A week passed as Thornfire led the group on foot through the mountains. Their path took them along rocky cliff edges with fatal drops on one or both sides, up or down steep hillsides, and down into small forested valleys. They walked all day with the children sometimes astride their mounts, and sometimes trotting along with them or running about to pick any edible plants they saw. One or two of the griffins would hunt every other day or so. On the seventh night they camped, as they usually did, in one of the forested valleys.
“Head,” Kassandra commanded, and Rainsoft quickly patted his own head. “Wing,” she said next, and he lifted a wing. “Wings,” she modified, and he lifted both of them.
Throughout their travelling, little quiet Kassandra had spent most her time riding Rainsoft and talking to him, teaching him to understand spoken language.
“Stand up,” she ordered, and he did it. “Sit, lie down, walk over there, come here, run that way, run to your left, back up.”
Hawkwind hid a chuckle. It was comical to see the comparatively big griffin so eagerly taking orders from the tiny girl. Hawkwind could only imagine how excited he must be to be starting to know a little of what his companions were saying.
“Good job,” the girl praised him. “You’re really doing great.”
“So are you, Kassandra,” Hawkwind called over to them. “Thanks to you, Rainsoft is learning how to understand us.”
Hawkwind twitched as Starbright poked her with her wing wrist. “And you would soon be learning to understand him,” she scolded, “if you would pay attention. Now, here is the spelling for ‘complicated’.”
Hawkwind obediently returned her attention to the marks she and Starbright had been drawing in the dirt with their claw tips. Frowning a little, she copied the spelling. She’d learned the letters of the wild griffin language, and now she’d advanced to learning how to write words she already knew in one script with a different one.
“I’m ashamed to say that I think Rainsoft is making more progress than I am,” she murmured.
“Now write, ‘it’s too complicated’,” Starbright commanded.
“There has to be a better way to understand him,” Hawkwind mused as she followed Starbright’s directions. “He knows how to write. He knows language. Someone must have taught it to him, but that person didn’t teach him how to understand verbal language. It’s strange. There must be something else.”
“Now, ‘it’s too complicated to explain’.”
“Do you think that’s it?”
“Do I think what’s what?” Starbright asked.
“It’s too complicated to explain? His history, where he came from, why he’s alone: has anyone asked him in writing?”
Both young females looked over at Rainsoft, where Kassandra was trying to get him to understand a new verbal concept by drawing pictures in the dirt and acting things out. The charcoal grey griffin watched intently, and would give a short nod or shake of his head to indicate his understanding. He also sometimes made a distinctive movement with his hand, which Kassandra apparently understood to mean that he wanted her to play-act the subject again.
“That’s it,” Hawkwind gasped. “That’s what he was doing that night at Thornfire’s, and I’ve seen glimpses of similar things during the trip.”
“You’ve lost me,” Starbright admitted.
“He talks with his hands, with gestures.”
Hawkwind got up and walked over to the griffin student with his child teacher, interrupting them.
“Rainsoft,” she began, and he gave his short little nod. The first thing Kassandra had done was to teach him the spoken names of everybody in the group, including his own. Hawkwind hoped he knew enough spoken language now to understand her. “You,” she pointed at him, getting another nod, “talk,” another nod, “with your hands.” She pointed to them.
His expression in return was a smile, but with hints of both relief and exasperation that it had taken her so long to get it. He nodded.
Hawkwind stared, “teach me.” The words were out before she realized it.
His eyes widened. Then he nodded. Starbright came over to sit with them.
“I’d like to learn, too,” the apprentice mage said.
“Rainsoft and I are trying to focus,” Kassandra said firmly.
“We should take turns,” Starbright instructed. “We’ll take turns being teachers and students. If we work together, we can all learn.”
The princess Jessika walked over then, holding a big leaf cupped like a bowl, filled with pieces of cooked meat that had been pulled off that evening’s dinner by master chef Rikah.
“What are you doing now?” she asked.
