The grey griffin and two others departed, and the tan elder griffin turned back to Hawkwind. She looked up at him, hardly daring to hope. He seemed to be examining her, noting the tattered harness she wore, her injuries, and probably her age and fitness.
“Commander Rocksky is passionate in her duties,” the elder remarked, “but not very flexible. She often cannot see the need or possibility of exceptions to her orders.”
He stepped closer and took a seat just beyond the bars. Hawkwind’s back legs trembled with fatigue, but she forced herself to stay on her feet.
“You’re helping me?” she asked.
“It seems you’re going to cause me some trouble. Yes.”
“Why am I helping you or why will doing so cause me trouble?”
He stared at her again for a long moment. Hawkwind noted the wrinkles in the skin around his eyes, and the stiff dryness of his cere. He wasn’t old enough to start showing it much in his feathers, but he was no young griffin.
“You seek Snow-in-lee?” he murmured, apparently ignoring her question.
“That’s the only wild griffin place I’d ever heard of, in a song my great-grandmother sang to me.”
“Your name is Hawkwind?”
“You are of the Hawk Line?”
She nodded. “Yes. My mother was Hawkbright before becoming the mother. Her mother was Hawkbrave, and—”
“Reciting your lineage will not tell me anything useful.” He stopped her with a wave of his hand. “The Hawk Line is but a legend here, an old story. In the story, the Lines split. The Hawk, Falcon, Eagle, Ice, Snow, and Cloud Lines left us, abandoned the homeland.”
“Those were the Northnest Lines,” Hawkwind said.
“And you claim to have come from Northnest.”
“It was my home, and the home of the children I brought with me from there. We were attacked.”
He stared deeply at her. “No one here will believe that.”
“Why not?” she demanded. “It’s true. You could fly down there and see for yourself.”
The elder shook his head. “Your ignorance alone at least proves you’re not a rogue.”
“I don’t understand.”
Hawkwind heard a door open, followed by a babble of voices.
“Yes, we’re taking you to her.”
“Really? I don’t trust you.”
“She’s down here.”
“You put her in a hole? Meanies.”
“She’d better be alright.”
The three griffins who had departed returned. The four children were perched on their backs: the princess, Kassandra, and Rikah holding Karo. It seemed it was Rikah who’d been doing most of the talking.
“Hawkwind,” the princess called, hopping down from her mount and running to the bars.
“See, she’s alright,” one of the griffins said.
“What happened to her wings and tail?” Rikah demanded.
Hawkwind tried to go to the bars, but the shackles held her back. Karo was trying to squeeze between the bars to get to her, and the princess had reached out, until she saw that Hawkwind was chained. The princess turned around, showing Hawkwind her back, and faced the room full of griffins.
“Let her go,” the princess ordered.
One or two of the griffins had the conscience to look uncomfortable.
“I’m afraid we cannot, right now,” the elder Thornfire said.
Rikah strode up to him and shook a fist at him. “What did you do to her feathers? Let her go, now.”
Hawkwind felt she should call the children back, try to make them understand, but seeing them defending her, standing up to beings several times their size, made a new, tender lump rise in her throat. Karo, the smallest, had gotten himself part way through the bars, stretching his hand towards her.
“Let them in,” the elder commanded gently, “and leave the door unlocked.”
One of the griffin guards obeyed, and Karo immediately disentangled himself from the bars and ran inside. Hawkwind lay down, tucking the chains out of the way, and tried to raise a bound wing as much as possible. Karo huddled under its dubious protection, and she tucked him close like a downy chick. The princess came inside, too, but stood before her.
“They’ve cut your feathers off?” the girl said, lip trembling.
“They will grow back,” Hawkwind told her.
“How long? You have to fly us back down to Northnest, so we can retake our castle.”
Her arms were folded and face stern, but Hawkwind could see her swallowing, her narrow chest quaking as she held back tears.
“Hawkwind is a good griffin,” Rikah was proclaiming. “Why did you lock her up?”
Kassandra was watching the confrontation, leaning against the cell doorframe, big blue eyes calm and curious.
“It wasn’t my decision,” the elder griffin was telling the boy.
“Then whose decision was it?”
“It was mine.”
All heads turned, except Karo’s, to the new speaker. Another handful of griffins had entered the central prison area, making it a bit crowded. Thornfire pivoted, putting Rikah slightly behind him. The other griffins reshuffled themselves, too, with the grey griffin who had gone to fetch the children taking a spot near Kassandra, as if to protect her also.
The newcomer was big, probably a female, black on her back with slate grey wings with white wing bars and black banding, and a pristine white underside sparsely streaked with black. She also wore a sort of collar that looked more like clothing than a collar one would hook a leash to, such as on a dog. It was leather, wide and golden, with a few polished stones set into it.
All the griffins in the room except Hawkwind bowed their heads for a breath, and then looked up again.
“Eldest Skycall,” the elder Thornfire began.
“Thornfire,” she cut across him. “Since when do you now presume to countermand standing orders as to the disposition of rogues and related captives, as well as all the other ways in which you overreach your position? Rocksky reported that you removed her from her position as overseer of this case.”
“I felt Commander Rocksky’s view of the case was too narrow, and she hinted at sending this youngster to the crying room. I see that as a violation of the Words.”
“Your interpretation of the Words is broad, and always has been,” the Eldest Skycall retorted.
“And Commander Rocksky’s has always been narrow,” he said in reply.
Eldest Skycall did not respond for a moment, and Hawkwind remained still, afraid to speak or act just yet. Rikah, apparently, was not so afraid. He stepped around Thornfire’s shielding foreleg and walked up to the big leader griffin.
