was fiery red with black points, and the other purest gold dusted with white and umber. None of the beasts gave any indication of speaking with each other, except that the blue male tilted his head a bit towards Kassandra, and the two newcomers glanced at her and spent a few moments looking over the other children, and Hawkwind, too, from a distance. Without another word, the group turned to go.
“Wait,” Hawkwind called.
“Please, wait,” the princess added.
The unicorns paused, looked over their shoulders, and waited. Princess Jessika walked towards them.
“Thank you for saving Kassandra,” she said. “I’m really glad you were here.”
The blue male only responded with a slight angling of one ear.
“Um, we’re trying to,” she stuttered, “is there a?” She trailed off, looking back to Hawkwind for help.
“Might there still be a city of griffins in the mountains, here, in the north?” Hawkwind asked gently. “I need shelter for these children. Our home was destroyed.”
“Northnest Feathyr, you seek Snow-in-lee,” said the red unicorn without moving its mouth.
The princess nodded, so Hawkwind knew then that the unicorns spoke into everyone’s head.
“Be wary,” added the gold unicorn.
“Travel seven days at the pace you’ve gone,” resumed the red unicorn. “Follow this river. Go to the right when it splits. They will find you, if you are sure that is what you think you desire.”
The unicorns glanced once more at sleeping Kassandra, in eerie unison, and then resumed their retreat, and no words from any of the children, or the griffin, could bring them back.
Hawkwind carried Kassandra, and the child woke at dusk, quiet and dreamy but seeming none the worse for wear. From that day, the small group settled into a pattern. They walked during the day, with the children collecting whatever edible plants they found—Hawkwind forbid them mushrooms since she knew they could be poisonous. They located sleeping spots by dusk. The children set up the camp while Hawkwind hunted, and they cooked and ate whatever she caught for dinner and breakfast. Gradually, even Kassandra and Karo began helping out with the camp making and cooking. Jessika did indeed become an expert fire-maker. Rikah embraced his role as head cook.
Hawkwind’s injuries healed. They managed to subsist on the food they found and hunted, and kept up their strength. They encountered no more drakes. The weather got colder the higher up they went, and the children relied more and more on Hawkwind’s natural body warmth, having no extra clothing, but summer was gaining strength, most of the snow had melted, and no one froze.
In this way, they passed out of their birth land of Northnest and into the territories still held by the wild griffin clans of the far north.