The Tale of Snow-in-lee
The prison guards had made Hawkwind and the children comfortable, although they hadn’t removed her chains, providing some stuffed bags of hay that could be flattened into beds for the children, with blankets to go on top, as well as food and drink for all, though Hawkwind had needed to explain what the little humans could and couldn’t eat.
Hawkwind dozed, her belly full of food she’d hardly tasted, while the children finished their quiet supper and lay down to sleep, too. She hadn’t known what to say to Skycall. Indeed, how could she demonstrate her fighting ability, or hunting, without being able to fly?
Griffins naturally molted, but over about three months, once a year, usually in late winter, losing one feather one day, and another the next, in a pattern that kept them more or less flight worthy the whole time. To lose all her primaries and secondaries plus her tail feathers at once was a catastrophe. Once she got up the courage to pull out the stubs—a painful but necessary task—her body would replace them as fast as it could, but she would be ground bound for at least a month. If she didn’t pull them out, they wouldn’t grow back until her next molt.
A noise from the stairwell alerted her and she lifted her head. Around her, the children slept on, and the other prisoner seemed deeply asleep as well, but the elder Thornfire was making his way down the steps. One guard was on duty, the grey one that Hawkwind had learned was named Skymist; she was half asleep herself, lounging on a big leather pillow with a book. Skymist sat up to give a nod to Thornfire.
“Here to continue interrogation of the new prisoner,” he said, with a glint in his eye that suggested a measure of sarcasm to his words.
“Of course, Elder,” Skymist replied. “Go ahead. You can pretend I’m not here.”
Hawkwind carefully disentangled herself from the sleeping children and stepped as close to the bars as she could.
“Without the ability to compete to be accepted into a Line, what am I going to do?” she asked at once. “I can’t fly, Elder Thornfire.”
“Calm yourself, little hawk,” he soothed. “Don’t think I’m not aware of that, and we’ll find a solution.”
“But Eldest Skycall said,” she blurted.
“Don’t worry about Skycall.”
“Isn’t she the leader?”
“She’s a sort of leader,” he allowed. “She certainly likes to think she’s the ruler of indeed, the world, not only South-scree, and she can be a difficult adversary.”
“So what do I do?” Hawkwind asked again, trying not to let her shoulders droop too much.
“I have some ideas what we will do, little hawk, but you must leave those plans to me if you want an alternative to petitioning to enter a Line and facing the tests without flight.” Thornfire eyed her critically. “Do you trust me to handle that? Or would you rather choose to petition?”
Hawkwind held his gaze. “I don’t know you. We’ve only just met. I don’t know if I should trust you, or anyone here. I thought I’d find welcome among my own kind. I was wrong. I don’t know what to expect anymore.”
Behind Thornfire, Skymist shifted on her pillow and glanced up at Hawkwind. “Thornfire is a radical, crazy old wizard too big for his hunter harness, but he has good intentions.”
The tan male griffin raised his brows as he speared Skymist with a smoldering gaze. “Is that any way to speak of your elders?” he drawled.
“He’ll do his best to help you, if he pledges it, but it’s still possible his plans might fall through the ice and get you eaten by a snow-screamer,” Skymist concluded. “So that’s how much you can trust him, in my opinion.”
Hawkwind felt a few fragments of her fear melt under the friendly banter of the pair. She dared to hope a little. Thornfire gave Skymist an extra bit of glaring and then turned back to Hawkwind, settling his wings with a raspy shuffle. He flicked some imaginary dust from his forepaw.
“So, will you leave it to me?” he asked again.
“What are you planning?” Hawkwind countered carefully.
Voice low, he murmured, “What do you know of Snow-in-lee?”
“I only know the lullaby,” she told him, swallowing her other questions, “and that it was a place where griffins lived.”
Thornfire took a seat. “I can tell you the tale of Snow-in-lee. Listen well.”
