“It’s alright,” Hawkwind tried to soothe the panting prisoner.
He’d pushed back to his feet, bill agape and panting, still staring around with panicked eyes.
“He’s been sleeping or unconscious most of the time,” Skymist contributed dryly. “Whenever we try to awaken him, he does this same song and dance. We leave food for him, but he won’t touch it during the day. It’s gone by morning though.”
To Hawkwind, he seemed quite small, young, and rather skinny. “You don’t know his name or where he’s from?”
“He won’t respond to anyone. He just stares.”
Hawkwind took a seat facing the prisoner. He stared blankly at her. She put a hand to her own chest. “I’m Hawkwind,” she said.
“We tried that,” Skymist sighed.
Perhaps words were not the best choice. Maybe he was deaf? Hawkwind picked up the chains that bound her and shook them. Then she pointed to his chains. She pointed to a wing and showed him that her feathers were cut. Then she pointed to his wings. She pointed to herself with one hand. She pointed to him with the other. She held up her hands together, trying to suggest that they were the same, both her hands and she and him.
Whether he understood or not, she didn’t know, but his body relaxed and he continued gazing at her. Suddenly, he sat back on his haunches, too, and held up both his hands, copying Hawkwind’s pose. Her face brightened with joy: a response. Now what should she do? She tugged on her chains and stroked her temporarily crippled wings, hunching, cowering, and whimpering with the soft crying chirps that nestlings use to call their parents. Having given the play acting for a few moments she straightened back up to normal and tried to make a gesture that suggested “and you? How do you feel about it?”
The prisoner put his hands down and gazed at her, head tilted and brow furrowed as if thinking hard. At last, he looked over to Skymist and pointed at her, tilting his head farther and giving an expression that conveyed confusion to Hawkwind.
Skymist lifted her hands in defense. “I didn’t do anything to him.”
“I think he’s wondering why you’re not chained and wing cut,” Hawkwind said. “I think he’s deaf maybe.”
“We sent messages to the other settlements, with a physical description, asking if anyone is missing him, or exiled him, but no one seems to know him,” Skymist supplied. “We wouldn’t exile someone for being deaf; that’s ridiculous. Something else is going on with him. It seems like everything terrifies him, like he’s in fear of his life every moment.”
Hawkwind looked back to the prisoner and didn’t have an answer for her. She had no idea how to explain it. Her expression of helplessness seemed to communicate something; he put his hand back down and lowered his head in depression, still trembling slightly. At least he seemed calmer now.
“Maybe he can write,” Jessika suggested from behind Hawkwind, startling her.
“You’re awake,” she said. “I suppose his cry awakened you all.”
The four grubby children were sitting together on the cushions now, although Karo still looked half asleep.
“If he can’t talk, maybe he can write, or draw pictures,” she elaborated.
Immediately, Hawkwind brushed the floor clear of hay fragments, leaving a slightly dirty, sandy surface. Skymist got up and came to the bars to watch. The prisoner flinched at her movement, but nothing more. Hawkwind dipped a finger in the water bucket and wrote, “my name is Hawkwind,” on the floor.
“What kind of writing is that?” Skymist commented. “You write funny.”
“How do you write?” Hawkwind asked her in return.
Skymist dipped a finger, too, and wrote something on the floor, but Hawkwind couldn’t read the letters.
“What did you write?” Hawkwind asked.
“My name,” Skymist answered. “I assume you wrote your name, too?”
“Our written language diverged,” Hawkwind guessed, “after all the time apart, now Northnest griffins and South-scree griffins write differently.”
“I’ll bet you all learned Northnest writing when you joined with us,” Jessika said, walking up to crouch beside Hawkwind, “and forgot your own.”
“But we talk the same,” Skymist said.
“I think we all always talked the same,” Jessika opined.
Hawkwind just shrugged and looked at the prisoner. She pointed to her writing and to Skymist’s, before the wet letters dried and vanished. The prisoner shook his head at Hawkwind’s writing, but looked longer at Skymist’s. Then, with a shaking hand, he reached into his own water bucket, swept aside the hay, and drew some marks on the floor. They made no sense to Hawkwind but Skymist was watching closely.
