/ Language: English / Genre:sf_fantasy, / Series: Valdemar (01): Mage Wars

The Silver Gryphon

Mercedes Lackey

Skandrannon and AmberDrake are both getting older and have settled into comfortable lives. The people of White Gryphon have been in Alliance with the Haighlei Empire for 12 years now, but that does not mean that they have not prepared themselves for other enemies. White Gryphon started up an elite guard made of humans and non-humans to protect their city; These became known as the Silver Gryphons. Among these are SilverBlade, AmberDrakes daughter, and Tadrith, Skan's son. They are both sick of growing up in the tales of the Fathers' heroisms. They wanted to prove themselves and make their own worths known. So finally, after rigorous training, they are both given their first assignments- a remote guard post in wild , unexplored territory. But something bad happens and Tadrith is forced out of the sky and plummets to the ground with SilverBlade. Bandly injured, and no way of communicating back, they are forced to take care of themselves. All magic has been drained from their equipment. Something evil and unknown lurks in the dark forest beyond them; Will help come in time, or will they both perish at the hands of this evil?

Mercedes Lackey and Larry Dixon

Mage Wars 03

The Silver Gryphon

One

Freedom!

Tadrith Skandrakae extended his broad gray wings, stretching out his muscles to their fullest extent to take best advantage of the warm wind beneath him. Freedom at last! I thought I’d never get away from that Section meeting. He banked just slightly to his left, slipping sideways for the best line. I know it wasn’t my good looks or charm that were putting me under that old crow’s watch! I swear, Aubri must get a special pleasure out of keeping people around him who desperately want to be somewhere else. He half-closed his eyes against the glare of the sun on the water beneath him. He was conscious of two pressures, one tangible and one fanciful; the warm imagined push of the sun on his back, and the strong uplift of the thermal beneath him. Then again, maybe there were three pressures, or four; the warm air below, the hot sun above, and the twin desires to be away from the boredom of yet another Section meeting and the wish to be headed for something exciting.

The thermal tasted of salt and seaweed, and it gave him some welcome relief from rowing his wings against the breeze. Beneath and beyond his left wing, the great Western Sea shone green-blue and vast, the horizon a sharp line where the brilliant turquoise of the sky met the deep emerald green of the water farther out. To his right, the cliff-built city of White Gryphon sent back the rays of the sun in a dazzling display of snowy stone laced with growing things, drifts of trailing vines, and falling water. As had been planned a generation ago, the city itself was laid out in the shape of a stylized gryphon with his wings spread proudly against the mossy uncut stone of the cliff. By day, it glowed; by night, it glimmered, lit with candle, lantern and mage-light. Tadrith loved it; a proud, promising, beckoning city, home to thousands.

Beneath him, the olive-green waters of the cove rolled calmly against the base of the cliff and gurgled around the pillars of the dock, a delicate lace-work of foam atop the swells. The moorings there were all empty except for light utility craft, for the fishing fleet of White Gryphon would be out at sea until sunset, Tadrith himself had served with the fleet in his first year as a Silver Gryphon; young gryphons acted as aerial scouts, spotting schools of fish from above, and then worked as catch haulers later in the day.

The only time that nets were used was when the catch haulers were taking the catch in to the shore. In their first years here, the fleet had fished with drag- and gill-nets, but did so no more. Their Haighlei allies had been horrified at the wastage caused by net fishing, for inedible sea life had been caught and wantonly destroyed along with the edible fish. They had rightfully pointed out that the Kaled’a’in would not have countenanced such wastage in hunting, so why should they allow it in fishing? Fishing was another form of hunting, after all; you did not kill creatures that were of no threat or use to you in the forest, so why do so in the sea? So now the fleets used only baited lines, allowing for the release of fish that were too young or unwanted. It took longer, and was more work, but that was a small matter compared with the fact that it ensured feeding the next generation, and the ten after that.

Ten generations to come. That’s always the concernthe generations to come. Plan and work for ten generations’ benefit, Amberdrake says. Even if we wear ourselves to wingsails and bones doing it!

Such thoughts tended to come to everyone at White Gryphon from time to time. Among the young, like him, they came to mind at least once an hour; in times of even harder work, they arose every few minutes. It was only natural, after all, that a day of bright sun and promise would hold a virile young gryphon’s attention better than going over Patrol charts and Watch rosters with an elder gryphon, even one as likable as old Aubri.

I have places to go, things to do. I’m almost positive of it.

The landing platform that Tadrith had chosen was not untenanted, a factor that had played some little part in his choice. Not that he was vain, oh no! At least, not much. But there were three perfectly handsome young gryphon ladies spreading their wings to catch some sun on that platform, with their mothers in oh-so-casual attendance on the off-chance that a young bachelor might show some interest. He knew all three of them, of course; Dharra was a year older than he and a mage, Kylleen a year younger and still serving with the fleet, and Jerrinni a fellow Silver. She was already working with a partner on unsupervised assignments, and he particularly wanted to impress her if he could. She was by far the most attractive of the three, being of the same goshawk type that he was. But that was not the only reason for his interest in her; she was also his senior in the Silvers and her comments to her superiors might edge him up a little toward his long-delayed promotion to unsupervised assignments.

I wear the badge, but I am not yet allowed to bear the responsibilities the badge represents. He did not have to glance down at his harness to see that badge, made in the form of a stylized gryphon.

The Silver Gryphons, so named for that silver badge they wore, served in every kind of military and policing capacity that fighters, guards, scouts, and constables had in the old days. And in addition to those tasks, the gryphons in the Silvers—especially the young ones still in training—made themselves useful in a variety of other tasks.

Or to be more precise, their leaders assigned them to those so-useful tasks. Like hauling cargo, or carry-nets full of fish, or hoisting supplies, meat from the herds, and the fruits of the fields down from the top of the cliff, for instance.

Or sitting through boring meetings.

I have a hundred things that need to be done, Or as Father would say, “places to go, people to be.“ He makes a joke of it, but I live it, more than he ever did even after all of his adventures and missions and roles. Even more than he did at the Eclipse Ceremony.

He sideslipped and caught another thermal, one that would place him precisely where he wanted to be.

The thought of his father, as always, made him flinch internally. Not that Skandranon was a bad father—oh, no! He was an excellent teacher, provider, and friend. He was a fine father, but he was a very difficult person to have as a father. Trying to live up to the image of the Black Gryphon was . . . difficult and vexing. He may be a living legend, but it makes being his son a living hell.

But the platform and its attractive occupants loomed up before and beneath him, and Tadrith allowed himself a touch of smug satisfaction. He prided himself on his aerobatics, and most especially on his control. His mother Zhaneel was the gryphon who had been most revered for her flying finesse, and he had studied her techniques more than his father’s. At least the Great Skandranon can’t do this as well as I can. . . .

Tadrith banked in over the platform and pulled up, to stall in midair and then fall, wings cupped, to land standing on one foot, then two, and from then to all fours without any sound louder than the creak of the platform accepting his weight. The gryphon ladies all gazed on in approval, impressed by his display of control and dexterity, and Kylleen cooed aloud and smiled in his direction.

Yes! That worked out just the way I wanted. Tadrith stood rock steady and struck a momentary pose, wings folded crisply, crest up and gently ruffled by the breeze. Just right. That will show them what I’m made of. Father never flew like that! He’d have powered straight in and knocked them half off their feet with the backwash of his wingbeats. I have finesse and style!

Tadrith’s self-congratulatory reverie was shattered a moment later when one mother said to another, “Did you see that? Why, he’s the very image of his father, with aerobatics like that.”

Crushed, Tadrith drooped his head and crest and stepped off the platform.

I’m doomed.

At least the younger ladies seemed oblivious to the effect that the casual remark had on him. They continued to bestow coy and admiring glances on him as he made as unhurried and graceful an exit as he could manage under the circumstances.

The platform jutted out over the cove below, and led directly to one of the balustraded “streets” that ran along the edge of the terrace. The Kaled’a’in who comprised the greater part of the population of White Gryphon were accustomed to being surrounded by greenery, and even in a city carved and built completely of cliff-stone had managed to bring that greenery here. Built into the balustrades were stone boxes filled with earth brought down a sackful at a time from the fields above; those boxes now held luxuriant vines that trailed down to the next terraced level. More stone boxes each held a single tree or bush, with flowering herbs planted at its base. There was water enough coming down from above to allow for the occasional tiny waterfall to trail artfully from terrace to terrace and end in a long fall to the sea. The greenery had been planned so that it actually formed feather-patterns, adding texture to the pure white of the stone gryphon. Part of the philosophy of White Gryphon, when the city was planned, had been “recovery with dignity.” The leaders of the people—Skandranon included—used the survivors’ artistry and style as a point of pride and unification. If a simple box would do, an ornamented box was better. This strategy of increased self-esteem, guided by the kestra’chern, worked in making the people feel less like beaten refugees and more like proud homesteaders.

The philosophy was simple. If an object could be made beautiful—whether it was a street, doorway, or garden—it was.

Homes were carved directly into the cliff behind the avenue, some going twenty or thirty gryphon-lengths back into the stone. The size of a family home or a gryphon aerie was limited only to the willingness of family members to dig (or pay for someone else to dig)—and to live in the windowless spaces beyond the main rooms. Gryphons tended to find such spaces disturbing and confining and preferred not to carve more than two rooms’-worth deep, but hertasi and kyree and even some humans actually liked the idea of such burrows, and sent their dwellings quite far back indeed. There were entire complexes of man-made caverns back in those cliffs, and Tadrith had to admit that the one advantage they had was that weather made little or no difference to the folk living in those rooms.

Amberdrake was one such. He and Winterhart had buried their personal chambers so far back into the living stone that no natural light ever reached there to disturb late sleepers. Tadrith shuddered at the very thought of so much rock on every side, cutting him off from the air and light. He had no idea how his partner Blade ever tolerated it, for she was another such as her parents.

Not that a gryphon ever needs to worry about being forced to live in such a place. Not while there are hertasi and kyree vying for such mausoleums and eager to give up cliff-side residences to have one. In the early days, when simply getting a dwelling carved out quickly had been of paramount importance, it had been faster and easier just to sculpt rooms side-by-side, often simply enlarging and improving existing caves. Mage-lights to aid in working deeper into the stone had been at a premium, and there were long stretches of time when magic could not be used to help work the stone at all, so that it all had to be done by hand. Workers tended to carve to a standard that happened to be preferred by most humans and all gryphons and tervardi. The dyheli, of course, needed the barest of shelters to be contented and all lived above, among the farms, but the hertasi and kyree who really were not comfortable with views of endless sky and long drops were forced to make do until there was time and the resources to create dwellings more to their liking. That meant there were always those who would happily trade an older, “precarious perch” for a newly-chiseled burrow. There were wider terraces, of course, that permitted real buildings and even small gardens, but those were all in the “body” of White Gryphon and most building space was reserved for public use. It was probably fair to say that three-quarters of the population of White Gryphon lived in glorified cave dwellings.

That was how Tadrith and his twin, Keenath, had gotten their own aerie, which allowed them to move out of their parents’ home; they’d found a narrow stretch of unexcavated terrace down at the bottom of White Gryphon’s “tail” and had claimed it for themselves, then hired a team of masons to carve out a long set of six rooms, one after the other, deep into the living rock. This sort of residence was precisely the kind preferred by den-loving kyree and burrowing hertasi. Once the dwelling had been roughed in and the twins made it known that they were willing to trade, there was a bidding war going on even before it was completed.

The result was that Tadrith and Keenath had their own bachelor suite of one main room, a food storage chamber, and two light and airy bedrooms on either side of the main room. Both bedchambers had windows overlooking the cliff, as had the main room. The kyree family that had gratefully traded this aerie for the dark tunnellike series of rooms pronounced themselves overjoyed to be leaving such a drafty, windswept perch, and had wondered why their parents had ever chosen it!

Which only proves that one creature’s cozy nest is another creature’s draft-ridden mess of sticks.

As Tadrith neared his home, which was out on what would be the first primary of the White Gryphon’s right wing, the “avenue” narrowed to a simple pathway, and the balustrade to a knee-high, narrow ledge of stone. Perhaps that had something to do with the kyree’s reluctance to live there—certainly such an arrangement would be dangerous for young, clumsy cubs. Tadrith and Keenath had been raised in an aerie virtually identical to this one, but on the first primary of the White Gryphon’s left wing; that distance between them and their beloved parents had played no small part in their final decision as to which family would win the bidding war.

Tadrith could, if he had chosen to do so, actually have landed on the balustrade right outside his own door—but landing anywhere other than the public landing platforms was considered a breech of safety, for it encouraged the just-fledged youngsters, who were by no means as coordinated as they thought they were, to reckless behavior. No lives had been lost, but several limbs had been broken, when younglings had missed their landings and slipped off the edge or tumbled into a group of passersby. After a number of hysterical mothers demanded that the Council do something about the problem, the landing platforms were installed and gryphons and tervardi were “strongly encouraged” to use them. Tadrith and Keenath, with every eye in White Gryphon always on them, had been scrupulous in their use of the public landing platforms.

By daylight, anyway. And no fledge is allowed to fly after dark, so they’ll never see us when we cheat.

In glorious weather like this, the doors and windows always stood wide open, so Tadrith simply strolled inside his shared dwelling, his claws clicking on the bare stone of the floor. The room they used for company was airy and full of light, with the rock of the outer wall carved into several tall panels with thin shafts of wood between them. Translucent panes of the tough material the Kaled’a’in used for windows were set into wooden frames on hinges, which in turn were set into the stone. The room itself was furnished only with cushions of various sizes, all covered in fabric in the colors of sandstone and granite, slate and shale. In the winter, thick sheepskins and wool rugs would cover that cold white floor, and the doors and windows would be shut tight against the gales, but in the summer all those coverings were whisked away into storage so that an overheated gryphon could lie belly-down on the cool rock floor and dump some of that body heat quickly. And, in fact, Keenath was doing just that, spread out on the floor, with wings fanned, panting slightly.

“I was just thinking about dinner,” his twin greeted him. “I might have known that thoughts of food would bring you home.”

Tadrith snorted. “Just because you’re obsessed with eating it doesn’t follow that I am! I’ll have you know that I only just now escaped from yet another yawnsome Section meeting. Food was the very last thing on my mind, and escaping Aubri was the first!”

Keenath laughed silently, beak parted, as his tongue flicked in and out while his sides heaved. “That must have been a first, then,” he bantered. “So who was she? The pretty young thing that your mind was really on, I mean. Kylleen, perhaps?”

Tadrith was not going to get caught in that trap. “I haven’t made up my mind,” he said loftily. “I have so many to choose from, after all, it hardly seems reasonable to narrow the field this early in the race. It wouldn’t be fair to the ladies, either, to deny my company to any of them. It is only polite to distribute my attentions over as wide a selection as possible.”

Keenath reached out a claw and snagged a pillow, spun it twice as he raised up, and expertly hurled it at his brother’s head. Tadrith ducked, and it shot across the room to thud against the wall on the other side.

“You should be careful doing that,” he warned, flopping down on the cool stone himself. “We’ve lost too many pillows over the cliff that way. So what were you studying that has you panting so hard?”

“Field treatment and rescues under combat conditions, and specifically, blood stanching and wound binding,” Keenath replied. “Why? Don’t ask me; we haven’t seen a state of combat since before you and I were born. Winterhart’s idea. Probably because I take after Mother.”

Tadrith nodded; Keenath was very similar in size and build to their mother, Zhaneel. Like her, he was technically a gryfalcon rather than a gryphon. He was small and light, most of his musculature in his chest and shoulders. His coloring and body type were that of a peregrine, his wings long and narrow, but most importantly, he had inherited Zhaneel’s stub-taloned, dexterous claw-hands.

This was important, for Keenath was learning the craft of the trondi’irn from Winterhart herself, and he needed “hands” as clever as a human’s. Before his apprenticeship was complete, he would be able to do anything a Healer with no Gift could do. The difference between him and an herb-, fire-, or knife-Healer was that, like all trondi’irn, his training was tailored to the needs and physiology of gryphons and other nonhumans.

Zhaneel had been trained as a fighter—and others had come to the realization that her small size and lack of fighting talons could be put to other uses too late for her to learn a new trade. At that point, she had opted to adapt her style of fighting to her body type rather than try to fit the accepted mold, and with Skandranon’s help she had made the best of her situation with brilliant results. But when Keenath had shown early signs that he would resemble her physically, he was encouraged to think of a career in something other than the Silvers.

Nevertheless, it had surprised everyone when he had declared he wanted to train as a trondi’irn. Up until now, that had been an occupation reserved for humans and hertasi.

Tadrith stretched and yawned, turning his head so that the breeze coming in from the open door could ruffle his crest-feathers. “At least you were doing something!” he complained. “I sat there until I thought my hindquarters were going to turn to stone, and if any part of me is going to grow stiff on a day like this, that is not my primary choice. I couldn’t even take a nap; as usual, old Aubri had me conspicuously up front. Have to maintain the tradition of the Black Gryphon, of course; have to pretend every Section meeting is as important as a wartime conference. Have to act as if every detail could mean life or death.” He stretched again, enjoying the fact that he could always vent his frustration to his twin. “You should be glad you look the way you do, Keeth. It’s bad enough being Skandranon’s son, but the fact that I look like him doesn’t even remotely help! You try living up to the legend, sometime! It’s enough to make anyone want to bite something!”

And to display the strength of his own frustration, he snagged the poor, mistreated pillow Keenath had lately lobbed at him, and bit at it savagely. It was a good thing they had the cushions covered in tough linen-canvas, for the pillows had to take a great deal of punishment.

“Well, if you think it’s hard living up to the legend, just try breaking away from it!” Keenath retorted, as he always did. Tadrith’s twin groaned as he followed Tadrith’s example, stretching. “Half the time I’m left wondering if Winterhart isn’t pushing me so hard expecting me to fail, and half the time I think she’s doing it because everyone knows Skandranon never failed at anything he tried.”

Tadrith snorted and mock-scraped his hindfeet, as if burying something particularly noxious from a previous meal. “He never let it be known how often he failed, which is the same thing to legend-builders.”