“Long before South-scree and Ice-peak and In-the-wind were founded, most griffins lived in a sheltered dale among the mountain peaks called Snow-in-lee. It was our first city. The wind skipped around it, the morning light bathed it, and the snow fell only lightly there,” Thornfire began. “Our homes were carved into the mountain sides and we built a network of towers connected by bridges nestled in the dale itself. There, we flourished. There were libraries, art galleries, crafting houses, and armories, too. What made it all possible were the two Stones, the Moonstone and the Sunstone.”
“I have never heard of those things,” Hawkwind said.
“I will tell you of them. When griffins began to live together, to form communities, instead of struggling on their own or in small family groups like any animal predator, those of us with magical talent began to meet. Upon meeting, we either fought and died of rivalry, or banded together and shared our knowledge. Those who shared started a place where they kept their secrets. They choose a valley, named it Snow-in-lee, and started a school for young griffins showing magical talent. Together, their talents grew and they discovered new ways to use their magic. They wrote it all down and stored the books and scrolls in libraries there.
“It was there, in that school of concentrated magical talent, that they discovered how to create magic that could be stored in stones. The stones could then be set to run the task done by the magic in the stone, and they would do so eternally, without rest, as long as they periodically received some new energy to keep them going. It was much easier than having a magician repeatedly performing spells for some ongoing desired effect, although magicians did have to set up the stones initially, and keep them powered, and that took great skill: the more complicated the spell, the more skill was required.
“As for the Sunstone and the Moonstone, they were crafted by a pair of quite powerful magicians. Most stones were small, and did simple things like creating light. Such small stones took only a few moments or minutes to make, depending on their size and power of the makers. The Sun and Moon stones however, were as large as melons, and were the work of years for the creators.”
“What did they do?” Hawkwind asked eagerly.
“I’m getting to it. Are you aware that the moon we see in the sky pulls on the waters of this world?”
She shook her head. “How does it do that?”
“I’m afraid I don’t know that either, but Icecloud knew, somehow, and created the Moonstone to pull more water up through the small spring in Snow-in-lee, until the valley was flooded with it.”
“How would that be useful?”
“It wasn’t at first, as the spring already provided the small school of magicians with plenty of water, but then Starflight created the Sunstone. Perhaps you can guess what that one does.”
“It makes light?” she guessed.
“More than light, the sun heats our world, and so the Sunstone, placed into the waters the Moonstone had called up, created light and heat, made the water warm and then hot, and then steam began to fill the valley. Among these frigid mountains, warmth was a rare thing indeed. Suddenly, everyone wanted to live in Snow-in-lee—griffins and everything else in the mountains. The plant-eaters were no problem, but when ice-lions and snow-screamers and other predators started showing up, the magicians had their hands full. They welcomed other griffins on the condition that they help defend the school. Snow-in-lee boomed and soon most of our population lived there. Our Lines established themselves and we wrote the first Words.”
“It sounds ideal,” Hawkwind commented. “What went wrong?”
Thornfire sighed heavily. “The coldest winter ever known descended on the mountains. The peaks and mountainsides both were encased in ice. Only Snow-in-lee survived, and even there it was chilly, despite the hot water. The griffins could survive, and they allowed any nonviolent animals to join them.”
“But not every animal was nonviolent,” Hawkwind surmised.
Thornfire nodded grimly. “Starving and freezing, their watery homes frozen solid, the talis came.”
“What’s that?” she asked as, behind Thornfire, Skymist hissed.
“The talis are an ancient people, no doubt,” the elder allowed quietly, “and usually we have no contact with them, as they are creatures of the water, long-lived, and very slow breeders, but upon that winter they all descended upon Snow-in-lee. They took it from the griffins.”
“Took Snow-in-lee, and took our lives as well,” Skymist spat.
“We griffins have little defense against a talis,” Thornfire confirmed, shoulders shifting with discomfort. “The magicians tried their best, but there were too many. Any conflict with them is mortal for us. Many died.”