“The writing is very similar. Rainsoft?” she said. “Your name is Rainsoft?”
The prisoner looked at her uncomprehendingly. He opened his bill, as if to speak, but nothing came out. He coughed, croaked, and managed only a quiet warbling cry.
“He can’t talk,” Jessika observed, “but he can make the cries and calls like griffins, and falcons and eagles and all can make. Why can’t he talk?”
“Talking and calling come from two different places in our bodies,” Skymist said.
“She’s right,” Hawkwind confirmed. Gently she touched the girl’s throat with a finger. “We talk from here, just like you, but we make our cries and calls and screams from a place deep in our chest.” Hawkwind placed her palm against her own keel, although the actual origin of the cries was much more than skin deep.
The prisoner had put a hand to his own, feathered throat.
“Let me see,” Rikah said suddenly, elbowing his way between Jessika and Hawkwind.
Hawkwind tried to grab him, but the boy was already out of range of her shackled hands. “Come back, Rikah,” she ordered. “He might not be safe.”
The boy ignored her, walking up to the prisoner without fear. At first, the griffin jerked back, but then seemed to decide that the boy was of no threat. With great delicacy in his trembling fingers, the griffin touched the boy’s arm, shoulder, and hair. Rikah giggled.
“That tickles,” he said. “Now, I’m going to touch you, too.”
Hawkwind watched, breath held, as the boy lightly petted Rainsoft’s chest, and then the sides of his neck. Then, his little clever fingers worked under the feather-fur of the griffin’s throat, lifting up layers of it to look at the skin below. Rainsoft kept his chin lifted, orange eyes watching the boy nervously. Rikah stepped in closer and dug his fingers deeper. Hawkwind quivered. With his sharp bill unfettered, a single bite could instantly kill the boy. Rainsoft, however, didn’t move.
Finally, Rikah seemed to find something, and parted the feather-fur with both hands. Hawkwind leaned in against her chains to look at the skin revealed there.
“Oh, Rainsoft,” Jessika sighed.
A twisted, ugly, white scar marred his throat.
“He can hear. He just can’t speak,” the girl went on.
“And I don’t think he knows our language,” Skymist suggested. “I wonder where he came from.”
“I wonder how we could ever ask him,” Hawkwind concurred softly.
Hurried footsteps on the stairs interrupted their pondering. Rainsoft jumped, but Rikah put his arms around the prisoner’s neck, hugged him close, and whispered, “it’s alright.”
Jessika ran back to the other two children still lying on the sleeping cushions, and Hawkwind stepped up to face the bars as Skymist returned to her post. Two griffin guards were trotting down the stairs in perfect synch. They stopped, Skymist nodded in salute, and they gave smaller nods back.
“Rogue Hawkwind,” one of the newcomers began, “you are called for in the council chambers. You will accompany us.”
Jessika, leading Karo and Kassandra by the hands stepped up beside Hawkwind.
“Just you,” the guard went on. “The human chicks have not been summoned.”
“They are in my care,” Hawkwind argued.
“That is not disputed. As their caretaker, you will speak for them before the council. Your fate and theirs is to be decided. Naught will be done with them until then.”
“I’ll make sure they have everything they need,” Skymist spoke up, “until you come back.”
Hawkwind looked from Skymist to the children, in pain. How could she possibly leave them here in this place alone?
“You’ll come with us, conscious or unconscious,” the guard growled. “It would be a shame if the little ones were hurt when the only one called for is you, Prisoner. We’ll not lay a claw on them if you come quietly.”
Hawkwind swallowed hard, and put a hand on Jessika’s shoulder. “Tell Skymist about anything you need, and watch over the others until I return.
“Hawkwind,” Karo whined, but Jessika shushed him.
“You’ll come back?” the princess whispered.
There was nothing she could say. “I don’t know,” she admitted. “I will do everything I can to get back to you, unless I must trade myself for your safety, but I’ll do everything I can, either way.” She stopped, realizing she was babbling.