His brother snorted right back and continued. “And if it isn’t Winterhart, it’s everyone else, watching, waiting to see if the old Black Gryphon magic is strong enough in Keenath to enable the youngling to pull off another miracle.” He parted his beak in a sardonic grin. “At least you have a path to follow—I’m going through new skies in the fog, and I have no idea if I’m going to run up against a cliff-face.”

Naturally, Tadrith had his own set of retorts, already primed, proving how much more difficult it was to have to follow in the wake of the Black Gryphon. It was an old set of complaints, worn familiar by much handling, and much enjoyed by both of them.

Who can I complain to, if not to my twin? For all that they were unalike in form and temper, they were bound by the twin-bond, and knew each other with the twin’s intimacy. There were other twins among the gryphons, and one or two sets among the humans, and all the twin-sets agreed; there was a bond between them that was unlike any other sibling tie. Tadrith often thought that he’d never have been able to cope with the pressure if Keenath hadn’t been around, and Keenath had said the same thing about his sibling.

Finally the litany of complaints wound to its inevitable conclusion—which was, of course, that there was no conclusion possible. They ran through the sequence at least once every day, having long ago decided that if they could not change their circumstances, at least they could enjoy complaining about them.

“So what has your tail in a knot this time?” Keenath asked. “It wasn’t just the meeting.”

Tadrith rolled over on his back to let the breeze cool his belly. “Sometimes I think I’m going to do something drastic if Blade and I don’t get assigned soon!” he replied, discontentedly. “What are they waiting for? We’ve earned our freedom by now!”

“They could be waiting for you to finally demonstrate a little patience, featherhead,” Keenath said, and had to duck as the pillow made a return trip in his direction.

There might have been more pillows than just the one flying, if Silverblade herself, Tadrith’s partner, hadn’t chosen that moment to walk in their open door.

She stood in the doorway, posing unconsciously, with the sun making a dark silhouette of her against the brilliant sky. Tadrith knew it was not a conscious pose; it was totally out of her nature to do anything to draw attention to herself unless it was necessary. Blade was the name the gryphons knew her by, though her childhood name hadn’t been the use-name she wore now; it had been “Windsong,” so dubbed by her fond parents in the hopes, no doubt, that she would grow up to resemble one or the other of them. “Windsong” was a perfectly good name for a trondi’irn or even a kestra’chern or a Kaled’a’in Healer or mage. But “Windsong” hadn’t had the inclination for any of those things.

The young woman who broke her pose and strode into the aerie with the soundless tread of a hunter was small by Kaled’a’in standards, although there was no mistaking her lineage. Her short black hair, cut in a way that suggested an aggressive bird of prey, framed a face that could only have graced the head of one of the Clan k’Leshya, and her beak of a nose continued the impression of a hunting hawk. Her golden skin proclaimed the lineage further, as did her brilliantly blue eyes. There was nothing of her mother about her—and very little of her father.

She fit in very well with those members of Clan k’Leshya descended from warrior stock, however. Despite her small size, she was definitely molded in their image. There was nothing to suggest softness or yielding; she was hard, lithe, and every bit a warrior, all muscle and whipcord.

Tadrith well recalled the first time he had seen her stand that way. The day she showed her real personality, one month after her twelfth birthday, a month during which she had suddenly turned overnight from a lively if undistinguished child to a rough and unpolished version of what she now was. Amberdrake had been holding a gathering of some sort, which had included the children, and of course Tadrith and Keenath had been in attendance. Winterhart had addressed her daughter as “Windsong” during the course of the meal, and the little girl had unexpectedly stood up and announced to the room in a firm and penetrating voice that she was not to be called by that name anymore.

“I am going to be a Silver,” she had said, loudly and with total conviction. “I want to be called Silverblade from now on.”

Silverblade had then sat down, flushed but proud, amidst gasps and murmurs. It was a rather dramatic move even for someone with an outgoing personality like Tadrith; for one as self-effacing as Blade, it must have taken an enormous effort of will—or assertion of the truth, as the k’Leshya believed. The willpower to do anything would come, the songs and writings said, if the motive was pure.

Nothing her parents could say or do would persuade her otherwise—not that Amberdrake and Winterhart had been so selfish as to attempt to thwart her in what she so clearly wanted. From that day on, she would respond to no other name than Silverblade, or “Blade” for short, and now even both her parents referred to her by that name.

It certainly fits her better than “Windsong.” She can’t carry a tune any better than I could carry a boulder!

“Keeth! I hear you didn’t kill too many patients today, congratulations!” she said as she invited herself into the room and sat down on one of the remaining cushions.

“Thank you,” Keenath said dryly. “And do come in, won’t you?”

She ignored his attempt at sarcasm. “I’ve got some good news, bird,” she said, turning to Tadrith and grinning broadly as he rolled over. “I didn’t think it could wait, and besides, I wanted to be the one to break it to you.”

“News?” Tadrith sat up. “What kind of news?” There was only one piece of news that he really cared about—and only one he thought Blade would want to deliver to him herself.

Her grin broadened. “You should have stayed after the meeting; there was a reason why Aubri wanted you up front. If you were half as diligent as you pretend to be, you’d know for yourself by now.” She eyed him teasingly. “I’m tempted to string this out, just to make you squirm.”

“What?” he burst out, leaping to his feet. “Tell me! Tell me this instant! Or—I’ll—” He gave up, unable to think of a threat she couldn’t counter, and just ground his beak loudly.

Now she laughed, seeing that she had gotten him aroused. “Well, since it looks as if you might burst if I don’t—it’s what we’ve been hoping for. We’ve gotten our first unsupervised assignment, and it’s a good one.”

Only the low ceiling prevented him from leaping into the air in excitement, although he did spring up high enough to brush his crest-feathers and wingtips against the ceiling. “When? Where? How long till we can get in action?” He shuffled his taloned feet, his tail lashing with exuberance, all but dancing in place.

She laughed at his reaction, and gestured to him to sit down. “Just as quickly as you and I would like, bird. We leave in six days, and we’ll be gone for six moons. We’re going to take charge of Outpost Five.”

Now his joy knew no bounds. “Five? Truly?” he squealed, sounding like a fledgling and not caring. “Five?”

Outpost Five was the most remote outpost in all of the territory jointly claimed by White Gryphon and their Haighlei allies. When this particular band of refugees had fled here, as they escaped the final Cataclysm of the Mage of Silence’s war with Ma’ar the would-be conqueror of the continent, they had been unaware that the land they took for a new home was already claimed. They’d had no idea that it was part of the land ruled by one of the Haighlei Emperors (whom the Kaled’a’in knew as the Black Kings), King Shalaman. A clash with them had been narrowly averted, thanks to the work of Amberdrake and Skandranon, Blade’s father and Tadrith’s. Now White Gryphon jointly held these lands in trust with the Emperor, and its citizens were charged with the responsibility of guarding the border in return for King Shalaman’s grant of the White Gryphon lands.

It was a border of hundreds of leagues of wilderness, and the Emperor himself had not been able to “guard” it; he had relied on the wilderness itself to do the guarding. This was not as insurmountable a task as it might have seemed; with gryphons to fly patrol, it was possible to cover vast stretches of countryside with minimal effort. Outpost Five was the most remote and isolated of all of the border posts. Because of that, it was hardly the most desirable position so far as the Silvers were concerned.

For most Silvers, perhaps, but not for Blade and Tadrith. This meant three whole months in a place so far away from White Gryphon that not even a hint of what transpired there would reach the city unless he or Blade sent it by teleson. There would be no watching eyes, waiting to see if he could replicate his legendary father. There would be no tongues wagging about his exploits, imagined or real.

Of course, there would also be no delicious gryphon ladies for three months, but that was a small price to pay. Three months of chastity would be good for him; it would give him a rest. He would be able to use the leisure time to invent new and clever things to do and say to impress them. He would have all that time to perfect his panache. By the time he returned, as a veteran of the border, he should be able to charm any lady he chose.

Outpost duty was a long assignment, in no small part because it was so difficult to get people to the outposts. Even though magic was now working reliably, and had been for several years, no one really wanted to trust his body to a Gate just yet. Too many things could go wrong with a Gate at the best of times, and at the moment the only purpose anyone was willing to put them to was to transport unliving supplies. The consumables and their mail and special requests would be supplied to their outpost that way; a mage at White Gryphon who was familiar with the place would set up a Gate to the outpost. Workers would then pitch bundles through, and the mage would drop the Gate as soon as he could.

No one wants to leave a Gate up very long either. You never know what might go wrong, or what might stroll through it while it’s up.

“You know, of course, that there’s a great deal of uninhabited and poorly-surveyed territory in between Five and home,” Blade went on with relish. “We’re going to be completely on our own from the time we leave to the time we return.”

“What, no lovely gryphon ladies and human stallions to wile away your time of exile?” jibed Keenath, and shuddered realistically. “Well, never mind. I can guarantee that in the case of the ladies, I can make certain that they will not notice your absence, twin.”

“They are more likely to cry out in pain at your I poor attempts at gallantry, Keeth,” Tadrith told him and turned back to Blade. “You realize that this shows a great deal of trust in our abilities, don’t you? I mean, the usual first assignment is something like—”

“Like guarding the farms, I know,” she replied smugly. “That must have been why they kept us behind the others, training and overtraining us. They wanted to be sure we were ready, and I bet they decided to send us out there because we’re the only people who really want to go. In fact, I would bet my favorite armband that Aubri plans to send us out on long outpost duty every chance he can get!”

They grinned at each other with relish, for there was another aspect to outpost duty they both anticipated with pleasure. Those so posted were expected to do a certain amount of exploring, and sometimes the explorers found something valuable. The Emperor Shalaman got a share, of course, as did the treasury of White Gryphon, but the generous portion remaining went to the intrepid explorers who made the discovery. Not that Tadrith was greedy, of course, but he did have a certain love of ornamentation, a pronounced interest in the finer things of life, and finding something extremely valuable would make it possible for him to indulge his interests. And it didn’t hurt to have the wherewithal to impress the ladies, either, and ornament them a bit now and then.

“Just how much exploring has been done up there?” he asked.

Blade’s eyes widened knowingly. “Not all that much,” she replied. “And there are more ways to explore than sailing over the tree-canopy, hoping something on the ground will show itself.”

He nodded, following her thoughts. Probably most of the Silvers assigned to Outpost Five in the past had been gryphon teams; that made sense, although it probably wore them down terribly, not having humans and hertasi to tend to them. A human on station, though, could make a detailed survey of a particular area, including the smaller animals and plants living there, and take mineral samples. That was something a gryphon was ill-suited or, for that matter, ill-inclined, to do.

“There’s been no trouble from that sector for years,” she mused. “We should have plenty of time for surveys.”

“But most of all, you’ll be on your own,” Keenath said enviously. “I wish I could find some way to escape for a few months.”

Blade patted his shoulder sympathetically. “And miss all the benefits of trondi’irn, hertasi and kestra’chern fawning on you every spare moment? The horror! You could ask to be taken on by the Silvers once you’ve finished training under Winterhart,” she suggested. “Then you’d get some assignments elsewhere. Down with the embassy at Khimbata, maybe; you could go as the trondi’irn taking care of the Emperor’s gryphon-guards.”

Keenath’s eyes lit up at the idea, and Tadrith knew how he felt. For a chance to get out of White Gryphon he would have put up with just about anything.

The problem was that there was literally nothing that he said or did that Skandranon didn’t eventually find out about. It wasn’t that Skan was purposefully spying on his sons, or even deliberately overseeing them—

Well, not much, anyway. And not overtly.

—it was just that everyone told the Black Gryphon everything that went on in this city. A mouse couldn’t sneeze without Skandranon finding out about it eventually.

Neither can weexcept that it’s guaranteed that if we sneeze, someone will go running to Father with the news. Not only that, but the report would be detailed as to how, when, and how well we sneezed.

It wasn’t exactly tale-bearing, for people made certain to bring Skan the most flattering reports possible. Skan was a very proud father.

He can’t get enough of hearing about all the marvelous things Keeth and I are doing, especially now that we aren’t in the family aerie to bully into making reports on ourselves. The trouble is, he is fully capable of blowing the most minor accomplishment up into the equivalent of a brilliant piece of wartime strategy or heroism.

It was embarrassing, to say the least.

And, of course, anyone who wanted to curry favor with the Black Gryphon knew the fastest way to his heart was to praise his sons. Skan would go out of his way to see that someone who flattered the twins got a full hearing and careful consideration. That was all he would do, but often enough, that was sufficient.

As Keeth continued to look envious and a little pained, Tadrith preened his short eartufts in sympathy. “I wish there was a way to send you out of the city for trondi’irn training, Twin,” he murmured.

Keenath sighed. “So do I. When we were all choosing the subject we wanted to study, I tried to think of some discipline I could enjoy that would also get me out of the city at the same time, but I couldn’t. I think I’m going to be good at this, and it certainly feels right, but it means I’m stuck here.”

Blade wore as sympathetic an expression as Tadrith.

“There is this, Keeth,” the gryphon said to his twin. “You can just go on doing what you are doing and you will have earned every right to be considered unique and special. You’re writing your own definition of a trondi’irn. You don’t have to stand there, blushing at the nares with embarrassment when someone comes in acting as if running the obstacle course was the equivalent of stealing one of Ma’ar’s magical weapons.”

But Keenath ruffled his neck-feathers and clicked his beak. “That’s true up to a point, but there is another problem. Father literally does not understand me. We have absolutely nothing in common. When I talk about what I’m doing, he gets this strange look on his face, as if I were speaking a foreign tongue.” He laughed weakly. “I suppose I am, really. Well, I’ll get my chance eventually.”

“You will,” Blade promised, but she made no move to rise to her feet. “I’m going to have to break the news to my parents, assuming that they don’t already know, which is more than likely. Tad, you’d better figure out how to tell yours.”

“They’ll know,” Tadrith replied with resignation. “Father is probably already telling everyone he thinks will listen how there’s never been anyone as young as I am posted so far away on his first assignment.”

Blade laughed ruefully. “You’re probably right. And mine is probably doing the same—except—”

She didn’t complete the sentence, but Tadrith knew her well enough not to pressure her. They each had their own set of problems, and talking about them wasn’t going to solve them.

Only time would do that.

Or so he hoped.

Silverblade sat back on her heels when the twins began to argue over what Tadrith should pack. She was in no real hurry to get back home; since she was still living with her parents, she did not even have the illusion of privacy that her own aerie would have provided. The moment she walked in the door, the questions and congratulations—bracketed by thinly-veiled worry—would begin, and at the moment she did not feel up to fielding them.

She breathed in the scent of salt air and sunbaked rock, half closing her eyes. I love this place. The only neighbors are other gryphons, quiet enough that the sound of the surf covers any noise they might make. And I love the fact that there are no other humans nearby, only tervardi, gryphons, and a few kyree.

How she envied Tad his freedom! He really had no notion just how easy a parent Skandranon was to deal with. The Black Gryphon had a. sound, if instinctive and not entirely reliable, knowledge of just when to shut his beak and let Tad go his own way. He also attempted to restrain his enthusiasm for the accomplishments of his twins, although it was difficult for him. But at least he showed that he approved; Amberdrake had never been happy with the path-choice his daughter had made, and although he tried not to let his disapproval color their relationship, it leaked through anyway. How could it not?

Perhaps “disapproval” was too strong a word. Amberdrake understood warriors; he had worked with them for most of his life. He respected them most profoundly. He liked them, and he even understood all of the drives that fueled their actions.

He simply did not understand why his child and Winterhart’s would want to be a warrior. He can’t fathom how he and Mother produced someone like me. By all rights, with everything that they taught me, I should never have been attracted to this life.

That was a gap of understanding that probably would never be bridged, and Blade had yet to come up with a way of explaining herself that would explain the riddle to him. “Blade, would you play secretary and write the list for me?” Tadrith pleaded, interrupting her reverie. “Otherwise I know I’m going to forget something important.”

“If you do, you can always have it Gated to us,” she pointed out, and laughed when he lowered his eartufts.

“That would be so humiliating I would rather do without!” he exclaimed. “I’d never hear the last of it! Please, just go get a silver-stick and paper from the box and help me, would you?”

“What else are gryphon-partners for, except doing paperwork?” she responded, as she rose and sauntered across the room to the small chest that held a variety of oddments the twins found occasionally useful, each in its appointed place. The chest, carved of a fragrant wood that the Haighlei called sadar, held a series of compartmentalized trays holding all manner of helpful things. Among them were a box of soft, silver sticks and a block of tough reed-paper, both manufactured by the Haighlei. She extracted both, and returned to her seat beside Tad. She leaned up against him, bracing herself against his warm bulk, using her knees as an impromptu writing desk.

As the twins argued over each item before agreeing to add it to the list or leave it out, she waited patiently. Only once did she speak up during the course of the argument, as Keenath insisted that Tad include a particular type of healer’s kit and Tad argued against it on the grounds of weight.

She slapped his shoulder to get him to be quiet. “Who is the trondi’irn here?” she demanded. “You, or Keeth?” Tad turned his head abruptly, as if he had forgotten that she was there. “You mean, since he’s the expert, I ought to listen to him.”

“Precisely,” she said crisply. “What’s the point of asking his opinion on this if you won’t take it when you know he’s the authority?”

“But the likelihood that we’d need a bonesetting kit is so small it’s infinitesimal!” he protested. “And the weight! I’m the one who’s going to be carrying all this, you know!”

“But if we need it, we’ll need exactly those supplies, and nothing else will substitute,” she pointed out. “We don’t know for certain that there’s a bone-setting kit at the Outpost, and I prefer not to take the chance that the last few teams have been as certain of their invulnerability as you.” Keenath looked smug as she added it to the list, unbidden. “I’m going to insist on it. And if it isn’t in that basket when we leave, I’ll send for one. We may be in a position of needing one and being unable to ask for one to be Gated to us.”

Tad flattened his ears in defeat as he looked from one implacable face to the other. “You win. I can’t argue against both of you.”