“Well,” Hawkwind began, “some of us are learning to write, and some are learning to listen, and some are learning to watch.”
“It’s sounds complicated,” the girl responded with childish bluntness. “Kassie, I brought you your dinner.”
Kassandra took the leaf-bowl into her lap and began eating with her fingers.
“So, can I watch?” Jessika asked.
“Certainly,” Hawkwind told her.
The girl scampered off and returned with a bundle. She sat down out the way and continued work on her current project. It seemed that Thornfire had noticed how tender human feet were. The bundle Thornfire had bought on the way out of the city had been full of sections of leather and cords, and some sharp tools that Hawkwind had initially been concerned about. Human skin was remarkably vulnerable to cutting edges. Thornfire had offered the bundle to the children and Jessika had insisted she be allowed to work. Hawkwind had grudgingly given in. Karo already had a pair of sandals made by the girl, and she was hard at work on Kassandra’s pair. So far she hadn’t cut herself more than a little nick or two.
Kassandra, busy with eating, watched as Hawkwind began trying to learn how to talk with her hands.
“Yes?” she prompted, and made the little head nod that Rainsoft used.
He did it back at her.
He gave her the little headshake, and she copied it. That was easy enough. Humans and griffins all used similar gestures. Hawkwind tried to think of what to ask next.
He gave her a gesture for that, having learned the word from Kassandra already. Starbright and Hawkwind practiced the gesture.
“Stay, eat, wait, come, help, please, stop, sleep,” Hawkwind prompted one after another.
“We’d better review what we’ve learned,” Starbright suggested, after several minutes had passed and Kassandra was done with her food.
Rainsoft quizzed them by giving the gesture, and they spoke the word. Then Kassandra said the words aloud, and the two lady griffins gave the gestures. Jessika even tried some, too, although she’d spent most of her time focusing on her sandal making. Starbright quizzed Hawkwind on her writing after that. Kassandra quizzed Rainsoft again. As the last of the food disappeared down human and griffin throats, the evening darkened to true night, and all began to feel ready for sleep.
Hawkwind helped the four children curl up between Starbright and Rainsoft. Thornfire stood alone at the dying fire, and Hawkwind went to stand briefly with him.
“You all are much at work, learning new things I wish I could spend time on, too,” he told her as she sat beside him.
“Thank you for helping Karo and Rikah learn to prepare the food, though,” she said sincerely.
“They are good young humans,” he smiled. “Rikah indeed has the hands and mind of a true crafter. What he will come to make, I can’t predict.”
“His father was a blacksmith.”
“Perhaps he absorbed some talent there, or was born with it.”
“And Karo is helping, too?”
“Ah, that one.”
“Yes? Is he being obedient? He is a little reserved, but a kind boy.”
Thornfire chuckled. “Not to worry. I’m not sure what will become of him.”
“Why do you say that? Is something wrong?”
He smiled at her. “There is something about him. It is small and low still, but like the stirring deep within a seed, or the first touch of light on the dawn horizon, I think something much bigger will come of it. Give him time. I will help him.”
“What are you saying, Elder Thornfire?”
“He may have power, Hawkwind. It may be that unconscious knowledge of it is making him wary. He may know there is something within, but not what, and he is waiting: knowing it will surely bloom, but not when.”
“A magician’s power?” she breathed. “Like the kind that brought down the drakes on Northnest?”
“Power is power. Many things can be done with it, including death and destruction, including kindness and creation.”
“There were no magicians in Northnest. How could he have that power?”
Thornfire shook his head. “It takes one to make one. Without a teacher, latent power will usually remain latent. Power calls to power. I expect there were humans and griffins both in Northnest with latent power. Without a master to see it and coax it out, it would have faded away.”
Hawkwind gulped. “Could I have it, too?”
Thornfire looked critically at her. She got the strange feeling that he was looking inside her. “If there was power in you when you were born, it has faded, Hawkwind. I’m sorry. I can’t see any now. It’s rare in the first place. I am one of only a handful of mages at South-scree.”