“Many of us, and few of them,” Skymist contributed. “And they’re still there now, they say, bathing in the warm waters, eating every beast that dares come near, while our city crumbles around them and they care not.”
Hawkwind found herself frowning, staring at the ground. “What do they look like?”
“Pray you never see one,” Skymist answered immediately. “See one, and it will be the last one you ever see.”
“There are a few drawings and some descriptions around,” Thornfire provided, “but they don’t really do the beasts justice. Have you ever been captivated by something sparkly?”
Hawkwind ducked her head, a griffin-blush.
“We all have,” Thornfire soothed. “We like sparkly, shiny objects, pretty patterns and colors, and even with harmless objects, our natural fascination can be difficult to resist. Talis are finned serpents that can grow large enough to swallow an adult griffin when they unhinge their jaws. They have intricate, glimmering scale patterns, but they also have something more, some sort of magical hypnotic essence that can distract and entrance us, making us slow and hesitant, and easy to catch.”
“Is there no defense?”
“Somehow, some few griffins seem to be resistant, but we’ve found no way to tell which ones they are, until confronted by an actual talis. Then you know. You either can’t look away, or you fly away.”
“And they have Snow-in-lee?”
“Yes,” Thornfire said.
“How do they keep the Moonstone and Sunstone working?” she asked. “You said they require some magic put into them, and how long ago did Snow-in-lee fall?”
“It was many generations ago, more than a griffin has feathers. The Talis are not unintelligent. They have some language and they work some water magic. I suspect they recognized that the Stones were magic. They also may have kept some of the griffins they captured for a while, since they don’t need more than a meal or two a year. It’s possible they learned of the need to recharge the Stones from the griffins they kept.”
“Kept until they got hungry,” Skymist mumbled.
“At any rate, all reports indicate that the city is infested now. They have comfortable, unlimited warm water to return to after they go hunting. There’s no reason they’d leave. Talis have cold flesh. They are slow until they strike, and they let their venom weaken their prey, so that even if it runs, they can follow at their own slow pace and pick it up later. The warmth, however, makes them faster, and even more deadly.”
“They sound horrible,” Hawkwind said, hugging her chest with her forelimbs and making her chains scrape against each other.
“After the griffin Lines were driven from Snow-in-lee, they tried to retake it, but failed. The survivors founded other cities instead. Generations later, there was a conflict with the humans, which I expect you are aware of since you come from where you come from. The new griffin cities encroached on human territory.” He lowered his voice a little. “Most of the Lines here at South-scree refuse to admit to any wrongdoing, or that any error was made that could have ever incited a conflict with the humans. They blame the fight on the humans alone and refuse to believe that any of the Lines would have a reason to ally with the two-leggers against their own kind. Thus, they deny the existence of Northnest and declared your Line and the others to be extinct.”
“But we’re not,” Hawkwind protested. “Or, well, we weren’t, but we might be now,” she concluded with a whisper.
“I long suspected the existence of Northnest,” Thornfire told her. “It is, however, forbidden to fly beyond the bounds of our territory without council approval.”
“As if you ever listen to the council,” Skymist muttered.
Thornfire, if he heard her, ignored the comment. “Now you are here, and it is proven. The legend of Northnest and departure of the five Lines is true.”
“So you believe me?” Hawkwind asked.
“I believe you completely,” he assured her at once. “Your situation is so, well, strange? It’s difficult to choose an appropriate word. I can only concede that you are genuinely what you are, and your four human children as well.”
Some weight of fear lifted from Hawkwind’s heart. “I’m so glad someone believes me.”
“I believe you, too,” Skymist called. “It’s too weird to be fake, but the council probably won’t see it that way.”
“Leave them to me,” Thornfire said without turning around. “And speaking of weird: perhaps, Hawkdaughter, you’d be kind enough to try to befriend the other prisoner we have?”