Gryphons could not smirk like humans could, but there was enough muscular control of the beak edges at the join of the lower mandible that one could be approximated. More than a touch of such an expression showed on Keeth as they continued on to the next item. Part of the reason why Blade felt so comfortable in the Silvers and with the gryphons in particular was that their motives and thoughts were relatively simple and easy to understand. In particular, they made poor liars; gryphons were just too expressive to hold a bluff effectively once you knew how to read their physical cues, such as the lay of their facial feathers and the angle of their ears. Although they were complex creatures and often stubborn, gryphons were also exactly what they appeared to be. The kestra’chern, her father in particular, were anything but.

Their job was to manipulate, when it came right down to it. The whole point of what they did was to manipulate a client into feeling better, to give him a little more insight into himself. But she wasn’t at all comfortable with the idea of manipulating anyone for any reason, no matter how pure the motive and how praiseworthy the outcome.

Oh, I know things simply aren’t that black-and-white, but

Ah, things were just simpler with the Silvers. Issues often were a matter of extremes rather than degrees. When you had only a single moment to make up your mind what you were going to do, you had to be able to pare a situation down to the basics. Subtleties, as Judeth often said, were for times of leisure.

She noted down another item, and let her thoughts drift.

I can’t wait until we’re away from here. I wish we could go without having to talk to my parents.

Once they were away from White Gryphon, she would finally be able to relax for the first time in several years. And once again, it was her father who was indirectly responsible for her unease of spirit.

He knows too much, that’s the problem. When she had been a child, she had taken it for granted that Amberdrake would know everyone of any importance at all in White Gryphon. She hadn’t known any reason why he shouldn’t. But as she gradually became aware just what her father’s avocation really entailed, she gained a dim understanding that the knowledge Amberdrake possessed was extraordinarily intimate.

Finally, one day it all fell together. She put the man together with the definition of kestra’chern and had a moment of blinding and appalling revelation.

Not only did her father know everyone of any importance, he also knew the tiniest details about them—every motive, every desire, every dream and indecision. Details like that, she felt deep in her heart, no person should ever know about another. Such secrets gave the one who held them too much power over the other, and that would weigh as an unimaginable responsibility.

Not that Father would ever use that power. . . .

Or would he? If he had a chance to manipulate someone for a cause he thought was right, wouldn’t he be tempted to do just that? And wouldn’t the fear of having such secrets revealed to others be enough to make almost anyone agree to something that Amberdrake wanted?

She had never once seen any indications that Amberdrake had given in to the temptation to use his tacit power—but he was her father, and she knew that she was prejudiced on his behalf. For that matter, she was not certain she would know what to look for if he had misused his powers.

Oh, it’s not likely. Father would never do anything to harm anyone, if only because he is an Empath and would feel their emotional distress.

She ought to know; she was something of an Em-path herself, although in her case, she got nothing unless she was touching the person in question.

That was one of the reasons why Amberdrake was so confounded by the idea that she wanted to be a Silver. How could an Empath ever choose to go into a profession where she might have to kill or injure someone?

Easily enough. It’s to prevent the people I must take care of from killing or injuring others.

He would never accept that, just as he would never accept the idea that she would not want to use her Empathic ability.

She shuddered at the very idea. He knows every nasty little secret, every hidden fear, every deep need, every longing and every desire of every client he has ever dealt with. How he manages to hold all those things inside without going madI cannot fathom it. And that he actually wants to know these thingsI could never do that, never. It makes my skin crawl. I don’t want to know anyone that intimately. It would be like having every layer of my skin peeled off—or doing it to someone else over and over.

She loved her father and mother, she knew they were wonderful, admirable people, and yet sometimes the things that they did made her a little sick inside. All a Silver ever had to do was stop a fight, or break some bones once in a while, and apply force when words didn’t work. That was just flesh, and flesh would heal even if it was shredded and bleeding—it wasn’t as serious as getting into someone’s heart and digging around.

From that moment of understanding of who and what her father was, she had been terrified that people would simply assume that she was like him— that she wanted to be like him. Her greatest fear had been that they would take it for granted that she would cheerfully listen while they bared their souls to her—

Gods. No. Anything but that.

For a while, until the Healers taught her how to control her Empathic ability, she had even shied away from touching other people, lest she learn more than she wished to. Even after she had learned to block out what she did not want to know, she had been absolutely fanatic about her own privacy.

At least as much as I can be while I still live with my parents.

She kept her thoughts strictly to herself just as much as she could; never confided anything about the things she considered hers alone. Even affairs of love or desire.

Especially matters of love and desire.

By now she wondered if both her parents thought she was a changeling. Here were two people who knew everything there was to know about the physical, and yet their daughter appeared to be as sexless as a vowed virgin.

She had made up her mind that she was not even going to give her father and mother the faintest of hints that she might have an interest in partnering anyone or anything. Unfortunately, they would not have been taken aback by any liaison she cared to make. They were, in fact, all too assiduous at suggesting possible partners, and would have been cheerfully pleased to offer volumes of advice on approach and technique once she even hinted at a choice!

And it would be advice of a kind she blushed even to contemplate. There was such a thing as too much information.

Why can’t they be like other parents? she thought, rebelliously. Why couldn’t they have been surprised that I was no longer an innocent little girl, horrified by the idea that I might one day bed someone, and attempt to guard my virtue as if it were the gold mines of King Shalaman? Any of those would be so much easier to deal with!

She had found out personally that it was much harder to deal with sunny cooperation than with outright opposition.

It’s a great deal like the hand-to-hand combat styles we Silvers learn, she thought in frustration, noting down yet another item for Tadrith. When your opponent moves against you, there are any number of ways you can counter him. You can block him, parry him, evade him, or use his attack against him. When he attacks, he gives you options, to counter him. But when he does nothingwhen he actually flows with your moves, it is impossible to do anything to extract yourself from the situation.

Ironic, to think of her outwardly serene life with her parents as a combat situation.

The only real escape from this ridiculous situation was to move away from White Gryphon altogether. As she had advised Keenath, there were positions available for Silvers in the Haighlei Empire. The ambassadors from White Gryphon needed a token guard of honor in order to convey the proper presence at the court of the Emperor; that guard was comprised mostly of humans, but always had at least four gryphons and two each of the kyree and dyheli. The tervardi preferred not to live in such a warm climate, and the hertasi took sly enjoyment in their roles of servants, ferreting out intelligence that would otherwise never have come to the attention of the ambassadors. The Emperor also had two gryphon-guards assigned to him, serving alongside the younger sons of the other Haighlei Kings.

I could ask to be posted there . . . I think I would enjoy the solitude of the outposts, but there are more things to consider here.

Tad would never be able to tolerate assignment after assignment to the lonely wilderness. He would go absolutely, stark, staring lunatic after a while. He was a very social creature, and their partnership would not last very long if she was the only other being around to talk to.

Not to mention what would happen to him without female gryphons about. He only thinks he’s nothing like his father. He has as wild a reputation among the fair flyers as his father ever had, if not more so. I had better check in on him to make sure he gets some sleep before we leave.

She chuckled to herself, and Tad looked back at her for a moment in curiosity.

And as far as that went, she was no chaste virgin, untouched and unawakened. She might well go quietly insane if she lived too long away from civilization.

For one thing, after too long out there, some very disturbing things might begin to look attractive. Tension can do that. When I find myself eying snakes and fondling branches, I’ll know I’ve been away too long. Still, that’s only one thing to miss, and easy enough to simulateit is far more difficult to replace a lover’s concern. For another complicationwellthere is Ikala.

She sighed. Ikala was important to Blade, and she had kept her parents from finding out about him only through plotting and planning that would have done a spymaster proud.

Haighlei Kings with more than one son—and most of them, ceremonially wedded to a new priestess-bride each year, had many children—sent those sons off to be the personal guards of other Kings. This ensured that there would be no warfare and no assassination attempts, for every King had hostages from every other King. Furthermore, every King had the opportunity to win the loyalty of the sons of his fellow Kings, giving him an ally in the courts of his neighbors. It was a good system, and in the highly structured and rigid culture of the Haighlei, it worked well.

Ikala was one of those younger sons, twentieth in succession behind the actual Crown Prince of Nbubi. But instead of being sent to serve in one of the other Courts, he had elected to come to White Gryphon instead, to be trained by Aubri and Judeth and serve in the Silvers.

The culture of the Haighlei was a strange one by Kaled’a’in standards. Every action was tightly bound up in protocol; every moment cemented with custom. The Haighlei lived in the most rigid society that the Kaled’a’in had ever seen or heard of; change was only permitted when decreed by the Emperor and his chief priests and then only at the Eclipse Ceremony. . . .

How anything gets changed at all is a mystery. There was a hierarchy for everything, from the gods to the poorest beggar, and no one was ever allowed to leave his place in that hierarchy except at approved times, under rigid circumstances. And that was why Ikala, son of a King, was here in White Gryphon.

Ikala cannot bear the constraints of his people any more than I can. Ikala had found relief here, as she hoped to find it in the wilderness. Perhaps that was why she had felt so drawn to him from the first. They were both trying to escape from lives that others wished them to lead.

Ikala was not the only Haighlei here; many found an escape in White Gryphon from the intolerable rigidity of their own culture. Although there were not as many as Blade would have expected, they were generally young, for the old were content to wait for their next lives to improve their lot. They were also more often female than male, even though there was no real difference in the way that men and women were treated by Haighlei law and custom. This was just as well, since there were more Kaled’a’in men in White Gryphon than women—an accident that Snowstar and Cinnabar thought might be due to one of the more subtle effects of the mage-storms following the Cataclysm that destroyed Ka’venusho. Perhaps that was the reason why so many more young Haighlei women came here than men; the perfectly ordinary reason of husband hunting!

The Kaled’a’in had been nearer the source of the blast than the lands of the Black Kings, and nearest when the storms were at their worst. Many other subtle changes had taken place during their migration here, not all of them as obvious as a superfluity of male children.

There were changes that affected the mages, for instance. We had more than half of the mages associated with Urtho’s army. You’d never know that now.

The mage-storms had made it very difficult to practice magic, for the strength of spells literally varied from storm to storm. But once the last of the storms had passed, it became evident that they had not only affected magic, they had affected the mages as well. Some, formerly powerful, had lost much of their ability. One or two who had only been at the level of hedge-wizard before the storms were able to aspire to the rank of Master. Some had undergone personality changes so subtle that the effects did not come to light for months or years, growing slowly odder and less social, until at last they would gather their belongings and vanish into the wilderness alone. One had caused a great deal of damage before he left, both physical and emotional.

That one was not Hadanelith, though Hadanelith had caused a fair share of emotional damage himself. It was generally granted, however, that Hadanelith had not been warped into what he was by the mage-storms. All evidence seemed to indicate he had always been quite mad, and quite dangerous.

Only the mages of k’Leshya were so affected, at least, as far as anyone knew.

Then again, perhaps Shalaman’s Nameless Brother was turned into what he became by the storms as well. We’ll probably never know for certain.

At any rate, since now the rate of birth for boys and girls was about equal again, the next generation would not have the trouble finding mates that this one had until Haighlei women started coming in by curious ones and twos.

Ikala had intrigued Blade, however, because he was very much different from the other Haighlei that had drifted into the city. He had kept to himself and simply observed for several weeks, after accepting hospitality at the hostel set up for visitors. He had not made any secret of his lineage, but he had not attempted to trade on it either. He had gone about the city quietly watching everything and everyone— while the Silvers were watching him, as they watched all newcomers. Then, one day, he presented himself to Judeth and asked to be taken into the Silvers as a trainee.

Had he been making up his mind if he wanted to stay? Had he already known he intended to remain and was only looking for a place where he could earn his way? Not even Blade knew—unless he had told Judeth, which was possible—and he had spent more time talking to her than to anyone else.

This was a fact that she had taken great pains to conceal from her loving family, as was her growing affection for him. She wasn’t certain what she was going to do about that yet. As with many things, it would have to wait until she returned from this assignment.

But having a Silver well acquainted with another court than Shalaman’s would mean that White Gryphon could open up a second embassy in Nbubi. Ikala could prove invaluable there, as an expert in the background, able to advise the ambassador as Silver Veil had advised Amberdrake in Shalaman’s court. And that would be a fine place for Blade and Tadrith to be posted—and perhaps even Keeth.

Unless, of course, Amberdrake managed to get himself appointed as Ambassador there—or Winterhart did—

No. No, that couldn‘t possibly happen, she reassured herself hastily. Father’s needed too much here. Mother wouldn’t go without him, not after the mess that almost happened the last time. And he knows that there’s no one here that could replace him.

Of course he could always train someone as his replacement. . . .

Oh, why am I making up these stupid scenarios when I don’t even know where I’m going after this, or whether Ikala and I would ever be more than close friends, or even if Judeth would consider Tad and me for posts with the Embassy! She realized that she was making up trouble for herself out of nebulous plans that weren’t even a possibility yet!

Things must be going too well if I’m planning for opposition that doesn’t exist and problems that would take a thousand variables to come up!

Just about then, Tad spoke to her. “I can’t think of anything else,” he said. “What about you?”

“I haven’t had any great inspirations for the supply list, but then I haven’t been really thinking about it,” she confessed, and frowned at the scrawled document in her hands. “I’ll tell you what; let’s go talk to Judeth or Aubri, and see if either of them have any suggestions.”

Tad clicked his beak thoughtfully. “Is that wise?” he asked. “Will it look as if we aren’t capable of thinking for ourselves?”

“It will look as if we are not too full of ourselves to accept advice from those older and wiser than us, and if we tell them that, they’ll adore us for it,” she responded, and got to her feet, stamping a little to ease a bit of numbness. “Come on, bird. Let’s go show the old dogs that the puppies aren’t totally idiots.”

“Not totally,” Tadrith muttered, although he did get to his feet as well. “Only mostly.”

Two

“Outpost Five, heh?” Aubri stretched both his forelegs, one at a time, regarding the blunted, ebony talons on the end of each claw with a jaundiced eye. Wind rattled the wooden wind chimes harmoniously in the open window behind him, and Tad watched golden dust motes dance in the beam of clear sunlight lancing down to puddle on the floor beside the old gryphon. “Let me see if I remember anything about Outpost Five.”

Tad sighed as Aubri went through the whole of his dry, impish, “absentminded” routine, first scratching his rusty-brown headfeathers meditatively (which made more dustmotes dance into the light), then staring up at the ceiling of the dwelling he shared with Judeth. His head moved again after a long moment, and Tad hoped he was finally going to say something. But no—he looked down at the shining terrazzo floor, inlaid in a geometric pattern of cream and brown that to all outward appearances fascinated him. That is, he seemed to be staring at those places; like any raptor, a gryphon’s peripheral vision was as good as his straight-on sight, and Tad knew very well that Aubri was watching them—well— like a hawk.

“Outpost Five,” the elder gryphon muttered, shaking his head so that the fragments of feather-sheath dislodged by his earlier scratch flew in all directions. A single headfeather, striped in brown and cream and as large as a human’s palm, drifted down to lie in the pool of sunlight beside him. Its edges were outlined in light, and the white fluff at the base glowed with a nimbus of reflected sunshine. “Outpost Five . . . now why does that sound familiar?”

This could go on for some time if Tad didn’t put a stop to it. He fixed Aubri with a look that said wordlessly, I know just what you’re doing and I’m not falling for it. In tones of deepest respect, he told his superior, “You and Commander Judeth took Outpost Five three years ago, sir, when we first took responsibility for it from the Haighlei. You said the tour of duty was a vacation from trainees who couldn’t molt without explicit written instructions.”

Aubri blinked mildly, but his great golden eyes were twinkling with hidden amusement. “Did I say that? I’m cleverer than I thought. Well, yes, I think I remember Outpost Five, now that you mention it. Pretty remote; it’s hard to find volunteers to man it. Good place for a vacation if what you want is thunderstorms every evening, fog every morning, and just enough of the sun to taunt you about, its existence. There’s a reason why the Haighlei call that kind of territory a ‘rain forest.’ It is wetter than a swimming kyree.”

Well, good. That’s one thing that wasn’t in our lessons on manning outposts. And there’s nothing in the briefing Blade read me that says anything about the weather there. “Would you say the weather is difficult enough to become a hindrance to our duties, sir?” he responded politely.

“Hindrance? I suppose if you’re the kind that thinks he’s going to melt if he has to fly in the rain.” Aubri’s mild manner turned just a trifle sharp, as if giving Tad subtle warning that he’d better not be thinking any such thing. His pupils dilated and constricted rapidly, another sign of warning. “No one promised sunny beaches and half-day duty when you volunteered for the Silvers.”

“It is dangerous to fly during thunderstorms, sir,” Blade put in politely, verbally maneuvering Tad from under Aubri’s talons. “And it can be dangerous to take off during heavy fog. We won’t be doing White Gryphon any favors if we get ourselves bunged up doing something stupid and they have to send in replacements and a rescue party. If the weather can become difficult enough to be dangerous, we ought to know about it in advance and know what warning signs to watch for. We can always ground ourselves and wait out a dangerous storm.”

“Well, now, that’s true enough.” Aubri was back to being the bumbling, genial old “uncle.” “But I don’t think I said anything to give either of you the impression that the weather was going to make it impossible to fly your regular patrols. You’ll just have to be careful, the way you were taught, and be diligent in watching for developing problems, that’s all. The thunderstorms aren’t violent, just briefly torrential, and the fog is always gone an hour after dawn.”

Both of which would have made his bones ache, if he’s having the same problems as my father. Aubri might be the oldest surviving gryphon from Urtho’s forces; he was certainly older than Skandranon. He looked it, too; his feathers were not as sleek or as perfectly preened as Tad’s were; in fact, they were a bit ragged, a trifle faded from what must have been his original colors of dark, warm brown and tan. Now he was rusty-brown and cream, and even feathers just grown in looked a bit shabby. Like Skandranon, he was of the broadwing variety, hawklike rather than falconiform, but he was huskier than Skandranon. His raptoral prototype was probably the umber-tailed hawkeagle, rather than the goshawk. There were signs of age in the delicate skin around his beak and eyes, a webwork of faint wrinkles, though those wrinkles were not as pronounced as the ones that humans got with increasing age. There was no sign of age in the mind, although you could not have told that from the way he was acting now.