In silence, Hawkwind patted each child on the head, except for Rikah, who was still clinging to Rainsoft.
“I’m ready,” she told the guards.
With long hooks and much jangling of locks and latching and unlatching of chains and doors they fetched out her chains and led her by them out of the cell. She submitted to a band around her bill, to prevent her from biting. Then they led her up several flights of stairs, and she got her first look at South-scree.
They emerged on a south-facing mountainside. The sun showed it to be late morning. From the stone platform Hawkwind and the guards stood on, the city descended down the slope, an expanding collection of structures made of stacked grey stones that had either naturally broken or been chipped into flat paving stone-like shapes. As such, they stacked easily and securely.
Hawkwind looked up, behind her, where the structures continued up the slope. She’d always taken for granted the human-built castle she had lived in. This entire community made by griffins for griffins of intricately stacked and interlocking stones was something she hadn’t expected. She looked down at her feet, seeing that the platform she stood on, too, was made of the flat sections of stone fitted tightly together.
There were other griffins about. They walked through the paths of the city, on their way to some destination or other, or took short flights from one section to the next. They came in every color Hawkwind had ever seen in griffins, from black to white, from brown to grey, with wing bars, feather banding, tail banding, speckles, stripes, spots, and streaks. A few even had bright patches of rust red or golden yellow. Most were wearing some kind of leather harness with pouches to carry whatever it needed for its trade or current errand.
“The council is waiting,” grunted one of the guards, and Hawkwind moved along obediently when he tugged her chain.
They passed along a walkway and down a few flights of stairs, moving down deeper into the densest part of the city. Hawkwind tried not to feel too ashamed when other griffins of the city stared at her with curiosity or confusion. A few even glowered at her. After a walk of several minutes, Hawkwind and her guards approached the largest structure Hawkwind had yet seen in the city. It was round and slightly domed. She could see several skylights from her angle. She noted a rather ornate entrance up some steps, but the guards took her around to a small, modest door instead.
“This is the council hall,” one guard told her, as they passed through the door.
They walked down a dark hallway and into a small room, from which a short set of stairs led up into the brightly lit hall. Above, she heard idle conversation. The guards stopped her, and sat, so she did, too. A dark brown griffin glanced briefly down the steps at them, and then flitted away.
“Attention,” a voice called out. “Council is resuming session.”
The idle chatter died away. Hawkwind’s heartbeat sped up and one of the guards slipped off the band that had been holding her bill shut.
“The next matter is the rogue picked up yesterday,” the voice continued. “Present her for judgment.”
The two guards led Hawkwind up into the hall, taking her to a low walled stone box to one side, where they locked her chains to iron rings set into the floor. They positioned themselves on either side of the box, facing out into the hall. Hawkwind looked around. The room had five large sections and one small, arranged like slices of a pie with a big hole in the middle. Her box was in the hole, along with a few other assorted griffins who were not restrained, but rather sitting in various states of agitation around the edges. She faced the small section directly across from her, where only one griffin sat: Eldest Skycall. The other five large sections contained five griffins each. In each section one of those griffins, a big female, sat in the highest perch, in back of and above the other four griffins, which had lower seats in front of her.
As Hawkwind gazed around, she identified Thornfire in the section directly to her right. She also saw Commander Rocksky, standing in the pit in front of a different section. The commander’s sneer of dislike was not imagined. Thornfire, however, gave Hawkwind a brief nod of encouragement.
“Commander Rocksky,” Skycall instructed, “please report for this council the manner in which you discovered and apprehended this rogue.”
The black, grey, and white griffin took a step forward. “The rogue was seen crossing the southern escarpment with four human children.”
Muttering immediately circulated among the gathered griffins, but Rocksky ignored it.
“I was fetched by Starsun’s scout when they encountered the rogue. My troop investigated and I questioned the rogue when I was unable to visually identify her. She repeatedly lied about where she was from—”
“No, I didn’t,” Hawkwind objected loudly. “I never lied.”