She looked over towards the other wing cut griffin prisoner. He or she was still curled in a ball, motionless except for some subtle belly movement, indicating breathing.
“I must be on my way. Many things to do, I have,” Thornfire went on, getting to his feet. “Oh, but one more thing.”
“Do you have any magical talent?”
Hawkwind shook her head. “I never knew griffins could do magic until I came here and heard you speak of it.”
“There were no magicians at Northnest then?”
Hawkwind shivered. “Only the ones that attacked us, and loosed the rainbow drakes upon us.”
“They’ll not find you here,” the elder assured her, voice soft. “The mountains are too cold for drakes. They’ll have been turned back by the winds and snow, even if they managed to track you beyond the unicorn glades.”
She nodded, swallowing, fighting back resurging memories of fleeing through Northnest, out the tunnel, and through the forest. Her wounds ached and prickled.
“I’ll be going then.”
Thornfire exited up the stairwell. Hawkwind checked on the children, seeing that they were all still sleeping, huddled together in a ball of skinny arms and legs.
“Do they need anything else?” Skymist asked.
“Not right now,” Hawkwind told her. “They have food and a warm place to sleep, which is more than they’ve had for days. They will need new clothing, as theirs has been quite ruined, but I don’t know that South-scree can provide it.”
“Hmm, I can talk to some folks,” the guard answered. “I’ll see what I can do, once I’m off duty.”
“That would be very welcome, and I’ll repay you when I can. They could also use a bath soon, but it’s not critical.”
Hawkwind sensed Skymist’s hesitation. “I’m supposing they don’t dust bathe? How do humans bathe?”
“With a tub of warm water, soap, and some cloth rags to scrub their skin with,” Hawkwind explained. “Then they’ll need towels to dry off with before they get cold.”
“Fascinating. How bizarre to be a human, with such naked skin, no claws, no sharp bill or fangs. How do they survive? Is that why you and the other Northnest griffins were taking care of them?”
“They do well when they have weapons. Their hands are clever and so are their minds. Sometimes I think they are more intelligent than us griffins. They are certainly inventive. What they lack they create: weapons, clothing, housing, cooking, tools, and art.”
“But these little ones,” Skymist went on. “They are like fledglings?”
“Yes,” Hawkwind confirmed. “They are mostly defenseless, but they can be useful in ways other than fighting. Still, they need me to protect them, and I will. I swore it.”
Skymist made no reply to that. Hawkwind watched their little fingers twitch in sleep, their closed eyelids fluttering, pink lips slightly parted as they breathed. Rikah was snoring a little through his nose. Through the rips in her dress, Jessika’s wing tattoos were slightly visible. Hawkwind adjusted the garment, covering them up. She didn’t know if they would mean anything to the South-scree griffins, but she felt an instinctive need to keep the girl’s identity secret.
“So, who is the other prisoner?” she asked Skymist, turning around to face the grey griffin.
“We picked him up last week,” the guard provided, “but who he is no one can say, for he has not spoken a word.”
Skymist shrugged, and Hawkwind strode towards the huddled prisoner, her chains clanking against the floor. She wouldn’t be able to reach him, and stopped when she hit the end of her tether. The prisoner’s feathers were ragged and dirty, but seemed to be in a pattern of white, grey, and black.
“Hey, hey you, excuse me, you other prisoner,” she called out, but the griffin made no response. “Can I talk to you? Are you alright?”
Hawkwind picked up a small clump of mostly clean hay bedding that had just sort of solidified to itself when it got wet. Not sure what else to do—she didn’t dare send one of the children to awaken a traumatized griffin—she pitched the hay clump at its head. The prisoner jumped and startled at the impact, even though it hadn’t been a heavy blow. His wide eyes stared frantically around as he let out a piercing shriek of fear, struggling against his chains and the mesh that bound his cut wings. Frantically he scrambled backwards until he hit the end of his chains, jerking to halt and falling onto his face.