“Acting,” indeed. It’s all an act, first to last, the old fraud. He never forgets anything; I’ll bet he remembers the order in which every trainee finished the last run on the obstacle course two weeks ago.

Aubri and Judeth were adept at playing the ally-antagonist game, with Aubri playing the absentminded and easily-fooled ally and Judeth the sharp-edged antagonist. Tad had caught onto the game in his first day of training, but then he had seen both Aubri and Judeth all the time when he was growing up. In particular, he had watched “absentminded” and “bumbling” Aubri best Skandranon time and time again over a game of stones, so it wasn’t likely that he would ever be fooled into thinking that Aubri wasn’t as sharp as his human partner.

Not that Father would ever admit to losing a game to Aubri except on purpose.

“Where is Commander Judeth, by the way?” he asked, for the white-haired human co-Commander of the Silver Gryphons had not been in evidence when the two of them arrived a few moments ago. Aubri jerked his beak toward the door, still standing open, as it had been when they arrived. On warm, pleasant days like this, most of the inhabitants of White Gryphon preferred to keep all doors and windows open to the sea breezes, and Aubri was no exception.

“Meeting with the Haighlei; they’re picking out the next set of Silvers to be in Shalaman’s personal guard when Sella and Vorn come back.” He preened a talon thoughtfully, chewing on the very end of it, his beak making little clicking sounds as he did so. “They’ll probably take Kally and Reesk,” he added. “They can’t resist matched sets.”

“You think so?” Blade asked skeptically; like Tad, she was aware that there were several pairs available for the duty whose skills were greater than the partners named.

Aubri snorted his contempt for anyone who would choose the looks of a set of guards over their ability. Not that Kally and Reesk were bad; no one was offered for Shalaman’s guards who was bad. For that matter, anyone who wasn’t up to Aubri’s standards was generally asked to find some other vocation long before they got out of training—and exceptions had better prove themselves within six months or they would have to return that coveted silver badge. But by the yardstick of these that Judeth and her partner picked to represent White Gryphon in the service of the Haighlei Emperor, these two were just average.

Nevertheless, they were showy, their plumage of ruddy gold and bronze would complement the gold and lionskins of Shalaman’s Grand Court, and they could stand at perfect attention for hours without moving a feather. Tadrith pointed out all of those attributes.

“The Emperor’s Chief Advisor has other things to consider, sir,” he finished politely. “It is very important, protocol-wise, for the Emperor’s guards to be as still as carvings all during Court. That stillness implies his power and control.”

“It’s not as if they’re ever going to have to do anything, sir,” Blade said injudiciously. “Even assuming an assassin or madman got as far as the Emperor’s Guard, he’d take one look at a pair of gryphons in full battle rage and pass out.”

Tad winced. That was not a bright thing to say— not to a veteran of the Great Wars and the Migration. There was a slight grating as Aubri’s talons reflexively scratched the terrazzo.

“Maybe,” Aubri replied with a narrow-eyed glare in her direction that thoroughly cowed her. “Maybe. Never assume anything, young Silver. Assumptions get you killed. Either you know, or you make your plans for the worst-case contingency. Always. Never count on the best happening. I thought we taught you better than that.”

The ice behind his words would have done his partner Judeth proud, and his tone was so sharp that even an idiot would have known he had made a mistake.

Blade flushed at the rebuke, and snapped stiffly to attention. Aubri waited a moment, to make certain that his words had taken effect, then waved a talon at her, and she relaxed, but warily.

That’s one mistake she won’t make again.

“Now, what was I saying? Outpost Five. . . .” He yawned, all trace of the Commander gone from his demeanor again. He could have been any lazy old gryphon, without a single interest beyond a place in the sun to rest, a bit of good gossip, and the quality (and timely delivery) of his next meal. “Standard outpost, all the comforts of home if you happen to be a hermit, good hunting, always pretty damp, the nights are a bit chilly. Oh, and the area is largely unexplored.” He gryph-grinned at Tad’s ill-suppressed look of eagerness. “Figured that out, did you? If I were to guess, and it’s only a guess, I’d say your best bet might be gold. Quartz pebbles in the river and streambeds that match the kind I’ve seen in the past where gold can be panned and separated out. We didn’t bother looking when Judeth and I were there; we’re too old to go wading around in cold water sloshing pans about. Since you’ve got a two-legger with you, it wouldn’t hurt to do a little panning, just to see if there’s anything there.”

“No, it wouldn’t,” Tad agreed, as Blade grimaced, but nodded. That would be the easiest way to find gold, if Aubri was right and the area was sitting atop a vein or even a lode. Chances were, if they did find gold, panning would be the only way any of it would be taken out of the place for a long time. The Haighlei would first have to perform a divination to see if the gods approved of mining there, then they would have to wait for approval from Shalaman himself, then the priesthood and the Emperor would make a joint declaration that mining would be permitted. Even then, there would be no rush to sink mines; Shalaman himself would choose one person from among the handful born into the trade of mining expert to determine (with the help of the priesthood) where and when the first shaft should be sunk. That person, with the aid of his hereditary miners, would dig the first shaft while a member of the priesthood watched to be certain it was all done as the gods deemed fit and appropriate. If he struck the vein, the whole process might be gone through again, to see if the gods would allow a second mine in the forest. If not, it would be taken as a sign that the gods did not approve despite the earlier indications, and the whole concern would be packed up and moved home. Protocol.

And meanwhile, those citizens of White Gryphon willing to endure primitive conditions for the sake of the possibility of a fortune, would be industriously panning gold out of the streams, with Shalaman’s blessing and his tax collectors monitoring. Panning involved nothing that would change the forest, the stream, or the earth beneath both, and so did not require the approval of the gods.

“What else?” he asked, and got the figure it out for yourself, brat look from Aubri. “I meant, what supplies would you suggest we take,” he amended hastily. Blade took the hint and passed their list over to Aubri, who spread it out on the floor in front of him. “Other than the usual kit, I mean, the one we learned in training. This is what we’d thought of adding so far.”

He was rather proud of the fact that he’d already put prospecting pans down; after all, if they didn’t find any gold, they could always bake pies in them.

Aubri perused the list slowly, rumbling a little to himself. Finally, he looked up.

“This is all very well thought out,” he said, “but it doesn’t go far enough. That’s not your fault,” he added hastily, as both Tad and Blade’s faces fell. “We train you fledges about regular outpost duty, but Five is almost twice as far away as any of the others. That was why Judeth and I went out there. If we couldn’t handle it, we certainly didn’t want to send any of you.”

Aubri and Judeth shared the leadership of the Silvers as co-Commanders under Skandranon. Tad’s father had turned over the actual working position to Aubri not long after the affair of the Eclipse Ceremony, more than twelve years ago. Skandranon had decided by then that he didn’t want to be a leader, not unless it was a leader in name only. He much preferred to be the Black Gryphon (or White Gryphon, depending on whether he was at Khimbata and Shalaman’s court or at home) with his talons into everything. The day-to-day trivia of leadership bored him; doing things made him happy.

Aubri, on the other hand, found himself, much to his surprise, to be quite good at the day-to-day trivia. Furthermore, it amused him. He said once to Skandranon that after all that he had been through during the Wars, dealing with requisitions and stupid recruits was a positive pleasure. The real truth was that he had long ago mastered the art of delegation and knew just who to saddle with the part of the job that he didn’t care for. And now, with the able tutelage of his partner and co-Commander Judeth, he very much enjoyed being a leader. For the last three years or so, both of them had been claiming that they were going to retire “soon,” but not one creature in the Silvers believed them. Neither of them was ever likely to enjoy retirement half so much as active duty.

It was Tad’s opinion that what would probably happen was that a third co-Commander would be appointed, one in charge of the more physical aspect of the daily activities of the Silvers, and the minor decisions that didn’t require an expert of the quality of either Aubri or Judeth. Judeth would remain in place as the overall Commander in charge of major decisions, and Aubri in charge of training, with which Judeth would assist him.

Now that, I can see happening. Judeth doesn’t much like climbing all over the city all day, but they’re both so experienced that it would be stupid to turn over complete control of the Silvers to someone youngerat least, not until they are comfortable with his competence. And Aubri loves bamboozling the trainees. Yes, that would make altogether too much sense, which is probably why that’s what they’ll do. They’re the two creatures in the whole world that I can trust to act sensibly.

Tad couldn’t imagine the Silvers without Aubri and Judeth in charge. It would have to happen someday, but he couldn’t imagine what that day would be like when it came.

“Now look, you two,” Aubri was saying. “You are going to be a long, long way from the city; it might be hard to get things to you if something wears out or breaks. Just because something minor like your water pump goes out, that doesn’t mean we’re going to rip open a Gate to send one to you. Gates are expensive, and you have perfectly sound limbs for carrying water in buckets.”

Tad was taken aback, and so was Blade. That simply hadn’t occurred to him; living among mages had made him think of Gates being put up quite casually. Gryphons flew, mages made Gates, it was that simple.

But now he realized that although a Gate went up just about every two or three days, they didn’t stay up for very long, and what was more, they didn’t even go up to the same place more often than once every month or two. There were just a lot of outposts and other far-flung ventures to supply, and that was what had made it seem as if Gating was commonplace and simple.

Aubri’s eyes twinkled. “Your Gates will be opened at the scheduled times, not one moment earlier unless it’s a real emergency of a life-threatening nature. They will remain open for only the scheduled times, so if there’s more stuff you’ve asked for than can be chucked through in a hurry, that’s too bad. You may have to wait through several resupply opportunities for your water pump. So what does that mean, Silvers?”

“Manuals,” Blade said with resignation, adding them to the list. “We’ll need repair manuals. All the repair tools we’d need will be there already, right?”

“And the manuals, too, don’t worry; that outpost’s been open a long time, and remember that Judeth and I were there first. We had the rank to order whatever we thought should be in place out there. Try again.”

Blade chewed a nail and frowned as she thought. Her brows furrowed, and her eyes darkened until they were nearly blue-black. “Um. You said it’s really damp. Humid?”

He nodded. “There’s fog there, isn’t there? Every morning. And rain every evening.”

She brightened. “Bladders. Seals. Anything made of leather or wood—or metal that might rust. Repair parts that can get ruined by damp! That would be for—the water pump, the stove, the plumbing—” She began to scribble.

“Good!” Aubri turned to Tad, who fortunately had an answer waiting, because he already knew Aubri’s prejudices. He’d heard the litany often enough, when he was still living at home.

“The kind of equipment that might go missing or get spoiled by damp that doesn’t rely on magic to work,” he said promptly. “Things like firestrikers, tinder boxes, trace sextant and compass for surveying . . . ah. . . .” He pummeled his brain. Aubri nodded.

“Don’t strain yourself; since you’ve just shown me that you know the principle, I’ll give you a list. It’s basically a few common replacement parts and some old army gear; won’t add that much to your load, but there isn’t much you can’t do with it if you put your mind to the problem.”

He didn’t even move; he just stretched out a claw and stabbed a piece of paper already waiting on the top of the goldenwood desk that stood just within snatching distance. He must have been ready for them, once again proving that he wasn’t nearly as absentminded as he seemed.

Blade took it from him, and Tad noticed that she seemed a bit bemused. Probably because she had a tendency to take everything and everyone at face value, and every time Aubri went into his “senile old featherhead” act, she fell for it.

Well, she can’t help it. This was her big weakness, and Tad had a good idea why she wasn’t likely to cure it any time soon. Part of the problem was that she just didn’t want to look past the surface masks that everyone wore, no matter how honest and genuine they were. Tad’s partner just didn’t want to know what surprises might lie beneath those polite masks; that Empathy thing of hers bothered her, and if she could have had it surgically removed, Tad had it figured that she would have done so no matter what the risk. And there were reasons behind that as well; she had realized a long time ago that she would never, ever be as good as her father at delving into people’s hearts and souls. She was the kind of person who, if she couldn’t excel at something, didn’t want to try.

Silly. Not every mage can be a Snowstar, but the hedge-wizards can do plenty of things he hasn’t got the time for, or even do subtle things he can’t do at all. Well, it’d be flogging pointlessly to take that up with her, at least now. Maybe after we’ve been out there a while, and we ‘ve had a lot of peace and privacy. That particular twitch of hers bothered him, though, and he wanted to have it straightened out before too very long. Any amount of mind-magic was useful, the more so in someone who might well be supposed to boast nothing of the sort. Father always says that if you’ve got an ability, it’s stupid not to train and use it, even if it isn‘t something that you‘d use very often.

Blade compared the two lists, and added several items to theirs before she handed the one Aubri had given her back to him. Tad was pleased to note that she had not needed to copy the whole thing down. So they hadn’t done so badly on their own.

I wonder if there was a bone setting kit on Aubri’s list, though. It certainly fits his criteria of “nonmagical” and “spoiled by damp.“ But, oh, the weight! If only someone could come up with better splints and casting material! It seems so stupid to be hauling wood and powdered rock!

Aubri crossed his forelegs in front of him, and regarded both of them with a benign, almost paternal expression on his face. “Well. Two more of my fledges go out to prove their wings. I think you’ll like the post; neither of you are the kind to pine after a city when you can thrash around in the forest and see things no one else ever has before.” He sighed. “Adventures are for the young, who haven’t got bone aches. Now me—I’m happy to be here in White Gryphon where I can sunbathe every day. But there should be enough new discoveries there to make even two youngsters like you happy.”

He did not mention that he knew their personal prime reason for being so happy with this assignment; getting away from their beloved families. He had never acted as if he recognized them as Skandranon’s and Amberdrake’s offspring—

Well, he wouldn’t; not while we were in training. But he’s never even mentioned our parents casually. Maybe he is a little absentminded in that direction; maybe he doesn’t recognize us now that we’re grown.

“We’re looking forward to it, sir,” he said honestly. “And it’ll be nice to be away from home for the first time.”

Aubri nodded, then grinned. “Oh, you aren’t the only ones who’ve been interested in long assignments outside the city, believe it or not. I told Judeth that she should never assign anyone to Five who didn’t have a good reason for being there as well as a good reason for getting away from home. I’ve never seen anyone who fit those qualifications better than you two. And to tell you the truth, I had a third reason to want you out there—you’re a two-and-four team. That’s a good combination for an outpost.”

That was a gryphon paired with a human. That particular team was not all that usual among the Silvers; people tended to team up with members of their own species. Usually the two-and-fours were default teams, made up of those who couldn’t find a compatible partner among their own kind. Quite often they broke up after training, when a senior Silver could take a junior out of training as a partner. Those who were in default two-and-fours generally did just that.

“I like a two-and-four for these remote postings,” Aubri continued, then got that twinkle back in his eye. “The teams are more flexible, more versatile. Even if some people think there’s something wrong with a gryphon who doesn’t team up with one of his own.”

Tad stared back at his superior with his head held high and challenge in his gaze. He’d heard that one before, and it didn’t ruffle his feathers. “Oh? Does that include you, too, sir?”

Aubri laughed. “Of course it does! Everyone knows I’m a twisted personality! All of us war veterans are warped, it comes with combat! What’s your excuse?”

Tad grinned back as the perfect answer came to him. “Family tradition, sir,” he responded immediately, prompting Aubri into another bray of laughter.

“Well said! And I can’t wait to tell the Black Boy what you just told me; if that doesn’t make his nares redden, nothing will.” He shook his head, and the feathers rustled. “Now, you two run along. Give that list to the supply officer; he’ll see to getting your basket packed up. All you need to worry about is your own kit.”

They both stood and snapped to attention. Aubri chuckled, and rose slowly to his feet to let them out—old, maybe, but not dead yet.

As Tad had expected, his father already knew about the posting, and was outwardly (and loudly) enthusiastic. If he had beaten every contender and been appointed as Judeth’s sub-Commander, Skandranon could not have been more thrilled. It was positively embarrassing. As they gathered for the evening meal in the main room of the family aerie, with the sky a dark velvet studded with jewellike stars beyond the window, Tad wondered if he shouldn’t have opted for a quiet bite alone—or perhaps have gone hungry.

“Outpost duty! And you fresh out of training!” he kept saying, all through dinner. “I can’t ever remember any Silver as young as you are being put on remote duty!”

His tone was forced, though, and he hadn’t eaten more than half his meal. At the least, this sudden change in his son’s status had put him off his feed. Was he worried?

Why should he be worried? What’s there to be worried about?

Zhaneel, Skandranon’s mate, cuffed him lightly. “Let the boys eat,” she admonished him. “You won’t be doing Tadrith any favor by giving him no time to have a proper meal.”

But her look of rebuke followed by a glance at Keeth made Skandranon’s nares flush red with embarrassment. He had been neglecting Keeth the whole time, although Keeth didn’t seem too terribly unhappy about that. “I hear fine reports about you from Winterhart,” he said hastily to his other son. “You’re training in things your mother and I dreamed of doing, but were never able to achieve.”

Tad winced. Now, if that didn’t sound forced, he’d eat grass instead of good meat!

“Well, if there hadn’t been that annoying war, Father, you two would probably have invented the gryphon trondi’irn, the gryphon kestra’chern, and the gryphon secretary,” Keeth said, with a sly grin at his brother. “And probably the gryphon seamstress, mason, and carpenter as well!”

Trust Keeth to know how to turn it into a joke, bless him.

Skandranon laughed, and this time it sounded genuine and a bit more relaxed. “And maybe we would have!” he replied, rousing his feathers. “Too bad that war interfered with our budding genius, heh?”

Tad kept silent and tore neat bites from his dinner, the leg of a huge flightless bird the size of a cow and with the brains of a mud-turtle. One of these creatures fed the whole family; the Haighlei raised them for their feathers, herding them on land that cattle or sheep would damage with overgrazing. The gryphons found these creatures a tasty alternative to beef and venison.

Tad was perfectly pleased to let clever Keeth banter with their father. He couldn’t think of anything to say, not when beneath the Black Gryphon’s pride lurked a tangle of emotions that he couldn’t even begin to unravel. But he was more and more certain that one of them was a fear that Skandranon would never admit to.

Of course not. He doesn’t want to cripple me with indecision or even fear of my own before I go out there with Blade. He knows that if he shows he’s unhappy with this, I might be tempted to back out of it. And he knows that there’s nothing to worry about; we ‘re hardly the first team to ever take this outpost. We ‘re just the first team that included one of his sons, and he’s been thinking about all the accidents that could happen to us ever since he heard of the posting.