Hawkwind squinted down into the fire, not sure what to say. She couldn’t be sad to not have something she’d never wanted, but for a moment she’d thought she might have something that would help her situation.
“You should get some rest,” Thornfire instructed. “Our path will soon become more difficult.”
“Why is that?”
“We must travel on foot, so we cannot pass over the next range of mountains between us and Snow-in-lee. Thus, we shall have to go either around or under. Either way will be difficult for different reasons. I will soon have to make the choice. The path will fork by tomorrow evening. Off to bed with you.”
She acquiesced. “Goodnight.”
The path was sometimes wide enough to walk side by side. When it was, Hawkwind alternated between walking by Starbright, and walking by Rainsoft. She talked with them both, trying to learn whatever she could. It was hard to communicate with gestures while walking, but Kassandra chattered on endlessly at Rainsoft anyway, and Hawkwind supposed it was at least giving him some kind of listening practice.
Jessika, when she was on Hawkwind, had her partly completed sandals in her lap, but still contributed occasional thoughts. Rikah generally ran about on his own legs, gathering plants, sticks, stones, or anything else that looked like it could be eaten, thrown, or broken into bits. Thornfire had taken to having Karo ride him, and sending Starbright up on occasional reconnoitering assignments, more for her own practice than need.
As Thornfire had promised, dusk was upon them when they reached a forking of their path. “We’ll stop here for the night,” he announced. “There is a good camping site just there.”
“The trail splits,” Starbright observed.
“Yes, and tomorrow we must take one of the paths to our fate. Can you hunt for us again, Starbright?”
She seemed to clamp her bill shut on whatever else it was she’d wanted to say. “Yes, Master.”
Starbright took a short run and leapt off the nearest cliff. Jessika immediately set about making a fire in the pit Thornfire indicated while the other children located the softest bits of ground for them to sleep on. Rainsoft followed the children and began clearing the disused site of any branches or rocks that had taken up residence there.
“So,” Hawkwind began tentatively to Thornfire, “what are the two options?”
He didn’t seem to mind the question. “The right trail would take us around the highest peaks at a lower altitude. It is longer but has less altitude gain than the left trail, which would take us through a pass between the peaks, and then through a long tunnel under the mountain.”
“They’re both dangerous, aren’t they?” Hawkwind guessed.
The sound he made was not quite a chuckle. “In different ways, yes. Besides that both trails are old and rarely used by griffins, we must consider the terrain, weather, and who the trails are used by. Plus, there is your situation.”
“There are drakes after you, aren’t there?”
“You think they’d still be looking for the children and me?”
“How would I know, daughter of Hawk?” he pled. “I’ve never even seen one, only read of them. You said they were controlled by magicians.”
“Yes, that’s what I heard, when we were attacked.”
“Do the magicians know you and the children escaped?”
She shook her head. “The drakes can’t talk, and no one else saw me escape.”
“That you know of,” he corrected. “The ways of wizards are wide and subtle indeed. Why might these people want you?”
“I don’t know,” she stuttered. “Only because they wanted to kill everyone and take the castle.”
Thornfire gazed off down the trails for a few breaths. “My dear Hawkchild,” he sighed. “There is something you’re not telling me.”
Hawkwind’s heart pounded and she felt sweat break out between her toes and across her cere. Her skin tingled with anxiety, as though every feather was being lightly tugged on. When she didn’t reply, the mage broke the silence.
“You don’t have to tell me now, but I hope someday you will trust me enough to do so. I do ask, if your presence is likely to bring more danger down upon us, make mention. We will have enough danger with what we’re walking into already.” With the rapid twitch of a raptor, he pointed his bill down the left trail. “I think we’d better go through the passes, and under the mountain. Carry on your teaching and learning, Hawkwind, and you might at some point wish to tell Rainsoft what we’re doing out here. I do believe he still has little idea.”
Thornfire trotted off down the left trail before Hawkwind could get her bill unstuck enough to say something. What she would have said, she didn’t know, but his shadow disappeared around a corner in the trail and she found herself feeling like she should have asked him or told him something else.
