A Warm Welcome
A week passed. The children grew leaner, dirtier, and stronger. Their pale castle-skin tanned to match the mud that got smeared on it from time to time. There was no more singing. They labored along the paths, which grew rougher and rockier, up, always up, into the mountains. One afternoon, Hawkwind paused along the trail.
“Break time, Hawkwind?” asked the princess, her voice listless.
“Yes,” the griffin confirmed. “Down for a minute, please.”
Karo and Kassandra had been dozing on her back. Rikah and Jessika woke them and helped them down, found them marginally comfy spots to lie down and they kept sleeping. Hawkwind, too, lay down on the path, tucking her head under a wing. Her eyes were gritty and sore, her head light. Her limbs trembled and ached. It wasn’t from the altitude; she’d flown far higher than this.
The children weren’t sleeping well at night, waking up from nightmares a few times a night each. She’d wake up, too, and snuggle them until they fell back into sobbing sleep. Little Kassandra was actually doing the best, remaining quietly sorrowful most of the time, instead of screaming from night terrors. Jessika struggled to keep her jaw clamped on her cries, but her limbs and tear ducts wouldn’t obey as easily. Often Karo could not be comforted, and just cried until he became exhausted.
Hawkwind herself was suffering from the endless ache of losing her home and everyone she’d ever known. She was wearier than she’d ever been in her life: mind, body, and heart. One of the children was petting her back. It felt good.
What could have only been a moment later, little hands were shaking her shoulders, but when she opened her eyes, she saw immediately that the sun had moved a considerable amount, making the shadows stretch across the path. How long had she slept? The children were calling her name.
“I don’t think they’re Feathyrs,” the princess was saying. “Stay here.”
Then, shadows began passing over the ground. Hawkwind looked up. Five griffins were circling them.
“Children, come here,” she ordered, lifting her wings so they could sit down underneath them.
The griffins, dark against the bright sky, continued to circle, making a few more passes, until one changed its path, dropping down onto the trail a few yards ahead. Two more landed behind it. The other two landed on the trail behind Hawkwind. All were fully-grown: half again bigger than she was. Their colors varied from white to grey to brown to black, with patterns that included wing bars, banding, streaking, and spotting.
The one on the trail directly ahead, the leader, so Hawkwind assumed, was counter shaded black and white with bright amber eyes. It took its time examining her, with more of a confused air than an alarmed one. Hawkwind stood, keeping the children safely tucked against her sides and her feathers slicked down submissively.
“State your Aerie,” the black griffin demanded finally. “This is South-scree land, and I don’t recognize you.”
“I don’t have one,” she answered. “We’re—”
“Rogue,” hissed a tan and brown griffin behind the leader.
It started to step forward, but the leader flipped out a wing, blocking it.
“Those are humans, aren’t they?” the leader snapped.
“I thought humans were bigger,” commented the other griffin, a speckled white one, behind the leader.
“My name is Hawkwind,” she proclaimed, over the muttering of the others.
“Hawkwind?” repeated the leader. “The Hawk Line is dead.”
“We’re from Northnest,” she went on.
“Northnest is a legend,” it spat.
“We need help.”
The tan and brown one hissed again, “a rogue asking for help? Trying to get back in when you’ve been kicked out?”
“Are you from Snow-in-lee?” Hawkwind tried.
The tan one scoffed on a laugh. Over her head, the black and white leader gave a sharp nod to another griffin behind her. She heard the vigorous flapping of wings, suggesting one of them had taken off.
“You seek Snow-in-lee, rogue?” the tan griffin sneered. “You wish to speak with the dead, or perhaps become one of them yourself?”
“I’m just,” Hawkwind panted, “we escaped an attack and we need shelter. I will do anything to earn warmth and food for these children.”
“You mean they aren’t your food?” the white griffin chuckled.
“What do humans taste like?” the tan one asked the white one. “The fairy tales never mentioned that.”