He was worrying too much; Tad knew that, and he knew that his father knew it as well. This was not wartime, and they were not going to encounter hostile troops.

But this is the first time I’m “leaving the nest.” I suppose it’s perfectly normal for parents to worry. I worry, too, but I know that it can be done. I wonder why parents can say they trust their young so much, yet still fear for them? He supposed that a parent’s imagination could conjure up a myriad of other dangers, from illness to accident, and play them out in the space of a heartbeat. Parents had to be that way; they had to anticipate all the trouble youngsters could get into and be prepared to pluck them out of danger before they got too deeply into it.

But I’m an adult, and I can take care of myself! Isn’t he ever going to figure that out? He has been an adult for ages longer than I have, and he has had to be rescued beforeso why is it that adults regard trouble as the sole territory of the young? Do we remind them of their vulnerability that much?

Between bites, he cast a glance at his mother, surprising her in an openly concerned and maternal gaze at him. She started to look away, then evidently thought better of it, and nodded slightly.

Mother’s worried, but she admits it. Father won’t, which will make it worse on him. And there’s no reason for either of them to worry at all! Maybe the more intelligent a parent is, the more they worry, because then they are able to see more of what could go wrong. The Kaled’a’in Quarters know that they could concentrate just as much on what could go right, but when it comes to childrenor young adultsit could be smartest to have only grudging optimism. Still. . . .

He spared a thought for Blade, who was probably undergoing the same scrutiny at the hands of her parents, and sighed. He didn’t know how Amberdrake and Winterhart would be reacting to this, but Blade had threatened to spend the night with friends rather than go home to face them. Tad had managed to persuade her to change her mind.

It could be much worse, he told himself. They could be so overprotective that they refuse to let me take the post. Or, worse than that, they could be indifferent.

A couple of his classmates had parents like that; Tad had heard mages speculating that the raptor instinct ran so strongly in them that it eclipsed what Urtho had intended. Those parents were loving enough as long as their young were “in the nest.” They began to lose interest in them when they fledged, just exactly as raptor parents did. Eventually, when the young gryphons reached late adolescence and independence, their parents did their best to drive them away, if they had not already left. Such pairs were more prolific than those who were more nurturing, raising as many as six or eight young in a reproductive lifetime.

But those offspring were, as Aubri would say, “glorified gamehawks;” they lived mostly for the hunt and, while extremely athletic, were not very long in the intelligence department. Most of the gryphonic fatalities at White Gryphon had occurred among this group, which for the most part were assigned to hunting to supplement the meat supply of the city. They were very much like goshawks in focus and temper; they would fly into the ground or a cliff during a chase and break their foolish necks, or go out in wretched weather and become a victim of exposure. Some simply vanished without anyone ever knowing what happened to them.

Aubri had said once in Tad’s hearing that a majority of the fatalities in gryphon-troops of the war—other than those attributable to human commanders who saw all nonhumans as expendable and deployed them that way—were also among this type of gryphon. Needless to say, the type had been in the minority among those that had reached safe haven here, and were not likely to persist into a third generation. Not at the rate that they were eliminating themselves, at least!

When they weren’t hunting, they could usually be found lounging about on the sunning platform with others of their kind, either attempting to impress like-minded females or comparing wing-muscles. Granted, there was always a bit of that going on among young gryphons, but this lot acted like that all the time!

Very attractive, to look at perhaps. But as trysting mates or play-fighters, I don’t think I could stand them.

So while Skandranon was probably thinking over how many young gryphons of Tadrith’s generation had been lost, it was not occurring to him what those unfortunate fatalities had in common.

Sayan absolute dearth of brains. A squandering of what they had. And most importantly, a lack of decent parenting. Keeping a young one’s body alive was one thing, but it only created more breeders to do the same with the next generation they bred. Even a charming young idiot can succeed with good parenting. I’m proof of that, aren’t I?

His father had lost some of his self-consciousness and was now speaking normally to Keeth and Zhaneel about some modification Winterhart had made to the standard obstacle course in order to train trondi’irn. Tad took full advantage of their absorption to get some more of his meal down in peace.

Skandranon was an odd sight just now; halfway into a molt, he was piebald black and white. The white feathers were his natural color—now—and the black were dyed. He dyed himself whenever he was due to visit Khimbata in his capacity as special representative of White Gryphon. Ever since the Eclipse Ceremony, when he had come diving dramatically down out of the vanishing sun to strike down an assassin who would have murdered Emperor Shalaman, Winterhart, and probably several more people as well, he’d been virtually forced to wear his Black Gryphon “guise” whenever he visited. He had rescued Shalaman, the Black King, as the Black Gryphon—and in a culture that set a high value on things that never changed, he was mentally set in that persona whenever he returned to the site of his triumph.

The Gryphon King, beloved where e’er he goes. That was what Aubri had said to his face, mockingly.

But the real irony of the statement was that it was true. He never left Khimbata without being loaded down with gifts of all sorts. His jewelry collection was astonishing; if he and Zhaneel wore all of it at one time, they’d never get off the ground.

Between us, if we’re lucky, Keeth and I might manage to be a quarter as famous as he isand then most of it will be due to the fact that we‘re his sons.

That could have been a depressing thought, if Tad had any real ambition. But to be frank, he didn’t.

He’d seen the negative effects of all that adulation— how it was always necessary for Skandranon to be charming, witty, and unfailingly polite no matter what he personally felt like. How when the family visited Khimbata, Skandranon had barely a moment to himself and none to spare for them. And how even at home, there was always someone who wanted something from him. He was always getting gifts, and a great many of those gifts came with requests attached. Even when they didn’t, there was always the chance that a demand, phrased as a request, would come later, perhaps when he wasn’t expecting it and was off his guard.

There was no way for Skandranon to know whether someone wanted his friendship because of what he was or because of who he was—and the difference was critical.

No, thank you. I am very fond of obscurity, all things considered.

It would be no bad thing to be an obscure Silver, always assigned to the Outposts, hopefully collecting enough extra from his discoveries to finance a comfortable style of living. Let Keeth collect all the notoriety of being the first gryphon trondi’irn; Tad would be happy to donate whatever measure of “fame” fate had in store for him to his brother! Just as he had finished that thought, he noticed that the others were looking at him. Evidently Keeth had run out of things to say, and it was his turn again.

Oh, bother.

Skandranon cleared his throat. As always, the sound, an affectation acquired from living so much with humans, sounded very odd coming from a gryphon.

It sounds as if he’s trying to cough up a hairball, actually.

“Well!” Skandranon said heartily. “Your mother and I are very interested in hearing about this outpost you’re being sent to. What do you know about it?”

Tad sighed with resignation, and submitted himself to the unrelenting pressure of parental love.

Blade couldn’t bring herself to sit, although she managed to keep from pacing along the edge of the cliff. The stone here was a bit precarious for pacing—how ignoble if she should slip and fall, breaking something, and force Judeth and Aubri to send someone else to the outpost after all! Tad would never, ever forgive me. Or elsehe’d take a new partner and go, and I would be left behind to endure parental commiserations.

Ikala sat on a rock and watched the sunset rather than her. He’d asked her to meet him here for a private farewell; her emotions were so mixed now that she honestly didn’t know what to say to him. So far, he hadn’t said anything to her, and she waited for him to begin.

He cleared his throat, still without looking at her. “So, you leave tomorrow. For several months, I’m told?” Of course, he knew her assignment, everyone in the Silvers did; he was just using the question as a way to start the conversation.

The sun ventured near to the ocean; soon it would plunge down below the line of the horizon. Her throat and tongue felt as if they belonged to someone else. “Yes,” she finally replied. Now she knew why , people spoke of being “tongue-tied.” It had been incredibly difficult just to get that single word out.

She wanted to say more; to ask if he would miss her, if he was angry that she was leaving just as their friendship looked to become something more. She wanted to know if he was hurt that she hadn’t consulted him, or chosen him as her partner instead of Tad. Above all, she wanted to know what he was thinking.

Instead, she couldn’t say anything.

“Come and sit,” he said, gesturing at the rocks beside him. “You do not look comfortable.”

I’m not, she said silently. I’m as twitchy as a nervous cat.

But she sat down anyway, warily, gingerly. The sun-warmed rock felt smooth beneath her hand, worn to satin-softness by hundreds of years of wind and water. She concentrated on the rock, mentally holding to its solidity and letting it anchor her heart.

“I am both happy for you and sad, Blade,” Ikala said, as if he was carefully weighing and choosing each word. “I am happy for you, because you are finally being granted—what you have earned. It is a good thing. But I am sad because you will be gone for months.”

He sighed, although he did not stir. Blade held herself tensely, waiting for him to continue, but he said nothing more. She finally turned toward him. “I wanted an assignment like this one very much,” she agreed. “I’m not certain I can explain why, though—”

But unexpectedly, as he half-turned to meet her eyes, he smiled. “Let me try,” he suggested, and there was even a suggestion of self-deprecating humor. “You feel smothered by your honored parents and, perversely, wish for their approval of a life so different from theirs. Additionally, you fear that their influence will either purchase you an easier assignment than you warrant, or will insure that you are never placed in any sort of danger. You wish to see what you can do with only the powers of your own mind and your own skills, and if you are not far away from them, you are certain you will never learn the answer to that question.”

“Yes!” she exclaimed, startled by his insight. “But how did you—•” Then she read the message behind that rueful smile, the shrug of the dark-skinned shoulders. “You came here for the same reason, didn’t you?”

He nodded once, and his deep brown eyes showed that same self-deprecating humor that had first attracted her. “The same. And that is why, although I wish that you were not going so far or for so long— or that we were going to the same place—I wanted you to know that I am content to wait upon your return. We will see what you have learned, and what that learning has made of you.”

“And you think I will be different?” She licked her lips with a dry tongue.

“At least in part,” he offered. “You may return a much different person than the one you are now; not that I believe that I will no longer care much for that different person! But that person and I may prove to be no more than the best of friends and comrades-in-arms. And that will not be a bad thing, though it is not the outcome I would prefer.”

She let out her breath and relaxed. He was being so reasonable about this that she could hardly believe her ears! “I don’t know,” she admitted. “I think I’ve spent so much time proving who I’m not that I don’t know who I am.”

“So go and find out,” he told her, and laughed, now reaching out to touch her hand briefly. The touch sent a shivery chill up her arm. “You see, I had to come here to do the same thing. So I have some understanding of the process.”

“Are you glad that you came here?” she asked, wondering if the question was too personal, and wishing he would do more than just touch her hand.

Now it was his turn to look away, into the sunset, for a moment. “On the whole—yes,” he told her. “Although in doing so, it became impossible to follow the alternate path I might have taken. There was a maiden, back in my father’s court—but she was impatient, and did not like it that I chose to go somewhere other than to the court of another emperor. She saw my choice as a lessening of my status, and my leaving as a desertion of her. I have heard that she wedded elsewhere, one of my more traditional half-brothers.”

“Oh—I’m sorry—” she said quickly, awkwardly.

But he turned back to her, and did not seem particularly unhappy as he ran his hand across his stiff black curls. “There is not a great deal to be sorry about,” he pointed out. “If she saw it as desertion, she did not know me; if I could not predict that she would, I did not know her. So. . . .” He shrugged. “Since it was not long before my sorrow was gone, I suspect my own feelings were not as deep as she would have liked, nor as I had assumed.”

“It’s not as if you were lacking in people willing to console you here!” she pointed out recklessly, with a feeling of breathlessness that she couldn’t explain. She laughed to cover it.

“And that is also true.” His smile broadened. “And it was not long before I felt no real need of such consolation, as I had another interest to concentrate on.”

Her feeling of breathlessness intensified; this was the nearest he had come to flirting with her, and yet behind the playfulness, there was more than a hint of seriousness. Did she want that? She didn’t know. And now—she was very glad that she was going to have three months to think about it.

“Well, I think, on the whole, it will be a good thing for you to have six months to learn what it is that Blade is made of,” he said, in a lighter tone. “And I shall have the benefit of knowing that there will be no other young men at this outpost that may convince you to turn your attentions elsewhere. So any decisions you make—concerning our friendship—will be decisions made by you, only.”

She snorted. “As if any young man could ‘make me change my mind’ about anything important!” she replied, just a little sharply.

“Which only proves that I cannot claim to know you any better than any other friend!” he countered. “You see? This much I do understand; you have a strong sense of duty, and that will always be the first in your heart. I would like to think that I am the same. So, whatever, we must reconcile ourselves to that before we make any other commitments.”

It was her turn to shrug. “That seems reasonable . . . but it isn’t exactly . . . romantic.” That last came out much more plaintively than she had expected, or intended.

“Well, if it is a romantic parting that you wish—” He grinned. “I can be both practical and romantic, as, I suspect, can you.” He took one of her hands, but only one, and looked directly into her eyes. “Silverblade, I crossed an empire, I left my land and all I have ever known. I did not expect to find someone like you here, and yet—I do not follow some of my people’s reasoning that all is foredestined, but it sometimes seems as if I was drawn here because you were here. Now I know something of what I am. I believe that there is in you a spirit that would make a match for my own. If, in the end, a few months more will bring us together, such a wait will be no hardship.” He patted her hand. “I trust that is romance enough for your practical soul?”

She laughed giddily. “I think so,” she said, feeling as light-headed’as if she had just drunk an entire bottle of wine. “I—I’m not nearly that eloquent—”

“Neither is the falcon,” he said, releasing her hand. “But she is admirable for her grace without need of eloquence. Go become a passage bird, Silverblade. When you return, we shall try out hunting in a cast of two.”

Blade hadn’t needed to do all that much packing last night, but she had pretended that she did—and as soon as she was done, she blew out her candle and willed herself to sleep. The need for rest was real, and if she had not torn herself away from her overly-concerned parents, she would not have gotten any. They would have kept her up all night with questions, most of which she didn’t have any answers to, since all of them were fairly philosophical rather than practical.

She dressed quickly and quietly, and without relighting her candle. With any luck, only her mother would be awake; Winterhart, for some reason, seemed to be handling this better than her spouse. Don’t people usually complain that their mothers never see them as grown up? she thought, as she pulled on a pair of light boots, then fastened the silver gryphon badge to the breast of her tunic.

The Silvers had no regular uniform; Judeth thought it better that they wear the same clothing as those around them. Uniforms might remind people too much of the regular troops, and war, and even the most battle-hardened wanted to put warfare far behind them.

Nowif I can just walk quietly enough, I might be able to get out of here without another discussion of my life-view.

Her father Amberdrake was notorious for sleeping late—to be fair, it was usually because he’d been up late the night before, working—and she hoped by rising with the first light, she might avoid him at breakfast.

But no. When she carried her two small packs out to leave beside the door, she saw that there were candles burning in the rest of the house. Amberdrake was already up.

In fact, as soon as she turned toward the rear of the dwelling, she saw him; dressed, alert, and in the little nook at the back of the main room that they used for meals, waiting for her. But so was her mother, which might temper things a bit.

She sighed, while her face was still in shadow and he couldn’t see her expression. Breakfast with Amberdrake was always a bit strained at the best of times, and this was not going to be “the best” of times.

He keeps remembering when he was the chief kestra‘chern and it was his habit to find out about -his fellows when they all drifted in for breakfast. He keeps trying to do the same thing with me.

“Good morning, Father,” she said, feeling terribly awkward, as she approached the tiny table. “You’re not usually up so early.”

She wondered if Amberdrake’s smile was strained; he was too good at keeping a serene mask for her to tell. However, it was obvious that he had taken special pains with his appearance. Silk tunic and trews, raw-silk coat, some of his Haighlei gift-jewelry, and Zhaneel‘s feather in his hair. You ‘d think he was having an audience with Shalaman.

She regarded him objectively for a moment. He was still a strikingly handsome man. Despite the white streaks in his hair, her father scarcely looked his age in the low mage-light above the table, and the warm browns and ambers of his clothing disguised in part the fact that there were dark circles under his eyes.

Caused by worrying, no doubt.

“I didn’t want to miss saying good-bye to you, Silverblade,” he said, his voice quite calm and controlled. “If I slept until a decent hour, I knew that I would. You dawn risers are enough to make a normal person’s eyes cross.”

She knew that her answering laugh was a bit strained, but there was no help for it. “And you night prowlers are enough to make people like me scream when we think of all the perfectly good daylight you waste sleeping!” She slid into the seat opposite him, and helped herself to fresh bread and preserves. He reached across the table and added thinly-sliced cold meat to the plate quite firmly. She didn’t really want anything that substantial first thing in the morning, but she knew better than to say so. Why start an argument? That would be a poor way to leave her parents.

What can it hurt to nibble a piece to please him? It can’t, of course. Not that long ago, she would have protested; now she knew there was no point in doing so. She’d only hurt his feelings. He was only trying to help.

And after today he won’t be able to be so meddlingly helpful for six whole months! I should be pitying the people, gryphon and human and her-tasi alike, who will wind up as my surrogates for his concern.

She ate one slice of the meat, which was dry and tasted like a mouthful of salty old leather, and went back to her bread. Amberdrake pushed a cup of hot tea toward her, then made a move as if he was about to serve her a bowl of hot porridge from the pot waiting beside him.

“Oh no!” she exclaimed. Not for anything would she eat porridge, not even for the sake of pleasing her father! “None of that! Not when I’m flying! I do not want to decorate the landscape underneath me!”

Amberdrake flushed faintly and pulled his hand back. “Sorry. I forgot that you didn’t inherit my impervious stomach.”

“No, she inherited my questionable one. Stop badgering the child, dear.” Winterhart emerged at last from the rear of the dwelling, putting the last touches on her hair. Blade admired the way she moved with a twinge of envy. Winterhart managed to combine a subtle sensuality with absolute confidence and a no-nonsense competence that Blade despaired of emulating.

Now if I looked like that. . . . Ah, well. Too bad I inherited Mother’s interior instead of her exterior!

