Despite Hawkwind’s half-hysterical concerns that they should leave the city immediately, Thornfire had brushed her off, insisting instead that leaving the next day would plentifully fulfill Skycall’s order to get out of the city.
Hawkwind was flopped belly down on a thick leather cushion in front of Thornfire’s hearth, where a warming stone cast delightful heat across her back, drying her freshly washed fur. Karo was submerged up to his neck in a barrel filled with water heated also by a warming stone. Rikah was combing the boy’s tangled hair. Kassandra and Jessika, already bathed and wrapped in makeshift clothing, were scrubbing down Rainsoft as he sat in a tub, trembling only intermittently.
Thornfire pushed a bowl with chunks of meat in it under Hawkwind’s bill, and she stared at it, hunger clenching her belly.
“Eat,” he said. “You’ll need your strength in the coming days.”
She didn’t need telling twice. Karo finished his bathing, Rikah helping him to climb out of the barrel and get wrapped in a towel.
“I wish we could provide you with better clothing,” Starbright, Thornfire’s apprentice remarked, carrying a bowl of cooked meat into the room from the kitchen area. “Griffins don’t wear clothing like yours.”
“It’s alright, Starbright,” Jessika assured her from where she was running a wide toothed comb through Rainsoft’s fur. “We can maybe learn how to make some.”
For the moment, the children were wearing lengths of fabric wrapped around parts of their bodies and tied off. It kept them more or less covered and warm, but certainly wasn’t stylish.
“Maybe I can learn how to make some, too,” Starbright suggested cheerfully.
“I suggest you spend your free time on studying,” Thornfire grunted.
“Oh, Master,” the apprentice complained, “I just don’t have the right soul for water magic.”
“You cannot be considered even a low-level magician unless you become comfortable with all the elements,” Thornfire said, in a tone that suggested he’d told her this many times before. “I will not advance you to mixing elements in your magic until you have mastered those water spells.”
“I’m much better at fire,” the young griffin confided to Jessika. The princess grinned at her.
“Yes, and your light, earth, and wind spells are admirable as well,” Thornfire growled, “but you must have water, too.”
“What about dark?” Rikah spoke up.
“Dark?” Thornfire hissed.
“Well, if fire and water are opposites, and wind and earth, wouldn’t dark be the opposite of light, so wouldn’t you learn that, too?” the boy rattled off, seemingly oblivious of Thornfire’s reaction.
Starbright was staring at the ground, and Hawkwind had the feeling that she, too, had asked this question.
“I do not teach dark spells. I do not know dark spells,” Thornfire emphasized. “They have no place in life. Starbright, study your water magic.”
“Yes, Master,” she acquiesced.
Hawkwind finished off her bowl of meat: grateful she’d had the excuse of eating not to talk. “What shall I do with this bowl?” she spoke up.
“Oh, I’ll take it,” Starbright said at once, and the golden griffin snatched it up and practically fled.
“Rikah, you need to bathe next,” Jessika remarked. “I’ll get the clothes for Karo.”
The children went on with their bathing of themselves and Rainsoft, and Thornfire came to sit by Hawkwind at the hearth.
“Will you tell me,” she began quietly. “About what happened at the council, and what’s going to happen? Where are we going? How am I supposed to—?”
Thornfire’s deep sigh stopped her. “I need your help.”
She nodded in silence, examining a floor tile. “What about my children?”
He shifted and eyed the four little humans, and lowered his voice. “Hawkwind, do you really feel the need to take care of them? Why don’t we just take them to the edge of a human village and leave them? Surely other humans could look after them better?”
Hawkwind’s bill had dropped open. “What? No,” she spluttered. “How could you suggest such a thing?” She had to resist jumping to her feet. As it was, her fur and feathers began to lift in reaction.
“They’re humans; you’re a griffin. You’re not related to them. They aren’t a part of your Line,” Thornfire went on. “They’re weak; they couldn’t stop you from leaving them somewhere.”
A growl tried to surge out of her throat. “If you want me to help you you’d better stop saying things like that.”
“We’re helping each other,” the mage emphasized. “They are an unnecessary complication. Don’t you see? There’s no reason you have to be burdened with them when there are other solutions, better ones.”
“There is every reason,” Hawkwind all but hissed.
“Explain them to me,” he urged. “I can’t understand your devotion, and do stop bristling so.”
She tried to force herself to relax, and gazed over at the children as they were finishing their bathing and dressing. “They’re all I have,” she began, groping after words. “I don’t know how to explain it except that they’re everything to me. We lived together in Northnest. I promised to protect them. Ever since I was little I knew I was there to protect them—not just these four, they weren’t born when I was little. Northnest was my home, our home, and my place in it was to defend it, defend all the people.”