Rikah had the fire going. Jessika was fitting her second set of finished sandals onto Kassandra’s feet. Karo was staring into the fire, poking it with a stick, and frowning. Rainsoft, too, was staring at the fire, sensitive pupils contracted almost to pinpoints, expression calm and neutral. Hawkwind sat down beside him.
“Rainsoft,” she began.
He made a tiny warble of acknowledgement and cocked his head at her.
“Do you know,” she began, speaking slowly, “where we’re going?”
“That’s too hard for him,” Kassandra commented.
Hawkwind quashed her annoyance and tried again. “We walk,” she said, using the gesture for walk that she’d learned from him the previous evening. Then she pointed, “that way.”
He started to get up.
“No, no, no,” she corrected. “I’m sorry.”
Rainsoft made the gesture for apology. She copied it.
“Problems?” Starbright called as she landed just at the edge of the fire with a bled and dressed buck mountain-deer. “Let’s write it out after we eat.”
The golden griffin walked into the light carrying one leg of the prey animal. Rikah took it from her and placed it on a wide flat rock in the fire. The children gathered around to wait until it was cooked while the griffins went into the semi-dark to clean up the rest of the carcass. Thornfire even flew in to join them, right on time. Four hungry griffins finished a mountain-deer in under a minute except for the pessimistic picking around the joints for missed shreds. They were hunting every night, one beast split among them. It meant they didn’t eat huge meals every few days as they would normally, but it kept them going well enough. After the food, all four rejoined the children around the fire.
“What did you want to ask?” Starbright prompted.
“I think Rainsoft deserves to know where we’re going,” Hawkwind said.
“Ah,” Starbright nodded. She wrote in the dirt, and Hawkwind had learned enough that she could read the words, although she wouldn’t have been able to write it herself. “Has anyone told you where we’re going?”
Rainsoft shook his head.
“So you don’t know?” Starbright wrote and said aloud.
“Have you ever heard of Snow-in-lee?”
Rainsoft stared at what she’d written, and stared some more, and stared some more. It was as if she’d cast some kind of griffin-petrifaction magic on him. Hawkwind watched his visible face-skin around his eyes whiten with fear or shock or something else. He started to tremble.
“We’re going there?” he wrote rapidly and messily.
“Yes,” Hawkwind said aloud.
He shook his head firmly and repeatedly, and made a sharp and vigorous gesture along with it, over and over.
“Rainsoft,” Hawkwind breathed, starting to reach for him, but he was backing away, and she started to worry he was going to bolt.
He started saying something, sitting back on his hind legs, hands working rapidly as he gestured out whatever he wanted to say. Even if his whole body hadn’t been shaking, there was no way Hawkwind could have understood a word.
“We can’t understand. You’re talking too fast,” Hawkwind tried to tell him calmly.
“Stop, Rainsoft,” Kassandra commanded. “Write.”
“Yes, write,” Hawkwind agreed, giving him the gesture for it as well, since she knew that one, along with “please.”
Rainsoft slapped his hands against the ground in frustration, warbling with impatience. He swept away Starbright’s words and began writing rapidly. Starbright leaned in and spoke as he wrote for everyone’s ears.
“Why are we going to Snow-in-lee?” he wrote.
“Long explanation,” Starbright said as she wrote the reply. “Thornfire,” she pointed, “brother missing there,” she wrote. “I,” she pointed to herself, “helping my master and everyone,” she wrote. “Hawkwind,” she pointed, “needs Sunstone to be free,” she wrote. “Children,” she waved her hand at them, “go with Hawkwind.”
Starbright paused. She hadn’t explained Rainsoft, and he slapped his hand down.
“Why me?” he wrote, gesturing angrily.
“You get the Moonstone, you can stay in South-scree with us forever,” Starbright wrote and said.
This didn’t seem to impress him. “What is the Moonstone?” he wrote and gestured.
“Long story,” Starbright answered. “Magic stone.”