Unlike her mate, Winterhart had not dressed for a special occasion, which much relieved Blade. Her costume of a long linen split skirt, tunic, and knee-length, many-pocketed vest, was similar to anything she would wear on any other day. The only concession she had made to Amberdrake’s sartorial splendor was to harmonize with his browns and ambers with her own browns and creams.

“I hope we won’t be unwelcome, but we would like to see you and Tadrith leaving, Blade,” Winterhart said, quite casually, as if they were only leaving for a few days, not six months. “We do know how to stay out from underfoot, after all. Yours is not the first expedition we’ve seen on its way.”

Now it was her turn to flush. “Well, of course I want you there to see us off! Of course you won’t be in the way!” she replied, acutely embarrassed. “I would never think that!”

The only trouble was, deep down inside, she had been thinking precisely that.

She gulped down her cooling tea to cover her embarrassment and guilty conscience, as Amberdrake toyed with a piece of bread, reducing it to a pile of crumbs.

He’s trying to pretend that he isn’t worried; trying to put on a brave face when I know he’s feeling anything but brave. Why? Why is he so worried? If he’s transparent enough for me to see through, he must be all of a knot inside.

Finally Amberdrake looked up at her, slowly chewing on his lower lip. “I know I probably seem as if I am overreacting to this situation, ke’chara,” he said quietly. “I shouldn’t be so worked up over the simple fact that you and your partner are going off on a normal, peaceful assignment. I realize that I am being quite foolish about this, and I can’t even pretend that I have some mysterious presentiment of doom. It’s all due to old—well, I suppose you’d have to call them habits, habits of feeling, perhaps.”

Winterhart stood behind him and put her hands on his shoulders, gently massaging muscles that must have been terribly tense. Outside, seabirds cried, greeting the dawn and the winds that would carry them out to their fishing grounds.

Amberdrake reached up and covered one of his mate’s hands with his own. “I have two problems with this assignment, really, and neither of them is rational. The first is that it is you, my daughter, who is going off for six months to a place that is unsettlingly far away. And you’ll be all alone there, except for a single gryphon. If it were someone else, I would see him or her off with a cheerful heart, and go about my business.”

“But it isn’t,” she stated.

“No.” He sighed, and patted Winterhart’s hand. “Your mother is handling this better than I.”

I have perfect confidence in Aubri and Judeth,” Winterhart said serenely. “They wouldn’t send anyone that far away who wasn’t prepared for any contingency.” Her tone turned just a little sharp as she looked down at him. “If you won’t trust Blade, dearheart, at least trust them.”

“Intellectually, I do” Amberdrake protested. “It’s just—it’s just that it’s hard to convince the emotions.”

He turned back to Blade, who was even more embarrassed at her parent’s decision to bare his soul to her. She struggled not to show it. And underneath the embarrassment was exasperation.

Can’t he learn that I am grown now, and don’t need him to come haul me out of difficulties? Can’t he just let me go ?

“The other problem I have is very old, older than you, by far,” he told her earnestly. “And it has absolutely nothing to do with your abilities; it’s something I would still feel even if you were a warrior out of legend with magical weapons at your side. It doesn’t matter to my heart that this is peace time, that you are simply going off to man a wilderness outpost. The point to my reaction is that you are going out. When—” momentary pain ghosted over his expressive features. “—when people used to go out, back in the days of the wars, they didn’t always come back.” She opened her mouth to protest; he forestalled her.

“I know this is peacetime, I know you are not going forth to combat an enemy, I know that there is no enemy but storms and accident. But I still have the emotional reaction to seeing people going out on a quasi-military mission, and that fact that it is my daughter that is doing so only makes the reaction worse.” He smiled thinly. “You cannot reason with an old emotional problem, I am afraid.”

She looked down at the polished wood of the tabletop, and made little patterns with her forefinger, tracing the grain of the wood. What on earth did he expect her to say? What could she say? That was years and years ago, before I was even born. Can’t he have gotten over it by now? He’s supposed to be the great magician of the emotions, so why can’t he keep his own trained to heel? What could possibly go wrong with this assignment? We’ll have a teleson with us, we ‘II be reporting in, and if there is a life-threatening emergency and they can’t get help to us quickly, they ‘II take the risk and Gate us back!

But that wasn’t what he wanted to hear, and it wouldn’t help anything to say it. “I can understand. At least, I think I can. I’ll try,” she finished lamely.

True, it is nothing but wilderness between here and therebut when we get “there,” we’ll be in a fortified outpost built to withstand storm, siege, or earthquake. And, granted, no one has even tried to explore all the rainforest in between, but we’ll be flying, not walking! What could possibly knock us out of the sky that our people or the Haighlei wouldn‘t have encountered a long, long time ago ?

It was—barely—possible that some mage-made creatures of Ma’ar’s survived from the Cataclysm. It was less likely that any of them could have made it this far south. And even if they did, there had never been that many of them that could threaten a gryphon. The last makaar died ages ago, and there never was anything else that could take a flying gryphon down. We’ll be flying too high for any projectile to hurt us, and even if we weren‘t, there‘II be the mass of the carry-basket and all our supplies between us and a marksman.

“Father, I promise you, we’ll be fine,” she only said, choking down a last dry mouthful of bread. “Makaar are extinct, and nothing less could even ruffle Tadrith’s feathers. You’ve seen him; he’s one of the biggest, strongest gryphons in the Silvers!”

But Amberdrake shook his head. “Blade, it’s not that I don’t trust or believe in you, but there is far more in this world than you or Tadrith have ever seen. There were more mages involved in the Mage Wars than just Urtho and Ma’ar; plenty of them created some very dangerous creatures, too, and not all of them were as short-lived as makaar. I will admit that we are a long distance from the war zones, but we got this far, so who’s to say that other things couldn’t?”

He’s not going to listen to me, she realized. He’s determined to be afraid for me, no matter what I say. There was more likelihood of moving the population of the city up to the rim of the canyon than there was of getting Amberdrake to change his mind when it was made up.

“What’s more, as you very well know, the mage-storms that followed the Cataclysm altered many, many otherwise harmless creatures, and conjured up more.” His jaw firmed stubbornly. “You ask Snowstar if you don’t believe me; some of the territory we passed through was unbelievable, and that was only after a year or so of mage-storms battering at it! We were very, very lucky that most of the things we encountered were minimally intelligent.”

“Sports and change-children die out in less than a generation,” she retorted, letting her impatience get the better of her. “That’s simple fact, Father. There’re just too many things wrong with most magic-made creatures for them to live very long, if they’ve been created by accident.”

He raised an elegant eyebrow at her, and the expression on his face told her she’d been caught in a mistake.

“Urtho was not infallible,” he said quietly. “He had many accidents in the course of creating some of his new creatures. One of those accidents was responsible for the creation of intelligence in kyree, and another for intelligence in hertasi. And neither race has died out within a generation.’ ‘

She had already spotted the flaw in his argument. “An accident may have been responsible for the intelligence of the creature, but not the creature itself,” she countered. “Creature creation takes great thought, planning, and skill. An accident is simply not going to be able to duplicate that!”

He looked as if he were going to say something, but subsided instead.

“Besides,” Blade continued, taking her advantage while she still had it, “people have been going to this outpost for years, and no one has seen anything— either there or on the way. Don’t you think by now if there was going to be any trouble, someone would have encountered it?”

Amberdrake dropped his eyes in defeat and shook his head. “There you have me,” he admitted. “Except for one thing. We don’t know what lies beyond that outpost and its immediate area. The Haighlei have never been there, and neither have we. For all we know, there’s an army of refugees from the wars about to swarm over you, or a renegade wizard about to take a force of his own across the land—”

“And that,” Blade said with finality, “is precisely why we will be there in the first place. It is our duty to be vigilant.”

He couldn’t refute that, and he didn’t try.

Blade extracted herself from her parents with the promise that she and Tad would not take off until they arrived. With one pack slung over her back and the other suspended from her shoulder, she hurried up the six levels of staircase that led in turn to the narrow path which would take her to the top of the cliff. She was so used to running up and down the ladder-like staircases and the switchback path that she wasn’t even breathing heavily when she reached the top. She had spent almost all of her life here, after all, and ver-ticality was a fact of life at White Gryphon.

Below, on the westward-facing cliff the city was built from, she had been in cool shadow; she ascended as the invisible sun rose, and both she and the sun broke free of the clinging vestiges of night at the same time. Golden fingers of light met and caressed her as she took the last few steps on the path. It would be a perfect morning; there were no clouds marring the horizon to presage storms to the east. Red skies were lovely—but red skies required clouds. If I am going to be traveling, I prefer a morning like this one; not a cloud in the sky and the air dry, cool, and quiet.

At the top of the cliff a great expanse of meadow and farmland composed of gently rolling hills stretched out before her. It was completely indefensible, of course; like Ka’venusho, Urtho’s stronghold, there was no decent “high ground” to defend. This was why the city itself had been built into the cliff, with the only access being a single, narrow path. You couldn’t even rain boulders down on White Gryphon from above, for the path had been cut into the cliff so cleverly that it channeled objects falling down from the edge away from the city entirely.

Judeth’s idea, but it took some very clever stonecrafters to put her idea into solid form.

At the edge were large constructions of wooden frames and pulleys that could lower huge amounts of material down to the first level of the city; that was how food was brought down from the farms up here. Those could be dismantled or destroyed in mere moments by a very few people. Nothing that was up here would be left to be used by an enemy if there ever was an attack.

The farmers used to live in White Gryphon and travel up each day to tend their flocks and fields; now they didn’t bother with the trip. There was a second village up here on the rim, a village of farmhouses and barns, a few warehouses and workshops, and the pens where herds were brought during the few days of each year that the weather was too bad to keep the herds in the fields. If severe winter storms came from the sea instead of the landward side, the herds could be driven into the shelter of the forest, and those who were not sent to watch over them could take shelter within the rock walls of White Gryphon.

The stockade and supply warehouse of the Silvers was up here as well. Space was too precious in the city for any to be wasted on bulk stores except in an emergency. And as for the stockade, most punishment involved physical labor in the fields with the proceeds going to pay back those who had been wronged. Since most crime in the city involved theft or minor damage, that was usually acceptable to the victims. There had been those—a few—who were more dangerous. Those were either imprisoned up here, under bindings, or—dealt with, out of the sight of the city. After Hadanelith, no one was ever exiled again. The possibility that another dangerous criminal might survive exile was too great to risk.

Just outside the stockade was a landing platform. Sitting squarely in the middle of it was what appeared to be a large basket, about the size of a six-person expedition-tent. There was a complicated webbing of ropes attached to it, and standing nearby was Tadrith, with a hertasi helping him into a heavy leather harness. As usual, he was carrying on a running dialogue with his helper, trying to get his harness adjusted perfectly. She knew better than to interrupt; her life would depend on that harness and whether or not he was comfortable in it.

This was the carry-basket that would take her and all their supplies to the Outpost. It looked far, far too heavy for Tadrith to fly with, and it was. Even the strongest of gryphons would not have been able to lift her alone in it unaided.

But magic was working reliably enough these days, and there would be a mage somewhere around who had made certain that the basket and anything that might be in it would “weigh” nothing, with a reserve for changes in momentum and speed. He would essentially have made the basket into a variant of one of the Kaled’a’in floating-barges. Tadrith would not be “lifting” the basket, only guiding it.

The spell was a complicated one that Blade couldn’t even begin to understand. Anything inside the basket—like herself—would still have its apparent weight. If that wasn’t the case, everything not tied down would be in danger of drifting off on a stiff breeze. But to Tad, although the basket had no up-and-down weight, it would still have a certain amount of side-to-side mass and momentum. He would not be lifting it, but he would have to exert some strength in pulling it, just as teams of dyheli and horses pulled the floating barges.

Blade hurried up to check the supplies lashed down inside the basket. As Aubri had promised, the supply sergeant had taken care of everything she and Tad would need except for their own personal gear. Most of the supplies they had requisitioned—the ones for after they reached the outpost—had already been sent on via Gate. So only what they would need for the trip, what there had not been time to send by the Gate, and what she had brought with her would actually travel with them.

That’s certainly going to relieve Tad.

It had also relieved Tad when she told him that she was nothing like her father when it came to wardrobe. She could manage very simply, actually; but Aubri had once described Amberdrake’s floating-barge and if gryphons could have blanched, Tad would have, at the thought of having to help move all that mass of clothing, gear, and furniture.

She tossed her two bags into the basket, and waited quietly beside the platform for the last of the adjustments to be made. The hertasi in charge was Gesten’s daughter Ghana; as thorough and meticulous as her father, she would not leave Tadrith’s side until they were both satisfied with the fit of every strap. Blade knew that every buckle would be checked and rechecked, every rivet and every ring subjected to the most exacting scrutiny. Ghana would leave nothing to chance, and there was no possible compromise with safety in her view.

Finally, she stepped back. “It’ll do,” she said, in her hissing hertasi voice. “Try to bring the rig back in one piece.”

Blade suppressed a laugh, for the remark was so like Gesten that it could have been he who was standing there. Like her father, Ghana would never admit to concern for the trainees she served, only to concern that the equipment return intact. But of course, it went without saying that if the equipment came back to the warehouse in pristine condition, the trainee would certainly have arrived at the landing platform in like shape.

Tad waved her over, as Ghana began hooking up his harness to the basket itself. “We’re waiting for the parents, I presume?” he said casually.

She sighed. “Much as I would like to simply slip away, if we leave without allowing them their fanfare, they may not let us come back.”

“Or we may not want to,” he groaned, and flexed his claws restlessly. “Because when we did, they’d make our lives sheer misery with guilt.”

She laughed, and patted him on the shoulder. “Parents always know how to pull your strings,” she advised him. “After all, they attached those strings in the first place.”

“Do I hear someone borrowing my words?” The newcomer to the conversation was as elegant as Amberdrake in dress and demeanor, though far less flamboyant. Blade knew him too well to blush.

“Of course, Uncle Snowstar,” she retorted. “You weren’t using them, so why shouldn’t I?”

He chuckled at her impertinence; next to Skandranon, she was the only person likely to take that tone with him. It was not wise to risk the anger of an Adept-level mage as powerful as Snowstar, as others, even his own underlings, had found out to their sorrow.

“I don’t think you’ll have any trouble with the basket-spells, Tadrith,” he said, turning to the young gryphon. “They are as tight as any I’ve ever set.”

Blade had assumed her “adoptive uncle” had come to see them off, along with her parents; she was astonished to hear him say that he himself had placed the magics on their carry-basket that would make it possible to fly with it. “You set them, uncle?” she said, making no secret of her surprise. “Isn’t that—well—?”

“Rather beneath me?” He laughed. “First of all, it is always a good idea for a mage to keep in practice on anything he might be asked to do, and secondly, if something were to fail, magically, on your basket—” He shrugged suggestively. “Suffice it to say, it was easier and safer to do the work myself, than have to explain to your parents why I let some ‘inferior mage’ do it.”

Blade nodded ruefully. “Only too true,” she told him. She would have said more, but at that moment she caught the sound of familiar voices from below the edge of the cliff.

At nearly the same moment, Tad pointed warningly with his beak at a trio of rapidly approaching gryphons, who could only be his parents and sibling.

“All we need now are Judeth and Aubri to make this show complete,” Blade groaned, resigning herself to a long and complicated farewell that would shave precious time off the amount of daylight they could have used for traveling.

“Is that a complaint or a request?”

Commander Judeth stalked out of the door to the Silvers’ clifftop headquarters, but she was smiling rather than frowning. She was not Kaled’a’in; her hair, before it turned to snowy white, had been a dark blonde, and her eyes a clear gray-green. Nevertheless she had been one of Urtho’s generals who understood the value of her nonhuman troops and deployed them with care and consideration, and no one had been unhappy to find her among the k’Leshya when the last Gate came down. She had proved her worth over and over, both during their retreat from lands racked by mage-storms and at White Gryphon. With her partner Aubri, she had organized the first beginnings of the Silvers, and the Silvers in their turn bore the stamp of her personality. She alone of all of them wore anything like a uniform; a black tunic and trews modeled from the tattered originals of her old dress uniforms. The gryphon-badge stood out proudly against such an elegant background.

She stopped just short of the platform and looked sardonically from Tad to Blade and back again. “Can I take it from that remark that you think I might be a hindrance to a timely departure?” she continued.

Blade flushed, and the old woman allowed a hint of a smile to steal across her lips.

“I assure you, Aubri and I came here solely to make certain that your loving relatives did not do any such thing,” she said crisply, and cleared her throat.

“All right, troops!” she called out in a voice that had once commanded thousands, just as Amberdrake and Winterhart appeared at the end of the trail. “Let’s get up here and get your good-byes said and over with! This isn’t a holiday trip, this is a military departure! Move your rumps!”

“Thank the gods,” Blade breathed, as her parents and Tad’s scrambled to obey. “We just might actually get out of here before noon!”

“In a quarter-mark,” Judeth replied sternly. “Or every one of you will be on obstacle-course runs before midmorning.”

Blade chuckled; not because Judeth wouldn’t make good on that promise—but because she would.

What had promised to be a difficult departure was already looking better, even with emotionally-charged families approaching. After this, things could only start looking up.

Three

Skandranon continued to peer off into the blue, cloudless sky for a long time after Tadrith and Silverblade were out of even his extraordinary range of vision. Even after fooling himself several times that some speck or other was them, he gazed on, feeling his eyes gradually go out of focus as his thoughts wandered.

He was torn now between pride and anxiety. Their takeoff had been a very good one by anyone’s standards; stylish, crisp, and professional. There had been no exhibitions of fancy flying, but not a single mistake in maneuvering either. With so many people watching, he would have been tempted to indulge in some theatrics, when he was Tad’s age.

And the odds were fairly good that I could have pulled them off, too. But on the other hand, I did have my share of foul ups. With the rising sun in his eyes, though, it didn’t make any sense to keep staring off after them. He suppressed a sigh, and told his knotting stomach to behave itself; a gryphon’s bowels were irritable enough without encouraging cramps through worry.

Well, they’re gone. My nestling really has fledged, gone past the brancher stage, and nowwell, now he’s on his way to have his own adventures. Real adventures, not just high scores on the obstacle course. He’ll be making a name for himself now, just like I did.