“Order,” demanded Skycall. “You will have your chance to speak. Commander, continue.”
“When no clear answer could be attained, my troop subdued her and the children and fetched them here. No one sustained any major injuries, and the rogue fought bravely for the human children.”
“Understood, thank you,” Skycall praised. “Do you have anything else to add to your report?”
“Only that Elder Thornfire interfered with my authority, preventing me from obtaining more answers from the rogue using other techniques.”
Hawkwind saw Thornfire clenching his bill.
“Noted,” Skycall said. “You may step down.”
The Commander Rocksky stepped back to her position. She didn’t look at Hawkwind again.
“Elder Thornfire,” Skycall sighed with what seemed long suffering patience, “you have again involved yourself in a minor matter quite obscure to your position, countermanding the true authority of it. Do you have an explanation for your actions?”
The elder straightened, “this fledgling is no rogue, Moderator. She has never even been in a griffin settlement.”
“And what proof have you of that?”
“She has no knowledge of our ways,” he said, “and is of the Hawk Line.”
“So she claims. A clever rogue could easily pretend and lie.”
“She came wandering in from territory claimed by no griffin.”
“As any rogue would, were she careless or malicious.”
“She has human children with her,” Thornfire went on.
“So what if she stole them? Perhaps she was exiled for insanity.”
“You think she is both insane and capable of pretending and lying, as well as being careless or malicious?”
The Moderator’s eyes flashed dangerously. “You question me, Thornfire?”
“What purpose could she possibly have for coming here, except for the story she has told us?”
“A story is all it is,” Rocksky barked. “Send her to the crying room. They’ll get a real answer from her.”
“She is not a criminal,” Thornfire shouted back. “She’s done nothing wrong, broken no law.”
“Except crossing our border,” Skycall insisted.
“Did she hurt our border by crossing it?” Thornfire all but sneered. “She came seeking our help, yet there are those among us who would send a fledge to be tortured. This chick came to us asking for aid: injured, exhausted, and trying to care for young ones. Just because we’ve been having trouble with a tribe of rogues pilfering from us does not make her a rogue. She’s nothing like those wild, fierce, cruel exiles.”
For a moment the silence rang in Hawkwind’s ears.
“She is not exactly a chick. What if she is a plant, a spy, sent by the tribe of rogues,” someone suggested. “She could have been sent like this, to get inside our city, to gain our trust.”
Murmuring followed this idea, until the room began to buzz.
“Order,” Skycall commanded, and the talking died down. “Some time in the crying room might indeed gain us answers,” she ruminated. “And while we’re at it, we need answers from that other rogue, too. Perhaps he could be motivated to find his words.”
“No,” Hawkwind objected. “Rainsoft can’t speak. His vocal chords were damaged.”
“Silence,” hissed Skycall.
“How do you know his name?” asked Thornfire urgently.
“We discovered that he could write,” Hawkwind explained rapidly, “but only the way you all write, which I can’t read. He can’t read my writing either. Skymist was able to read what he wrote, though she said some of the letters were a little different. She said he wrote his name, as she wrote hers, so she read that his name was Rainsoft.”
“Did he write where he’s from?” Thornfire went on, leaning forward urgently, hands clasping the rail in front of him.
“No, the guards interrupted us.”
“Silence, now,” demanded Skycall: her ear ringing screech echoing through the hall.
Hawkwind and Thornfire both went quiet.
“I have enough trouble,” the Moderator growled, “tribes of rogues attacking us, without all this nonsense.”
“Eldest Skycall,” Thornfire said composedly and calmly, “I agree. The rogue tribes must have the focus of this council.”
“For once you speak sense,” she spat back at him.
“These two prisoners we have, do they seem anything like the rogue tribe members we have seen? Those griffins are full adults, hardened by a rough life outside a city, in the wild. They were exiled because they were criminals, murderers, and thieves. Such brigands would never take two small, helpless, young griffins such as our prisoners into their tribe. More likely they would attack and kill them, don’t you think? I can only surmise that our two pathetic little captives are something else. If the council will allow it, I will take charge and responsibility for them.”