“Where is it?” he asked.
“In Snow-in-lee,” she told him.
He shivered all over. “No, no, no, no,” he repeated again. A strangled cry came from his throat and he lashed his head from side to side. “Death,” he wrote finally, giving the gesture for it with his other hand, and repeating it over and over, more and more sloppily, until he fisted his claws on the ground, bent over and trembling.
“Leaving,” he scratched out. “Goodbye.”
Rainsoft turned to go, but Hawkwind leapt out and grabbed him. “No, don’t go,” she pled. “Rainsoft, stay.”
He didn’t try to hurt her, but he did flinch away and try to wiggle out of her grasp, which hurt her in a different way.
“Please,” she begged, not sure why she wanted so badly for him to stay, but knowing she wanted to help him, and couldn’t bear the thought of him wandering alone in the wilderness. “Stay with us. Tell me. What do you know about Snow-in-lee? Why are you so afraid?”
He finally shook her off, but didn’t run. He faced her and made three very clear gestures. One was “speak” and one “fast.” Hawkwind assumed the other had been “too” or “you.”
She told him “sorry.”
Rainsoft slowly faced the fire again. Starbright read out what he wrote next in the dirt. “You mustn’t go to Snow-in-lee. You will be imprisoned and killed.”
“Imprisoned?” Hawkwind echoed.
Starbright went on reading when Rainsoft had wiped away his words and continued. “I was born in Snow-in-lee. I lived there. I escaped a little while ago.”
“What?” Hawkwind gasped. “There are still griffins there?” She darted a look at Thornfire. “Did you know this?”
The old mage had remained strangely calm through the whole discussion. Now, he gave Hawkwind a languid blink of his eyes. “I knew Rainsoft was from Snow-in-lee,” he nodded.
“He smelled of it, especially when he was first brought in. Since he’s been washed, not as much anymore.”
“Smelled of it? How do you know what Snow-in-lee smells like? You’ve been there?”
He nodded, stretching his back and popping his joints. “My brother and I went there several times, but we never went deep into the city. We were never seen or caught, but we came to know the scent all too well. There aren’t many things we griffins can smell, but talis are one of them. If anything could be said to be the mortal enemy of griffins, it is they, and our ability to scent them is a vital line of defense.”
Starbright was writing and erasing furiously for Rainsoft’s benefit.
“When we were near Snow-in-lee, we observed signs that made us suspect some griffins were still there, but we never saw any. I am most curious about the situation. I knew Rainsoft would be immense help if he could get to talking about it. Rainsoft’s arrival was the catalyst for my decision to go after my brother now. Your arrival,” he gave Hawkwind a nod, “was a convenient coincidence for me. I needed the help, although the human children I admit, do complicate things slightly.”
It took another minute for Starbright to finish conveying everything to Rainsoft, but he was already shaking his head.
“If you go,” he wrote, “you will die.”
“You escaped,” Thornfire countered. “How?”
The charcoal grey griffin grunted, writing, “long story.”
Thornfire chuckled. “We have time.”
Rainsoft had lowered his head. His shoulders were still trembling. Hawkwind extended a wing and put it around him.
“I think that’s enough for one night, Elder Thornfire,” she tried. “Rainsoft,” she called, and he looked at her. “Will you stay?”
He did hesitate, but not for as long as he could have, before he nodded.
“Most excellent,” Thornfire said.
Hawkwind had to resist giving him a dirty look. As it was, her neck feathers still rose a little in perturbation, despite her best efforts to keep them flat. Rainsoft had put his head down, curling up under her wing, and she made no move to dislodge him. The children came with their blankets and tucked themselves under Hawkwind’s or Rainsoft’s outside wings. Starbright smiled with amusement and positioned herself between her master and Hawkwind—a diplomatic move in Hawkwind’s opinion—before drifting off to sleep.
Hawkwind stayed awake a while longer, watching the fire die down, and seeing the glowing coals reflected in Thornfire’s hooded eyes.