He dropped his eyes to meet Zhaneel’s, and saw the same pride and worry in her gaze that he felt. She wouldn’t show it in front of the boy and, in fact, had kept up a brave and cheerful front, but he knew this sudden departure had her upset.

He tried to look completely confident for her, but it was a struggle that he wasn’t certain he had won. Adventures. Huh. Now that he wasn’t the one having the “adventures,” he wasn’t so sure whether or not looking for adventures was such a good idea. Was Tad ready? With the war, there had been no choice but to go and face the dangers—whether one was ready or not—but this wasn’t war, and it seemed to him that they could all afford to be more careful of their young.

His wings twitched a little as the temptation to follow them rose before him. I could use some exercise. Lady Cinnabar is always telling me to get more flying time in. And if I happened to parallel their course

“You promised not to fly as the children’s wingman all the way to the outpost,” Zhaneel whispered, quietly enough that no one else could have overheard her. “Remember. You did promise.”

Drat. He had. And she could read him like a child’s primer. He twitched his wings again, ostentatiously settling them. “I’m glad I’m not making that trip,” he said, not precisely as a reply, but to reassure her and to show her that he had heard her and he remembered his promise. Granted, she had caught him in a moment of extreme weakness and vulnerability last night when she extracted that promise, but that did not negate the fact that he had made the promise in the first place. If the Black Gryphon’s word to his mate wasn’t good, how could anyone trust him?

Aubri sniffed derisively. “You couldn’t make that trip, old bird,” he retorted. “They’re a lot younger than you, and in better shape on top of that.”

Skan bristled and started to retort, but paused for a moment to rethink his position. Aubri was not going to get him going this time. “Oh, in theory I could,” he replied, as mild as a well-bred matron. “You did, and I’m in better shape than you—what’s more, Tad’s towing that carry-basket, and that will slow him down to a pace even you could hold. But what would the point be? What would I have to prove? That I’m stupid enough to make a pointless journey to show I’m still the equal of a youngster? It would be a complete waste of time, and I don’t have enough time to waste.”

Aubri looked surprised and chagrined that he hadn’t managed to egg Skan on to rash words or a rasher boast.

Zhaneel cast him a look of gratitude which promised another interesting evening, and more than made up for the faint blow to his pride administered by Aubri’s taunts.

Judeth had listened to the conversation with a wry half-smile, and now put her own opinion. “So, now the next generation goes off hunting adventures,” she said, combing her fingers through her hair, “while we stay home and see to it that when they come back, they won’t find anything much changed. Personally, I don’t envy them in the least.”

“Nor I,” Skan said firmly. “Adventures always seemed to involve impact with the ground at a high rate of speed, and ended in a lot of pain. Maybe my memory is faulty sometimes, but I haven’t forgotten that part.”

Amberdrake finally came out of his own reverie and sighed. “Your memory isn’t faulty, old bird. I remember picking quite a few pieces of broken foliage and not a few rocks out of your hide, and more than once.” He patted Skan’s shoulder. “I don’t know why you couldn’t have picked a gentler way of collecting souvenirs.”

Skan winced, and Aubri grinned at his discomfiture. From the look in his eyes, Aubri was about to make another stab at puncturing Skan’s pride.

But Aubri had reckoned without Winterhart, who had been listening just as intently to the conversation as Judeth had.

“And I recall that rather than collecting souvenirs of enemy territory, Aubri specialized in attracting enemy fire,” she said, with a little smirk and a wink at Judeth that was so fast Aubri didn’t catch it. “In fact, he did it so often that his wing used to refer to getting hit by flamestrike as ‘being Aubri’ed.’ As in, ‘Well, I’ve been Aubri’ed out until my primaries grow back.’ Or, ‘Well, you certainly got Aubri’ed back there!’”

Aubri met this piece of intelligence with his beak open in a gape. “They did not!” he gasped indignantly.

Of course they didn’t. Skan, who had known every piece of gossip there was to know back then, would have heard of this long before Winterhart ever had. In fact, Winterhart would probably not have heard any such thing, since before she was Amberdrake’s lover, she had tended to treat the gryphons of her wing as little more than intelligent animals. Such an attitude was not likely to make anyone tell her anything.

But Aubri’s reaction was so delightful that everyone fell in with the joke. For once, someone besides Skan was going to come in for a share of abuse.

Is it my birthday? Or has the Kaled’a’in Lady decided to bless me, however momentarily?

Judeth rubbed the side of her nose with her finger. “I’m afraid they did,” she confirmed impishly, and then elaborated on it. “When I deployed your wing, they always liked to fly formation with you on the end since it just about guaranteed that no one else would get hit with lightning or mage-fire. Once or twice I heard them talking about ‘Old Charcoal,’ and I think they meant you.”

Aubri’s beak worked, but nothing came out; the muscles of his throat were moving, too, but he didn’t even utter as much as a squeak.

“It could have been worse,” Winterhart continued, delivering the final blow. “I did succeed in discouraging the nickname of ‘Fried Chicken.’”

Aubri’s eyes widened; his head came up and his beak continued to move, but all he could manage to say was, “Well!” over and over. Since he sounded exactly like a highly-offended old matron, he only managed to cause the entire gathering to break up into laughter. And if the laughter was somewhat nervous, well, there were four nervous parents there who drastically needed the release of laughter.

They laughed long enough to bring tears to the eyes of the humans and make Aubri’s nares flush bright red. Before Aubri managed to have an apoplectic fit, though, Winterhart confessed that she had made it all up. “Not that you didn’t deserve the nickname, after all the times you came back singed,” she added. “But no one ever suggested pinning it on you.”

Aubri growled, his hackles still up. “They wouldn’t have dared,” was all he said, and Judeth led him off to ease his ruffled feelings and ruffled feathers.

“I don’t think he liked being on the receiving end of the teasing,” Amberdrake remarked mildly.

“Then perhaps he will stop treating Skandranon to so much of it after this,” Zhaneel responded, her voice quite tart. “A little is amusing, but he makes a habit of sharpening his tongue on Skandranon, and I am weary of hearing it! Skandranon does not deserve it; and if Aubri continues in this way, there may be trouble with younger gryphons believing in his so-called teasing. They will think that anything Skan says he has done is only wind and empty boast!”

Skan turned to her in surprise; she didn’t often spring to his defense this way. “Aubri doesn’t mean anything by it,” he said on his old friend’s behalf. “He’s getting old and cranky, and he just likes to tease. And I don’t think I’m going to lose any respect from the youngsters just because he tries to raise my ire now and again.”

Zhaneel sniffed and twitched her tail with annoyance. “That might be, and I will not be rude by chiding him in public, but I have had enough of it, and he can expect to get as good as he has given from now on.”

“I agree,” Winterhart put in firmly, crossing her arms over her chest. “Skan deserves a great deal of respect, after all. Maybe not as much as you’d like, you vain creature, but more than Aubri gives you.”

Skan cast a look at Amberdrake, who only shrugged. “Don’t get me involved in this,” he said. “I don’t think Aubri means anything of what he says, and I don’t think anyone else takes him seriously either—but I think I’m outnumbered here.”

Winterhart made a little face, and put her arm over Zhaneel’s gray-feathered shoulders. “Come along, my dear,” she said to the female gryphon. “I think we should discuss this at length, just the two of us, since the men don’t seem to take this situation with the gravity we think it merits.”

“I concur,” Zhaneel said agreeably, and the two of them sauntered off toward the cliff rim and several pleasant lookouts that had been constructed there.

Skandranon turned a face full of astonishment on Amberdrake—who was gazing after the two females with equal puzzlement.

“What prompted all that?” he asked, trying very hard to get his thoughts back on track. Amberdrake shook his head.

“I haven’t any more idea than you do,” he confessed. “Maybe with their chicks gone from the nest, they both feel they have to defend something. I might be considered something of an authority on human emotions, but I have to admit to you that sometimes my lady Winterhart baffles me.” He nodded with his chin toward the head of the trail. “Care to walk down with me so we can both worry about the youngsters together?”

Skan let out a deep breath; so Drake was just as troubled about Tad and Blade as he was! “Yes, I would,” he admitted mournfully. “Zhaneel made me promise not to go with them, not to follow them, and not to talk about them with her unless she brings the subject up. I wish I had her confidence that everything is going to be all right, but I keep thinking of all the things that can go wrong.”

Amberdrake followed his mate’s example by draping an arm over Skan’s shoulders. It felt very good there; the support of an old and trusted friend, even if the friend was just as much in need of support himself. Tradition spoke of an elegant half-arch being only a fallen pile of stones without its counterpart to make it whole.

“So much can go wrong, even in the most peaceful of times. I fear the worst, too,” Amberdrake told him. “But as Blade very rightfully reminded me, their job is not to confront danger directly. They’re only scouts, of a sort. If something dangerous appears, they are supposed to send a warning by way of the teleson, then keep themselves intact so that they can get home and brief us in detail.”

Skandranon took care not to step on Amberdrake’s feet, and snorted in reply to his statement. “And just how likely do you think that is to happen?” he demanded. “They’re our children! Do you think there’s even half a chance that they wouldn’t see themselves as the front line of the White Gryphon defenses and go confront something dangerous if it appeared?”

He maneuvered Amberdrake into the inside position, between himself and the cliff, as they started back down toward the city. Drake needed to walk on the protected inside, since if one of them was to slip on the trail, it had better be Skan; he could fly and Drake obviously couldn’t.

“I honestly don’t know,” Amberdrake admitted. “My daughter baffles me more often than my mate does. I sometimes wonder if the midwife switched babies with someone else when she was born. She doesn’t seem anything like either of us, and believe me, I have tried to find common ground with her.”

“I know what you mean,” Skan replied with chagrin. “Although Keenath affects me more that way than Tadrith does. Still. Just because we’ve never seen either of them act the way we did at their age, it doesn’t follow that they wouldn’t. If you understand what I’m trying to say.”

“I think so.” Amberdrake picked his way over a rough spot in the trail before continuing. “Children tend to act differently around their parents than when they’re on their own. At least, that’s what I’ve observed, both professionally and nonprofessionally.”

Of course he wouldn’t remember himself being that way; he lost his own parents and all his family when he was hardly fledged. But he’s right; I went out of my way to be the opposite of mine. They never wanted to be anything but followers, and I wanted to be the one others looked to for leadership. Sometimes I wonder if they weren‘t smarter than I was. “I wish we had some other way besides the teleson to keep track of them,” he fretted. “It’s very tempting to wish that Urtho was here to give us another Kechara. . . .”

He couldn’t finish the sentence; the pang of loss he felt even when mentioning the name of the creator of his adoptive “daughter” was enough to still his voice for a moment.

“It’s more than tempting to wish she was the way she used to be,” Amberdrake sighed, “and not just because she’d be useful now. I’d gladly continue all the evasion and diplomatic garbage we had to concoct for the Haighlei if it meant she was still such a powerful Mindspeaker. She is such a cheerful little soul, though; I don’t miss her powers at all if it means we get to see her alive and happy.”

Kechara had been one of Urtho’s rare “mistakes,” although Skan had never discovered what his leader, mentor, and friend had intended when he created her. Had she simply been a first attempt at the “gryfalcon” type, of which Zhaneel was the outstanding example? Was it possible that she had been a deliberate attempt to create a gryphon with tremendous ability at mind-magic? Or had she simply been a “sport,” something Urtho had not intended at all, an accident that Urtho saw and carried through, then hid away for her own protection?

Whichever the case had been, little Kechara had been what the other gryphons referred to as a “misborn.” Severely stunted, slightly misshapen, with wings far too long for her dwarfed body, her mind had been frozen in an eternally childlike state. But her pure strength at mind-magic had been without equal. Adorable little Kechara had been able to reach her mind-voice as far away as the Haighlei capital of Khimbata, which was how she had discovered where Amberdrake and Skandranon had been made prisoners long ago. The madman Hadanelith and his two Haighlei allies had captured them in the last stage before the attempted assassination of Emperor Shalaman during the Eclipse Ceremony. Without Kechara, Skandranon would never have been able to get away in time to save him, and Amberdrake most certainly would not even be alive at this moment. Impelled by danger to him that even she had been able to perceive, her mental “shout” had sundered magical shields and incapacitated Hadanelith’s two allies across all that distance.

Urtho had known just how powerful her abilities were, and had kept her close-confined in his Tower for safekeeping. He had known that she might be viewed as a prize to be captured or a weapon to be used, and had thought to protect her from that fate. But in confining her, he had assumed that she would not live very long, an assumption that had proved incorrect.

Skan shook his head. “I agree. And I also know that I would never want to take the chance that another one with worse problems than hers might be born—we just don’t have the skill and judgment that Urtho did. We all love her, but Kechara’s flaws were too high a price to pay for her gifts, objectively speaking. Quite frankly, I think that it is only because she still doesn’t understand most of what she saw in other people’s minds that she hasn’t been driven mad by it all.”

He had done his best to make certain she never lost her trusting nature—and so had Judeth, Aubri, and anyone else in White Gryphon who ever came into contact with her. In her turn, she served the city and its people faithfully and joyously. She carefully relayed messages she barely, if ever, understood to and from all of the Silvers with even a touch of mind-magic of their own. It was a task they had all tried to ensure was never a chore for her, and she had loved the attention and approval.

Skan reflected that it was odd, the way the Haighlei had acted concerning her. For them, a creature with the mind of a child and the ability to read anyone’s thoughts would have been a blasphemy. For a year or two after the Eclipse Ceremony, Skan was fairly certain the Kaled’a’in had been able to keep Kechara’s existence secret from their allies— but eventually they surely had discovered just what she was. There had been many, many circumspect little hints, diplomatic tail-chases and discreet suggestions. Finally an official communique from High King Shalaman had come, advising the “permanent elimination of the long-range communicator of White Gryphon”—referring to Kechara—making it clear by its phrasing that it was not an idle request, and that not doing so would have grave consequences. Skandranon, Zhaneel, and Amberdrake went to Khimbata to appeal to Shalaman in private, and returned to White Gryphon with a delegation of mages led by Advisor Leyuet. Between various nervous ceremonies of state, “Papa Skan” explained to Kechara that it was time for her to rest from her work, and that they were going to make sure nobody was ever scared of her. Kechara trusted Skandranon completely, of course, and gleefully greeted the delegation. The grim-faced Haighlei, who were steeling themselves to meet a monster and fight against its horrible soul-invading power, instead faced a little creature who only thought they were very funny and demanded their absurdly elaborate and colorful hats to play with.

Well, that’s the Haighlei for you. I suspect one could probably get away with just about anything, so long as it was wrapped in the proper historical protocol. Come to think of it, the reason Shalaman was so incensed about those murders in his Court was because the assassinations hadn’t been done with the proper protocol! Perhaps if we could have found a way for Kechara to be put into Shalaman’s service under their religion, she could have kept her powersbut that wouldn’t really have been true to her, either, and it would only have made her into the tool, the bargaining chip that Urtho feared she’d be used as. It would have destroyed her loving innocence if she were used against one of us and realized it. At least this way she could stay at home and play. At least she can still talk to all the gryphons, as long as they’re within the city limits.

“Well, what are we going to do, old friend?” the aging gryphon asked, as they picked their way steadily down to the topmost level of the city. This level was the receiving platform for everything lowered down from the cliffs above, or sent up from the city to the cliffs. Work crews were already unloading pallets of food from the farms, and would continue to do so all day. “What do we do about the children, I mean?”

“What can we do?” Amberdrake asked, with only the faintest hint of irritation. He led the way to the broad white-painted stairs that formed the back slope of the White Gryphon’s “head.” “Nothing. This is their job; the job they chose. They’ve been assigned to it by their superiors, who have judged them capable. Like it or not, they have grown up, and I’m afraid we had better start getting used to that.”

Skan ground his beak and prowled after him, talons clicking on the stone ramp alongside the stairs, which was easier for a gryphon to handle than steps. “I don’t like it,” he said finally. “But I can’t tell you why.”

Amberdrake stopped suddenly, turned, and faced him, looking down at his friend with a troubled expression as the gryphon stopped a step later and looked up. “I don’t either, and I haven’t any real reason to feel this way. I wish I could say that I have a premonition about this—because this feeling that there is something wrong makes me look like a nervous old aunty—”

“But?” Skan prompted. “You’re worried you don’t have the correct dress to play aunty?”

Amberdrake chuckled, then sighed. “But I am afraid I haven’t had anything of the sort, and there hasn’t been a solid sign from anyone who does have Foresight that something is going to go wrong with Blade and Tad. I know what I would say to any of my clients who felt this way.”

Skan looked into his friend’s eyes, and shook his head. “Let me guess. What we are feeling is a combination of old war reactions, and unhappiness because this fledging of our youngsters is a sure sign that we are getting old.”

“Too true. And who wants to know that he is getting old? Not I, I can promise you.” Amberdrake’s expression was as honest as it was rueful. “I’ve been keeping my body limber and capable for decades now, through all kinds of strain, as loose as a down-feather and as tight as whipcord as needed, but—it’s all been to last as long as possible during the pace of time. One never bothers to think about growing old as one is growing older. Then suddenly it is there, looming in your face. Your bones and joints ache, youngsters are expressing concern that you are overexerting yourself, and when you try to insist that your experience means you know more than they do, you find them exchanging knowing looks when they think you don’t notice.”

“Alas. It is life’s cruelty, I say. One moment we are fretting because we are not considered old enough to do anything interesting, then we turn around and younglings barely fledged are flying off to do the interesting things we can’t do anymore!” Skan shook his head, and looked out over the ocean. “And we are supposed to accept this gracefully! It is hardly fair. I protest! I believe that I shall become a curmudgeon. Then at least I can complain, and it will be expected of me.”

“Too late for that.”

Skandranon snorted, “Then I shall be an exceptional curmudgeon. I’ve earned the title. The Curmudgeon King.”

“Endured Where E’er He Goes. May I join you, then? We can drive the youngsters to distraction together.” Amberdrake seemed to have thrown off some of his anxiety and, to his surprise, Skan realized that he had relaxed a bit as well.

“Certainly,” the Black Gryphon replied with dignity. “Let’s go down to the obstacle course, and make loud comments about how we used to run it better and in half the time.”