“Ah,” Thornfire sighed. “You were raised from chickhood to take on this role. I see why you cannot easily abandon it.”
“I got them out,” Hawkwind went on, having hardly heard him. “They’re all that’s left, and they need me. I’m all that’s left, the only Feathyr remaining. What would I be if I forsook everything the Feathyrs stood for, everything we promised?” She turned her fervent gaze onto Thornfire. “Don’t ask me to leave them. If you want me to help you, you must accept that they will be a part of it, too. They are my charge,” she whispered. “I decide, so you need to tell me where we’re going.”
He shook his head. “Much as you wish to be the sole protector and decider of their fate, here in a griffin city or in the wild mountains it cannot be so simple. What if we do not return? What if they die on our journey?”
“I don’t even know where we’re going,” she protested.
“Yes, you do,” he murmured to her. “You’ve suspected it for a while, and came to know it in the council chamber.”
“Why are you bringing me into this?”
“Because I can.”
“You can’t force me.”
“No, I can’t, but your other option is to leave this city, you and your children, alone, and try to survive out there, somehow, without your flight feathers.”
Hawkwind felt her throat clench. “Could I let them stay here, temporarily, while we’re gone? Might Starbright be able to take care of them?”
“But then what if we don’t return?”
Thornfire didn’t speak for several heartbeats.
“She would have to hide them, right? They aren’t allowed to stay in the city,” Hawkwind said. “She couldn’t hide them forever, and if discovered, she’d be punished, and they’d be kicked out or killed. She might be exiled. She’d be right in the position I was in. If she tried to fly them, one at a time, to a human city, there’s no telling what would become of them—not all places are safe and not all humans take in orphans, rather like griffins, I see—and if she got caught, she’d be punished.”
“But where we’re going is quite dangerous,” Thornfire reminded her. “If they come, they could be killed. They are tiny and defenseless, and we have much to do.”
The door to the kitchen area creaked, making Hawkwind and Thornfire look up from their quiet conversation. Starbright eyed them through the gap, and then pushed it the rest of the way open and inched into the room. Thornfire’s expression darkened as she slunk down to her belly, feathers and fur totally flat in submission. She laid her head all the way down onto the floor and looked up at her master with pleading eyes.
“Let me come,” she begged. “I’ll watch the children. I’ll take care of them while you all do whatever it is you’re going to do.”
Hawkwind heard a growl growing in Thornfire’s chest.
“You’re going to find Uncle Thornwing, aren’t you?” she went on. “I want to come. I’ll help. I’ll do everything you say. I’ll make and guard a camp and feed the human chicks, so whenever you take breaks from searching you have a safe spot to come back to. That way, we won’t be breaking any rules here, and the human chicks won’t be risked travelling with you while you’re searching.”
Thornfire didn’t speak.
“It sounds like a good suggestion to me,” Hawkwind offered. “It would be a compromise between all possible negative extremes. The children would be in some danger, but not hiding illegally in the city. Starbright would be in some danger, too, but not doing anything illegal. Thornfire and Rainsoft and I would still be risking our lives, but we’d have a watched camp to return to, where food and safety would await us, and I wouldn’t be parted completely from my charges. I vote that Starbright comes.”
“There is no voting,” Thornfire snapped. “I am in charge. Anyone who doesn’t like that is free to leave the griffin territories and never return.”
He stood and glared down at Starbright, who remained on her belly, just looking up at him with humble eyes.
“Apprentices,” he growled, stalking away towards the kitchen. As he exited, he cast three more words over his shoulder. “You can come.”
Starbright beamed at Hawkwind in silent joy.
The warming stones were fading, but they had heated the rock house well, and cuddled up with the four children Hawkwind was pleasantly warm. It had taken a while to get to sleep, as the children had slipped into another spate of weeping as they settled down to bed. Hawkwind had spent some time comforting them and squelching her own urge to mourn.
She knew well enough what had triggered it. They had new clothes, a bath, plentiful food, and a warm place to sleep. After so many days of stress the pressure had finally eased. Life had moved a bit back towards normal. They started to think that life would go on, but everything they associated with a happy normal life was missing. They were having trouble adjusting, and they wouldn’t get time to adjust any further, because they would all shortly be back on a trail in the wilds.
Now it was deepest night, but a hollow sound had awakened Hawkwind. She checked the children; all were slumbering well. Thornfire and Starbright had their own little rooms at the back of the house, carved into the mountain itself. Rainsoft was sleeping alone on the other side of the room. Hawkwind stared at him, and after a few moments the mournful sounds came again. He shuddered.