“And what would you do with them?” Skycall demanded at once.
“You think to have them join our Line, Fire?” demanded also the big female in Thornfire’s section. “That is not your say.”
“No, no,” Thornfire quickly assured them. “Thornmother, I would never presume to have that authority, no. Eldest Skycall, my reasons are ones which, if you care not for the prisoners, would even send them to be tortured for information they don’t have, perhaps are not even of any interest to you, and might be a burden on this council’s time.”
Skycall’s eyes narrowed. “They cannot walk free in this city. They are not of our Lines. They are not citizens.”
“They will not remain in this city,” he said simply.
An uneasy rustle passed through the gathered griffins, and Hawkwind stared around in confusion.
“Fire,” began the Thornmother, “it is a fool’s errand. He is lost.”
Energy crackled through Thornfire’s feathers. Hawkwind saw it clearly, like tiny threads of white lightning.
“None in this city will aid you, because we all know how hopeless it is,” Skycall cried out at him. “So you think to bring prisoners who cannot resist? You think they will walk with you into death because you free them from their cell? For all your learning how has the wisdom to avoid certain doom evaded you?” She thrashed her wings and tail in fury. “How can you be taught this?”
“He is my brother, my full brother, and I will not rest until I know his fate,” Thornfire screamed back. “None in this city will aid me in finding a fellow lost citizen.” He wheeled towards the Thornmother. “None in my own Line will aid me in discovering where a child of Thorn has gone and why he’ll not return. There is no other then, than myself.”
“And two prisoners you will try to guilt and coerce into helping you?” Skycall sneered, disgusted.
“And I will promise them,” Thornfire declared, “that when we return with my brother or his remains, putting to rest this mystery, that they will be granted citizenship,” he looked again at the matriarch of his Line, “and a place in the Thorn Line.”
Silence fell again.
“You ask us to promise this?” Thornmother said, “Eldest Skycall and I?”
“Your brother is dead, Fire,” she whispered.
“How do you know?”
“You know where he went. We all know. He made no secret of his delusional ambitions. He is dead.”
“Then I will bring back whatever is left of him.”
“There will be nothing, and you will perish, too,” she went on. Her stiff posture melted a little. “Fire, you and he are my half-sibs as well, and my cherished Linemembers. You think I don’t care for him and you? You think I wouldn’t care to watch you leave for your death as well?”
Thornfire fumbled at his chest, finally lifting a small pendant on a long chain out from where it had been hidden under his feather-fur. It was a small green stone wrapped in silver metal.
“Our sire gave one to both of us,” he said. “I’ll find the one that belongs to Wing. If it is not still around his neck, then I will know him to be dead. Do I have your word that you will grant Hawkwind and Rainsoft a place in the Line, when we return?”
Thornmother hissed a sigh and turned her face away. “They are outsiders,” she objected.
“I forbid it,” Skycall exclaimed.
Thornfire turned to her, spine stiff. “Eldest and Moderator you may be, Skycall, but you do not control the membership of the Lines.”
“I can reject any griffin from this city,” she retorted. “So you seek your brother? We all know where he went. You want these crippled weakling outsiders to be a part of us? Very well. Here are my conditions.”
She spun, leaping down from her perch and all but landed atop Hawkwind. Fast, faster than Hawkwind could follow, Skycall had gripped her bill, yanking her head up as the Moderator looked down at her.
“Prove yourself,” she said slowly. “Bring me the Sunstone.”
Hawkwind jumped in shock, eyes flashing wide and open even further than they had been.
“And tell your tattered little friend Rainsoft to bring me the Moonstone,” she went on inexorably.
At last Skycall released her and stepped away, turning to look up at Thornfire.
“You bring back your brother’s pendant—with or without him. Do that,” she all but laughed, “and we’ll see about letting your cannon fodder join us. Now get out of my sight, and out of my city, until all three of you have retrieved your assigned tokens for reentry. This meeting is over.”
Without a backward glance, Eldest Skycall took the tunnel out of the hall, and vanished into the city.