The pair began laughing over theories of how humans tasted, but the leader was silent now, watching Hawkwind with narrowed eyes.
“Why is a griffin caring so much about human chicks?” the leader asked slowly.
“I am sworn to protect them,” Hawkwind said. “It’s my duty, my purpose.”
For a few moments the four griffins eyed Hawkwind and she tried to keep her expression genuine and submissive, hiding her fear. The children held tight to her legs and said nothing while the white and tan griffins joked about eating them. Finally, the leader hissed at the pair to be quiet.
Then, there was a raptorial cry and six more griffins landed on the trail. Hawkwind presumed one of them was the one the leader had sent away—to bring reinforcements. One big griffin shouldered its way to the front, facing Hawkwind, standing beside the black and white one, who backed up slightly as if with deference.
“What are these?” asked the big newcomer.
Size alone suggested that this new commander was a female, as adult female griffins were almost always larger than males. She was grey with black wing bars, banding, and eye stripe, except for a white underside, streaked with black, and a white crown, tipped with black. Her eyes were goshawk red, and her bill heavy and steely. Hawkwind also saw that three black stripes had been dyed into the grey fur of her forearms. A check showed that the leader of the first group had two white stripes bleached into its black fur.
“Well?” Three-stripes growled.
“An intruder,” provided Two-stripes, “and four small humans, it seems.”
“My name is Hawkwind, and we’re from Northnest,” she repeated. “The castle was attacked, but I managed to escape with four children. The kingdom is overrun with enemies so I have nowhere else to go.”
“The Hawks are a dead Line,” Three-stripes interrupted. “Ancient, but dead, long ago. Northnest is a chick’s nesttime story. You’re lying.”
“Northnest is eight day’s walk from here, straight south,” Hawkwind argued. “Surely your widest patrols have seen it.”
“You see before you our widest patrols. This is the border of our lands,” Three-stripe said. “Being a lying rogue, you know this.”
“What?” she objected.
“Why do you have humans with you?”
“I’m taking care of them,” she said again.
“Rogues are not allowed to return from exile. You have crossed the border. You will be detained and your fate decided,” Three-stripes proclaimed.
“Understood,” said Two-stripe from behind, although the black and white griffin looked dubious. “And the small humans?”
“They are mine,” Hawkwind declared, tightening her wings around them and trying not to tremble. This wasn’t going the way she had expected.
“Humans are little threat,” Three-stripe ruminated, “in small numbers.”
“They seem to be fledglings,” spoke up a griffin from the back, poking its head forward between some others.
“Irrelevant. I suspect an advance scouting party, rogues and humans preparing an invasion of our territory. Detain the humans for questioning.”
The circle of griffins was closing in. Hawkwind couldn’t fly with all four children, and even if she could have, ten bigger and unburdened adult griffins would have had little trouble catching her. Hawkwind’s fur and feathers started standing up, an unconscious reaction to threat, trying to make herself look bigger.
“Hawkwind?” The children were pushing close against her, wrapping skinny arms tighter around her neck and limbs. At least a couple took hold of her battered harness.
“Restraints,” muttered Three-stripe to a subordinate.
“Please let me speak and try to understand,” Hawkwind tried. “We mean no threat to you. We come for help, help I will pay for with servitude.”
“Wrap this up,” Three-stripe sighed, waving a hand.
Several griffins jumped on Hawkwind, pinning her down and wrestling for her hands and feet. The children screamed. Karo immediately burst into panicked tears and tried to burrow between Hawkwind’s belly and the ground. Rikah had a stick, and stood under Hawkwind’s shoulder, poking any other griffin that came within reach.
“Hawkwind?” the princess demanded. “What do we do?”
“Run,” she ordered.
Hawkwind hadn’t been sure whether she should use her talons and bill, but to distract the attackers and give the children a chance, she snapped out with her head and bit hard into the nearest piece of enemy. From the corner of her eye she saw the princess trying to sneak between griffin legs, holding Kassandra by the hand.