Careful not to wake them, Hawkwind disentangled herself from the children and piled them together on the cushion she’d been sleeping on. They clung to each other in sleep. She adjusted their blankets and walked silently to Rainsoft. His eyes were closed, but his muscles twitched, and he made the sound again, a little louder and longer. Behind her, one of the children whimpered.
Hawkwind lowered herself beside Rainsoft and put a wing around him. Immediately, his whole body jerked and he wiggled towards her, still asleep. He huddled under her wing like a fledgling, and she hugged him close. Now that he was clean, she could see that he was a charcoal black with a white underside streaked with grey. In size he was smaller than her, which wasn’t unusual for a male close in age to her. He made the soft chirps nestlings make with their parents, and Hawkwind wondered if perhaps he was younger than she’d thought, and where his parents might be, or what had happened to them. How had he gotten that neck wound, when the rest of him seemed scar and injury-free?
She hugged him a bit tighter and relaxed down to sleep, feeling the pulse of his heart. The last time she’d curled up with another griffin had been the night before the attack on Northnest. Now, her sister Hawkcall and their friend Eagleye were dead, eaten by the drakes. Perhaps she should have died with them, but if she had, she wouldn’t have gotten the children out, and she wouldn’t now be curled up in warmth and comfort, hearing the heartbeat of another. She wanted to live. Was it cowardly, selfish? Hawkwind didn’t know. She strangled her sobs in her throat and drifted off to sleep.
She woke when her subconscious noticed that Rainsoft had stiffened and his heart rate and breathing changed. When she opened her eyes she saw that he was staring at her, orange eyes wide: puzzled, alarmed, and pleased all at once.
“You didn’t seem to be sleeping well,” she told him gently.
Hawkwind doubted that he understood anything she said, but had decided she’d speak normally to him anyway. Her tone would probably convey some meaning, she hoped. At any rate, he didn’t scream or bolt, so she preened his neck feathers gently, a sign of friendship that she hoped he’d recognize. Wherever he came from, maybe it meant the same thing there.
The sun was just starting to rise, softly illuminating the room as Hawkwind looked around. The children were still sleeping, huddled in front of the cold warming stone. Muted clanking and the rustle of canvas turned Hawkwind’s attention to the kitchen. Before she could get up to investigate, hesitant tugging on her neck feathers froze her in place. Rainsoft had returned her gesture of friendship, and was preening her in return.
He stopped as she looked down at him. His orange eyes were calmer than she’d yet seen. He lifted a hand and made a movement with his fingers. Hawkwind, puzzled, shook her head, and he repeated it. She watched carefully as he did it again. Nervously, she lifted a hand and tried to mimic it. For the first time, she saw him smile.
“What are you trying to tell me?” she whispered.
He started to write with his finger on the floor, tracing out shapes, letters, but stopped abruptly and looked back up at her, frustrated.
“I know,” she sighed. “I can’t read your writing, and you can’t read mine.”
Rainsoft reached out a hand and clasped her upper arm firmly, warmly. He leaned in and briefly nibbled her neck feathers again. Then he smiled again. There were no words, but she knew what he meant, and she smiled back.
Rainsoft curled up again as Hawkwind went to investigate the kitchen.
“Ah, you’re up,” Thornfire commented.
Eight canvas and leather packs were lined up on the food preparation table. The smallest was no bigger than a melon. The largest was fit for an adult male griffin. Hawkwind assumed Thornfire would be carrying that one. Although females were larger than males, both Starbright and Hawkwind were young, and still smaller than Thornfire. Rainsoft was even smaller.
“We’ll have to go on foot, since you and Rainsoft can’t fly yet,” Thornfire was grumbling. “Damn them and their feather-cutting. It will make this venture much more difficult. I hope you can run.”
“Where are we going?” Hawkwind asked timidly.
Thornfire slammed a bundle down on the table and glared at her. “Are you an idiot? We’re going to Snow-in-lee. How has that escaped you?”
Starbright glanced apologetically at Hawkwind but kept her bill buttoned and continued filling packs. Hawkwind left the kitchen and returned to where she’d slept. Kassandra was shivering, so she lay down with the children and let them snuggle against her sides, where they slept on, and Hawkwind trembled.
She must have fallen back asleep. When Starbright shook her shoulder, morning light was streaming in through the east window.
“There’s food in the kitchen,” the apprentice said. “Then we’ll be leaving.”
Hawkwind made sure the children and Rainsoft ate, although she had trouble forcing the food down herself. After that, they gathered in the living area and Thornfire handed out the packs. Hawkwind ensured that the children’s packs all fit comfortably. Of all of them, Rainsoft looked the most dubious. No one could explain to him where they were going. The children had cheered when Hawkwind told them they were finally going to Snow-in-lee.