“You put Hawkwind in there and cut her feathers off?” he accused.
Thornfire reached out, snagging the back of Rikah’s tattered shirt, and started to pull him back.
“Let me go,” he ordered, trying to twist away.
Kassandra shifted her weight back onto her feet, as if about to do something, and the princess ran back out the open cell door before Hawkwind could grab her. Rikah ducked his head and lifted his arms, slipping out of his shirt, and skidded to a stop again in front of Skycall, his dark little boy skin looking dangerously fragile against the natural weaponry of the griffins.
“Get on me,” Hawkwind told Karo, and the little boy obeyed.
She got to her feet, stepping forward as far as her chains would let her.
“What is this?” Skycall asked, looking down at Rikah.
The princess grabbed his arm and held him. Hawkwind lifted her head.
“He is my charge,” she called, “and so are the other three: human children I saved from an attack of wizards and rainbow drakes.”
“A rather pointless but selfless action for a rogue,” Skycall said with a tilt of her head.
“I don’t believe she is a rogue, Eldest,” Thornfire said.
“Your belief is nothing next to the truth.”
“I seek shelter and food,” Hawkwind continued. “I will pay with my service, or in any other way you can suggest.”
Skycall advanced, and Jessika and Rikah retreated until their backs hit the bars.
“Rogues who return to the territory of any Aerie are executed,” Skycall said. “You were told this when you were exiled.”
“Look at her, Eldest,” Thornfire insisted. “She is hardly fledged. What Aerie would exile such a young one?”
“Hawkwind is our protector,” the princess Jessika spoke up. “She saved us. We need her to keep taking care of us.”
“She thought she could come to Snow-in-lee for help,” Rikah added with a tremendous pout. “Now you’ve locked her up and cut her feathers off. You’re no help at all.”
Skycall stared down at the two children for a long moment. Then, she walked her rear legs in and sat. “What are your names? Do you have names?”
“I’m Jessika and this is Rikah,” the princess said. “Pleased to meet you,” she added, although to Hawkwind it didn’t sound like she really meant it, and she didn’t bow like Hawkwind knew she’d been taught to.
“You aren’t afraid of griffins?”
“We lived with griffins. They protected us.”
Skycall moved her head a bit closer to the girl and boy. “And what have you heard of Snow-in-lee?”
“Hawkwind sang us a song about it. She said we were going there, because there was nowhere else to go now.”
Skycall’s gaze transferred to Hawkwind. “Sing,” she commanded.
The big leader griffin had icy blue eyes, and Hawkwind’s throat suddenly tightened up. She swallowed, trying to force it open, while Skycall’s expression began to narrow dangerously.
“O’er the rocky breezes flew,” a voice, soft like snow falling, lit upon the air.
“The wild, the flocks of Snow-in-lee,
Free on the wind, my heart will be,
Top o’ the world, and home to me.”
All eyes had turned to Kassandra. The little girl, gentle eyes fixed in the middle distance, fingers curled lightly around a cell bar, had sung out into the raw and rocky prison the lullaby Hawkwind’s great-grandmother had taught to her, that she had taught to the children.
“An old memory, that is,” Thornfire said quietly, “and a lovely voice.”
Hawkwind could see his eyes roving over the girl, lingering last on the slight, pink flower shape on her forehead, where the unicorn had struck her with his horn. His eyes went next to Hawkwind’s, and they seemed to glow from within, with a light like the first crackling of a newly lit flame. Just the sight of it almost lit a glimmer of hope in her eyes, too.
“What is your name?” Skycall demanded, also looking at Hawkwind now.
“Hawkwind,” she answered.
“The Hawk Line—”
“Yes, I know you think the Hawk Line is dead,” she argued, sick of hearing it, “but it isn’t. I am here. I am alive.”
“Where are you from?”
“Northnest. My Line has lived there for generations, since the split you all know about but claim to be a legend.”
“And what do you think you will do, Hawkdaughter of Northnest, in this Aerie?”
“I don’t even know where I am.”
“This is South-scree, the most southwesterly of the Aeries. So what will you do here?”
“I will do any task you put me to,” she pledged, “as long as the children have food, water, and warmth. They don’t eat nearly as much as a griffin.”
“And what Line will you ask to take you in? We have five here.”
“The Mothers and Elders council, of which I am the moderator, governs South-scree. We pass direction on to the administrators of each Line, and they distribute duties in accordance with our directives. To be a contributing member of this Aerie, or any Aerie, you will require membership in a Line, Hawkdaughter.”
Her rigid bill could not smile, but Hawkwind thought she detected a sly smiling of the skin around Skycall’s eyes, and a measure of fury rose in her chest.
“You will petition to be adopted by a Line, then?” the leader went on.
“How does that work?” Hawkwind asked.
“You write a manuscript, detailing your merits and why you wish to join the Line of your choosing. You explain what benefits you will bring them. If the mother of the Line accepts your petition, she will grant you an audience, and set you tasks. If you perform admirably, she may agree to adopt you.”
Hawkwind nodded. She could do that. “What kind of tasks?”
“They will be tasks that demonstrate the merits you claimed to have in your petition, such as any number of learned skills like crafting or magic use, or if you possess none of those, then fighting, hunting, speed at message carrying, or the gathering of other foodstuffs from the surrounding areas.”
Hawkwind kept nodding.
“Are you a magic user or a master of a craft?”
“I was a guard in training, of a sort, so I can fight, and I know how to hunt.”
“Ah,” Skycall murmured, tilting her head ever so slightly. “But how will you prove yourself skilled at those, without being able to fly?”