Hawkwind growled through her mouthful of enemy. “Rikah, get Karo.”
She twisted and writhed, keeping her hands and feet away from the other griffins, but finally, one snagged a hind leg, jerking it out from under her. To the side, the two girls screamed, and Hawkwind saw them pinned to the ground by the sharp talons of two griffins.
She let go with her bill to shout. “Don’t hurt them.”
Rikah and Karo went running the opposite direction, trying to dodge swiping hands. Hawkwind struggled towards the two girls, but someone grabbed her other hind leg. She kicked hard, breaking the grip and feeling flesh tear under her claws, but was grabbed again. They pulled her hind feet together, lashing them tight.
Desperate, she thrashed. Three-stripe stepped in front of her as two griffins leapt onto her back, crushing her to the ground. Two more griffins seized her hands. Three-stripe stamped on her head, grinding her bill and throat into the dirt.
“Valiant,” she heard the leader say, “but pointless.”
After that, she was thoroughly bound: talons, claws, and wings. They made her into a neat bundle, capping it with a leather hood that blocked her vision, hindered her hearing, and made her bill useless both for speaking and fighting. Only a small gap was left, over her cere, to allow her to breathe. She could hear struggling and children crying and arguing, so she hoped that meant they were all alive, although she wished they had been able to escape.
She was picked up, flown through the air, and there was nothing she could do about it. Hawkwind closed her eyes and conserved her strength: waiting for what would happen next.
After a time, the group of griffins landed, and she was set on the ground. Through the hood, she detected the babble of many voices. She was lifted, put on something that moved, maybe a cart, and then dumped back on the ground after a few minutes of travel. She heard the sound of metal clanking, and felt new, tight bands fastened around her wrists and ankles. Another band was fastened around her neck, and another around her whole body, cinching down her wings.
As if that wasn’t enough, while she was still firmly bound, unable to do any more than perhaps rock her body with futile wiggling, someone pressed down on her, squishing her against the floor, taking even that slight movement possibility away. She heard the ring of metal shears opening, and wild, panicked realization hit her. Desperately, she tried to thrash, to get away, to dislodge the weight on her, to fight, and escape.
The griffin holding her down was big and strong. Despite her struggles, she hardly budged, but she cried out in denial, voice strangled in her throat because she couldn’t open her bill, as the metal shears chopped, and chopped again, and again, and again. Hawkwind felt the reverberations up her body, a frantic message from her nerves, alerting her brain that her feathers were being cut, that she would be unable to fly, that she had to get away, to stop it—right now. The sensation only heightened her cries, and she trembled, sobbing with loss.
Finally, the shearing stopped and the weight of the other griffin left her body. Then, rapidly, the leather thongs holding her legs, arms, and wings were cut, just as someone slipped the hood off her head. As she got her vision, she saw two griffins rapidly backing away, holding the thongs and hood. All around her, her cut flight feathers were scattered, glinting chocolate, caramel, and cream on the slate floor. The cut edges of her wings scraped against her back and sides: rough and raw.
Hawkwind curled up, feeling as helpless and vulnerable as a freshly hatched chick. The metal cuffs and chains on her wrists and ankles ground against the floor. Her limbs each had a chain running to a central point under her body. From there, a thicker chain ran through a ring imbedded in the floor, together restricting how far and how easily she could walk. A belt of fine chain links held her wings tight to her body: not that she would have been able to fly with them, had they not been cinched, but a strike with the wrist joint of a griffin’s wing could be a powerful blow, propelled by massively strong flight muscles: the strongest muscles in her body except for her heart. She wasn’t muzzled; her bill was now her only unrestricted weapon.
Half hiding her head, she looked around at her surroundings and captors. Two griffins were watching her from a few paces away, and behind them, some others milled. Between her and the watchers, a wall of bars loomed. She was in a dungeon or prison of some kind. She saw only one other captive, chained several yards away, wing cut like her and curled in a ball, head hidden, with no one paying any attention to it.