“It will be dangerous,” she corrected them. “Griffins don’t live there anymore.”
“Then why are we going?” Rikah demanded.
“What does?” Jessika asked instead.
“Large snakes live there,” Hawkwind explained. “We are going to find Thornfire’s brother, and to get two magic stones.”
“Magic stones?” Rikah scoffed.
“If we get them,” Hawkwind went on, “we can live here in South-scree. If we don’t, the griffins won’t let us stay, and we’ll have to go search for another home someplace else.”
“I don’t like snakes,” Karo whispered.
“You won’t have to see them,” she assured him. “You four will be staying with Starbright in the camp we make near Snow-in-lee. You won’t be in any danger.”
“What about the rainbow drakes?” Karo whimpered.
“They don’t live in the mountains. Besides, Starbright will be there to protect you if there’s anything threatening.”
“That’s right, I will,” the apprentice chimed in with a grin.
“She’s not very big,” Rikah grumbled.
“But she can do magic,” Hawkwind countered.
“Magic?” Karo whispered.
“When we have time, I’ll show you,” Starbright said.
Thornfire coughed behind them. “We need to get going now. We’ll be walking out of the town today, heading east,” Thornfire explained. “To make the best time, I suggest that each child ride one of us griffins.”
There was an immediate argument over who would get to ride Hawkwind.
“Here now,” Thornfire shouted. “It will be settled by weight: largest child on largest griffin and so on. That means Rikah on me, Jessika on Hawkwind, Karo on Starbright, and Kassandra on Rainsoft.”
The children moaned and complained, but soon enough each one was standing by his or her assigned mount. Rainsoft looked puzzled until the children began climbing on. Kassandra put a calm hand on his shoulder.
“Dear Rainsoft,” she said softly, “may I ride on your back?”
Although still looking a little puzzled, the dark grey griffin knelt like the others, and the little girl climbed up, hooking her hands and feet under his new leather harness.
“Through the city I will go first. Then Hawkwind, Rainsoft, and Starbright will go last. You all will obey everything I say instantaneously, understood?”
Hawkwind, Starbright, and some of the children looked dubiously at Rainsoft.
“Ah,” Thornfire revised. “I realize there may be some communication problems. We will,” he paused, “well, we’ll deal with it, somehow. Any questions?”
No one spoke.
“Then let’s go.”
Thornfire led them out of the house they’d spent that one comfy night in, waited until they had all exited, and turned to lock his door. He set a hand on the doorframe, frowned and muttered a word, and the stone doorframe and wooden door fused together. Hawkwind gasped, blinking and trying to get her eyes to understand what she’d just seen. Rainsoft and the children, too, stared with confusion and awe.
“Someday I’ll be able to do that,” Starbright confided to Hawkwind.
“Not until you get your water spells under control,” Thornfire repeated. “No merging magic until then.”
He led them off through the city. Curious griffins walked or flew over for a look at the strange procession. When it became clear that they weren’t hostile, the children began waving to the puzzled griffins.
“One more thing before we go,” Thornfire announced, stopping in front of what appeared to be a shop of some kind. “Wait here. Young Rikah, please get down for a moment.”
The boy slid off his back obediently and stood hugging Hawkwind’s foreleg while Thornfire went alone into the shop. There was lettering over the door, but as it was in the written language of South-scree, she couldn’t read it.
“Starbright,” she ventured, “will you teach me to read and write your language?”
The young golden griffin smiled. “Of course, Hawkwind, I’d love to. We can work on it when we stop to camp for the night.”
Thornfire emerged from the shop with a bundle in hand and stuffed it into his pack. “Now, we’re ready. We’ll be traveling through a relatively safe area initially. It’s covered by our patrols daily. Hawkwind and Rainsoft will need to be with Starbright or myself at all times, otherwise there could be confusion about rogues again, and we don’t want that. To help ensure your safety, wear these.”
Thornfire handed out painted wooden pendants strung on thick cord. Starbright nodded confidently and put hers on without delay. Hawkwind and Rainsoft followed suit. There were even smaller ones for the children to wear.
“These tokens advertise that you are abroad on South-scree business,” Thornfire explained. “They should keep you safer. All the other griffin cities recognize them. Don’t lose them. Of course, they’ll do nothing against predators or talis.”
Hawkwind followed Thornfire as he resumed the walk through the city. They reached the edge, passing through a gate in the rocky wall that encircled the settlement, and stepped out onto the wild mountain slopes.