That seemed like a good policy. She was trembling still, and now moved to hide her head, as if that would let her escape, pretend she hadn’t just been—the children!
Hawkwind surged to her feet with such force that the watching griffins all flinched. She started to charge them, remembering only at the last minute that her legs were chained. Narrowly, she avoided falling on her face, instead, planting her feet and lifting her neck feathers: a clear threat-gesture.
“Where are my children?” she demanded.
Her captors looked at her like she was a haunch short of a herd beast.
“There were four human children with me,” she stated. “I am their protector. They are no danger to you. You must not harm them. They must be kept warm and fed.”
The lack of comprehension on the faces of the jailers made her grind her bill.
“I forbid you to hurt them,” she shouted.
“Still screaming?” came a wearied, dry voice from the back of the crowd.
The crowd parted, and Three-stripe stepped through the gap, along with another griffin, who was a dull tan and white, with some faint barring and dark edging to its wings. Hawkwind felt an angry hiss growing in her throat.
“Where are they?” Hawkwind demanded. “If you’ve hurt them, I’ll rip your feathers out.”
Three-stripe hacked a short laugh. “A juvenile threat,” she rumbled. “How old are you, little one? Fifteen winters yet?”
The defiant hiss wavered and died in her throat, and she swallowed rapidly a lump of fear and despair. She was fourteen winters; she could just barely be considered an adult.
“What Aerie have you been kicked out of, and what was your crime?” Three-stripe went on.
“I have no Aerie,” Hawkwind rasped. “I was born and raised in Northnest, like my children, but you don’t believe me.”
A twitch at the corner of Three-stripe’s eye betrayed her impatience.
“I couldn’t lie even if I wanted to,” Hawkwind babbled. “The only griffin place I’ve ever heard of is Snow-in-lee.”
The dull tan griffin’s feathers gave a little flick.
“What am I supposed to say?” she pled.
Three-stripe didn’t seem to have a reply to that.
“She does seem rather young to have been expelled from an Aerie,” the tan griffin murmured. From the voice, Hawkwind guessed it was a male. He was fairly small, too, which reinforced the guess.
Three-stripe’s eye twitched again. “There are those here with skills to get the truth from you.”
“Come now, Rocksky,” the tan griffin frowned. “You’d send a new fledge to the crying room?”
Three-stripe, proper name of Rocksky, hissed, but made no other response. Hawkwind tried not to bristle. She was not a new fledge; she’d fledged almost a decade ago.
“Even our good detention hall manager would have a pause before following that command. It is contrary to the spirit of the Words.”
“Understood,” Rocksky spat finally. “What do you suggest, Elder Thornfire?”
The tan griffin looked down on Hawkwind, where she stood panting, arms and legs quivering.
“I think, some food and water,” he said. “She looks as though she could use it.”
Hawkwind almost wept with relief. “My children,” she said, swallowing down a whimper.
“What is this she is going on about?” the elder asked of one of the other griffins standing at attention.
“There were four small humans brought in with her,” the griffin answered, before Rocksky could, prompting her to hiss again and turn away.
“I leave this in your hands, Elder,” Rocksky said as she departed. To Hawkwind, it sounded almost like a threat.
“I assume,” the questioned griffin went on uneasily, “she means them.”
“And where are they now?” the elder asked.
Another griffin, a grey one, answered this time. “Not knowing exactly what to do with them, they were placed in a confinement stall in the kennels.”
“These humans, they are dangerous?”
The grey griffin shrugged its wings. “They don’t appear unduly so, Elder. Some of the commander’s flight reported what appeared to be resistance, including strikes from their hands and feet. One of them had a stick, used as a club. They didn’t appear to have the strength to do a griffin any serious harm. None of the flight was hurt by them.”
The elder nodded. “Kindly bring the four humans here, without hurting them, or letting them hurt you.”
The griffin hesitated. “This is on your authority, Elder?”
He frowned. “I suppose it will have to be. You may inform Eldest Skycall. Go now.”