“And with more style,” Amberdrake suggested. “Finesse and grace, not brutal power.”

“Naturally,” Skan agreed. “It couldn’t have happened any other way—as far as they know.”

“So, just how worried are you?” Winterhart asked Zhaneel as soon as they were out of the range of Skandranon’s hearing. As a trondi’irn she had a very good notion of just how sensitive any given gryphon’s senses were, but she knew Skan’s abilities in excruciating detail. For all that he was suffering the onset of the ailments of age, he was a magnificent specimen with outstanding physical abilities, not just for his age, but for any gryphon male.

“About Skan, or about the children?” Zhaneel asked, with a sidelong glance at her companion.

“Hmm. Both, of course,” she replied, returning Zhaneel’s glance. She’s just as observant as I thought. “Skan, first. He’s the one we have to live with.”

“As we must live with Amberdrake, heyla?” Zhaneel nodded shrewdly. “Well. Come and sit beside me here, where the wind will carry away the words we do not wish overheard, and we will discuss our mates.” She nodded her beak at a fine wooden bench made of wave- and wind-sculpted driftwood, and sat down beside it on the cool stone rimming the cliff.

Winterhart sank gracefully down into a welcoming curve of the bench, and laid one arm along the back of it. “Drake is very unhappy about all this. I think he expected Judeth and Aubri to assign Blade to something like bodyguard duty, or city-patrol. I don’t think it ever occurred to him that they might send her out of the city, much less so far away.”

It didn’t occur to me, either, but it should have. I’ve known that Blade wanted to get away from the cityand us—for the past year. Maybe if Drake hadn’t been so adamant about her living with us until she was a full Silver. . . .

Keeth and Tad had been able to move out in part because Skan had lent them his resources to excavate a new home to trade for an existing one. Sensing Blade’s restlessness, Winterhart had tried to persuade Drake to do the same for Blade, but he wouldn’t hear of it.

“Why should she need to move out?” he’d asked at the time. “It’s not as if she has any need for a place of her own. We give her all the privacy she would have anywhere else, and it’s not as if she could feel embarrassed to bring a lover here!” Then he had sighed dramatically. “Not that there’s any interest in that quarter.

The way she’s been acting, a vow of celibacy would be an improvement in her love life. Where could we have gone wrong? It’s almost like she doesn ‘t want to listen to her body.”

Winterhart could have told him—that children were always embarrassed by the proximity of their parents when trying out the first tentative steps in the dance of amorous life, and inhibited by their parents when learning for the first time what kind of adults they would become—but she knew he wouldn’t believe her. He would have, if Blade had been anyone else’s child, but not when he was her father. A parent can sometimes be too close to his child to think about her objectively. When it came to seeing someone else’s children, a parent could see a larger canvas, but with their own—all they would see were the close daily details, and not grasp the broad strokes. Amberdrake, brilliant as he was, couldn’t grasp things like Blade not wanting to be around parents as she learned her body’s passions. And if Blade had actually come out and asked him for a place of her own, he would probably have given in and made it possible. But she was too shy and too proud, and now, in retrospect, Winterhart could see that requesting assignment to outpost duty had probably seemed the only way she could get that longed-for privacy.

“Skandranon is fretting, but not to pieces, I think,” Zhaneel said, after a long pause during which she gazed out seaward. She might have been watching the fishing fleet; her eyes were certainly sharp enough to make out details in things that were only moving dots to Winterhart. “I hope that as he realizes the children are capable, he will fret less. Part of it is inaction. Part of it is that he wishes to do everything, and even when he was young, he could not do half of what he would like to do now.”

That observation surprised a faint chuckle out of Winterhart. “It is odd how our youthful abilities grow larger as we age, isn’t it?” she replied. “I am absolutely sure that I remember being able to work for two days and nights without a rest, and that I could ride like a Kaled’a’in and shoot like a highly-paid mercenary, as well as perform all my duties as a trondi’irn. I couldn’t, of course, but I remember doing so.”

“Even so,” Zhaneel agreed. “It will not be so bad with Skandranon as with Amberdrake; our children are male, and one is still left to us. Your little falcon was the only chick in the nest, and female. Men wish to protect their females; it is bred in the blood.”

“And as much as Amberdrake would deny it, he is more worried because Blade is female, you are right.” Winterhart stared out to sea, wondering how she could ever convince her spouse that their “delicate little girl” was as fragile as tempered steel. “Perhaps if I keep comparing her to Judeth?” she wondered aloud. “I don’t think Blade is doing it consciously, but I can see that she has been copying Judeth’s manner and mannerisms.”

“He admires and respects Judeth, and what is more, he has seen her in action; he knows that Judeth took special care in training your Blade, and perhaps he will take comfort from that,” Zhaneel observed, then tossed her head in a gryphonic shrug. “I can think of nothing else you could do. Now, what am I to do with Skan? Concentrate on Keenath, perhaps?”

“Could we get him involved in Keeth’s physical training?” Winterhart asked her. “I’m a bit out of my depth there—and you and Skan did invent obstacle-course training. I’ve started all the trondi’irn on working-under-fire training, but the Silvers’ gryphon-course is set up for combat, not field-treatment. It isn’t really appropriate, and I’m not sure how to adapt it.”

“Ye-esss. I believe that might do. It will give him action, and something to think about. Or at least more action besides climbing my back to give him exercise.” Zhaneel cocked her head to one side. “Now, what of Winterhart? And what of Zhaneel? What do we do to take our minds from our absent children?”

Winterhart shook her head. “You have me at a loss. I honestly don’t know. And I’ll probably wake up with nightmares every few days for the next six months. I suppose we should concentrate on our mates’ worries instead?”

“That will certainly give us something to do, and give them the job of dealing with how we comfort them.”

Zhaneel nodded, then turned, and reached out to touch Winterhart’s shoulder with a gentle talon. She smiled, and her eyes grew softer as she met Winterhart’s gaze. “And perhaps we can give each other the comfort of a sympathetic ear, now and again, sister-in-spirit.”

One small problem with finally being on duty. Rising at unholy hours. Tadrith sighed, but in-audibly; his partner sometimes seemed to have ears as sharp as a gryphon’s. As usual on this journey, Blade was up at the first hint of light. Tad heard her stirring around outside the tent they shared; building up the fire, puttering with breakfast, fetching water. She was delightfully fastidious about her person, bathing at night before she went to bed, and washing again in the morning. It would have been distinctly unpleasant to share a tent with anyone whose hygiene was faulty, especially now that they were away from the coast and into the wet forest. It was very humid here, and occasionally oppressively hot. Blade was not just being carried like living baggage; the basket shifted in every change of wind, and she had to shift her weight with it to keep it from throwing him off. This was work, hard work, and she was usually damp with sweat; by the time he landed for a rest, she was usually ready for one, too.

He, of course, was not burdened by the need to wash in order to get clean, and most humans expressed pleasure in a gryphon’s naturally spicy musky scent. He couldn’t fly with wet wings, and there usually wasn’t time to bathe before night fell when they stopped. He had decided to forgo anything but dust-baths until they arrived at their outpost. So he felt perfectly justified in lying in warm and sheltered comfort while she went through her bathing ritual and tended to the camp chores.

There wasn’t anything he could do to help her anyway. He couldn’t fetch water; raptoral beaks were not well suited to carrying bucket handles. He shouldn’t have anything to do with the campfire; gryphons were feathered and feathers were flammable.

He had done the larger share of work last night, when it came to chores. He had brought up enough wood to feed the fire until this morning, and provided part of his kill to feed them both at breakfast. He would take the tent down, just as he had put it up; the fast way of erecting it required magic, and although he was no match for his father in that area, he was a minor mage in simple object-moving spells. So he had done his share of the camp chores; this was not lazing about, it was the just reward of hard work.

He closed his eyes, and listened to water splashing and Blade swearing at how cold it was, and smiled. All was well.

Because they were already working so hard, he was bending a personal rule and using magic to hunt with. He used it to find a suitable animal, and to hold that animal in place once he found it. They couldn’t afford energy wasted in prolonged hunting, not now; he had to have the tent up, the wood in camp, and his kill made before dark. Back at White Gryphon, he could afford to be a “sportsman”; there were plenty of herd beasts and fish to feed the gryphons, and wild game was rightfully considered a delicacy. Once he arrived at Outpost Five, there would be time enough on each scouting patrol to hunt “properly.” But he would consume more food than they could carry on this trip, and that meant hunting with absolute efficiency, using every trick at his disposal.

Finally, the sounds of fat sizzling into the fire made him open his eyes and bestir himself again. That was breakfast, and although he personally preferred his meat raw, there were other things to eat besides meat. Though primarily carnivores, gryphons did enjoy other delicacies, and Blade had found some marvelous shelf-fungi last night when he had been bringing in wood. A quick test had proven them to be nonpoisonous, and a quick taste showed that they were delicious. They had saved half for breakfast, still attached to its log just in case detaching it might make it decay.

Fresh venison and fresh mushrooms. A good night’s sleep and a fine day of flying ahead of us. Life is good.

“If you don’t come out of there, sluggard,” Blade’s voice warned from beyond the canvas, “I’m going to have all of this for myself.”

“I was simply granting you privacy for your bath,” he replied with dignity, standing up and poking his beak out of the tent flap. “Unlike some other people I could mention, I am a gentleman, and a gentleman always allows a lady her privacy.”

Perhaps it was technically morning, but out there under the trees it was gloomy as deepest twilight. Blade was slicing bits of fungus into a pan greased with fat; he saw that she had already set aside half of the remainder for him. It sat on top of his deer-quarter, from which she had sliced her breakfast steak.

She had dressed for the heat and humidity, in a sleeveless tunic and trews of Haighlei weave— though not of Haighlei colors. The Haighlei were quick to exploit the new market that White Gryphon provided, weaving their cool, absorbent fabrics in beiges, grays, and lighter colors, as well as black and white. The people of k’Leshya could then ornament these fabrics to suit their own cultural preferences. The results varied as much as the root-culture of the wearer. Those of Kaled’a’in descent embroidered, belled, and beaded their garments in a riot of shades; those who had been adopted into the clan, those outsiders who had ended up with k’Leshya and the gryphons, were usually more restrained in their garments. Blade, consciously or unconsciously, had chosen garments cut in the style of the Kaled’a’in, but in the colors of her mother’s people. In this case, she wore a subdued beige, with woven borders in cream and pale brown. As always, even though there was no one to see it, the Silver Gryphon badge glinted on her tunic.

Around them, but mostly above them, the birds and animals of this forest foraged for their own breakfasts. After three days of travel, they were finally into the territory that the Haighlei called a “rain forest,” and it was vastly different from any place he had ever visited before. The trees were huge, incredibly tall, rising like the bare columns of a sylvan temple for what seemed like hundreds of lengths until they finally spread their branches out to compete with each other for sun. And compete they did; the foliage was so thick and dense that the forest floor was perpetually shrouded in mysterious shadow. When they plunged down out of the sunlight and into the cover of the trees, it took some time for their eyes to adjust.

Despite that lack of direct sunlight, the undergrowth was surprisingly thick. As was to be expected, all kinds of fungi thrived, but there were bushes and even smaller plants growing in the thick leaf litter, and ropelike vines that wreathed the trees and climbed up into the light. Anywhere that a tree had fallen or the course of a stream cut a path through the trees, the undergrowth ran riot, with competition for the light so fierce that Blade swore she could actually see the plants growing larger as she watched them.

She was the team “expert” on plants, and half of the ones she had examined at their campsites were new to her. And they hadn’t even done any exploring; the only plants she saw were the ones she found in the course of setting up camp! Tad couldn’t even begin to imagine what she’d find when she began looking in earnest—and he began taking her up into the canopy.

He couldn’t identify half of the calls they heard from above them. He couldn’t even have told her if those hoots and whistles were coming from the throats of furred animals, birds, or reptiles. It was all just a further reminder of how little had been explored here. Now he understood why the Haighlei were so careful about what they did here; not only were there scores of completely unknown hazards in this forest, but careless handling of the woodlands could destroy a priceless medicinal herb or some other resource without ever knowing that it was there.

That’s all very well, he reminded himself, as he eased himself out of the tent and ambled over to fall on his breakfast with famished pleasure. But it is difficult to be philosophical on an empty stomach. Later, perhaps. . . . He devoted himself single-mindedly to his meal. This would be the light one; he would eat heavily when they camped and he could digest while resting. A full gryphon could not fly very well.

A hungry gryphon did not take long to finish a meal, and Tad was famished. He polished off the last of his kill in short order, saving the tasty fungus for last. While he ate, Blade put out the fire, buried their trash in the wet ashes so that it would decay properly, and packed up the gear they had taken out as well as everything inside the tent. Tadrith would leave the bones of his meal for the forest scavengers, who would no doubt be glad of the windfall. When they took off, the only signs that they had been here would be ephemeral; the firepit, the bones, and the pressed-down foliage where they had walked and set the tent. In two days, three at the most, the forest would begin to reclaim the site. In a month, it would be gone. Not even the bones would remain.

No vultures, not in a place like this. Probably rodents, or perhaps some type of swine or canine. He preened his talons fastidiously, and stropped his beak on the log that had played host to their fungi. Well, I believe it is time to do my part again.

He strode over to the tent, concentrated for a moment, then extended his power with a deft touch. He let the mage-energy reach for the trigger point of the tent-spell where it lay just under the center of the canvas roof. Obediently, the canvas tent folded in on itself, starting from the top. The sturdy, flexible poles, once holding the canvas rigidly in place, now became the slightly stiffened ropes they really were. Without a hand to aid it, the tent folded, and refolded, as if it was a living creature. Within a few moments, where the tent had been, a boxy package of canvas sat ready to be put in the basket.

Now, as it happened, in accordance with Aubri’s advice, the tent could be erected without magic, although new poles would have to be cut for it, since the rope supports obviously required magic to become “poles.” Clearly, this was a great deal easier, however. Once the spell was triggered, the supports, which were nothing more than magically-bespelled pieces of thick rope sewn into special channels along the seams of the tent, stiffened in a particular order, unfolding the tent and setting it up at the same time. Since the shape of the supports was dictated by the shape of the channel, it was possible to have a tent that did not require a center-pole or guy-ropes, and only needed to be staked down in seven places to keep it from blowing away in a wind.

Of course, if there had been no mage about to trigger the spell, the tent would have required a center-pole as well as corner-poles, and guy-ropes at each corner.

This was standard issue among the Silvers now. Tad could never have set the spell himself; that required the hand of a Master. But even an Apprentice could trigger it, so any expedition coming out of White Gryphon that would be camping always had at least one mage along.

The spell that made the tent collapse and fold itself up was a more complicated one, but again, it only needed an Apprentice to trigger and feed it. Tad could handle that sort of spell easily, and enjoyed doing so. Perhaps it was analogous to the way that a human felt when whittling or chip-carving wood. There was an odd, suffused warmth of satisfaction at having created something by use of a tool, which was a different sensation from the visceral feelings of hunting by claw or flying by wings. Perhaps it was the ability to affect things outside one’s own momentary grasp that made one feel civilized?

Tad picked up the neat bundle of canvas and rope and deposited it in the carry-basket. Blade was already stretching out and untangling the ropes of his harness. No matter how carefully they stowed the ropes the night before, in the morning they always seemed to have gotten tangled. How that could be was another of those mysteries he was certain he would never be able to solve. There were times when he suspected a supernatural explanation.

The harness had to be stowed out of reach of rodents or other creatures that might like to gnaw on leather—and it had to go somewhere where dampness would not get into it. There was only one place that answered that description, and that was the tent itself, so although the ceiling of their temporary dwelling was fairly high, enough of it was taken up with the harness resting in a net suspended from the corners of the roof that Blade could barely stand upright inside.

But if that minor discomfort meant that they could trust the harness not to have suffered damage in the night, it was a small price to pay. Both of them were agreed on that. “I’ll share my bed with it if necessary,” Blade had said firmly.

“I thought that sort of thing was your father’s specialty,” he’d jibed back, only to be flattened by a swung harness-girth. Apparently Blade was not amused!

Blade finally got the ropes sorted out; now she stood dangling the harness from one hand, beckoning with the other. It was time for Tadrith to go to work.

The harness took some time to get into, and Blade made certain that it was comfortable for him. This was not the token harness of soft deerskin every gryphon in the Silvers wore, displaying his or her badge, and carrying the pouch in which they kept small necessities. Every strap must fit snugly, but without chafing. Large feathers must be moved so that they lay on top of the leather, or they would be broken off. Tadrith could do none of this for himself; instead, he must stand as patiently as a donkey while Blade rigged him up.

The air warmed marginally, and now the usual morning fog began to wreathe among the trees. First, a few wisps formed and wafted through the forest of columns, disappearing and reforming again, like the ghosts of floating snakes. Then the ropes and swaths of fog thickened and joined together, until Tad and Blade were surrounded on all sides by it. Then, lastly, it began to thicken, until they could not see the trunks of trees more than two or three gryphon-lengths away.

Up above, the sounds of birds, animals, and insects continued unabated. Down below, under the cover of the fog, animal sounds increased. Perhaps, now that they are concealed, they feel bold enough to call, Tad thought. Or perhaps they are calling to one another because they cannot see each other. It is an interesting question.

Neither the fog nor the heavy overcast that had shadowed them for the past two days had given them any great amount of trouble, but Tad felt a difference in the air today. Gryphons were supremely sensitive to changes in the weather, and he knew by the feeling behind his nares and the way his feathers felt against his skin that they were going to have a real storm today. Storms around here seemed to stretch for leagues, so there would be no moving out of its path unless they were very lucky. If he had been alone, he might have taken a chance and tried to climb above the clouds—but he dared not with the basket in tow. Unpredictable winds could catch it and send it and him tumbling; lightning could incinerate either him or Blade, or both, in a heartbeat.

No, if the storm threatened, they would have to go to ground quickly, before deadly updrafts or wind-shear caught them unaware. Then they would have to make a quick camp and get shelter before they were drenched. If the storm was over quickly and he was still dry, they could take to the air again to make a little more distance before nightfall; but if he was drenched, he would have to wait until his wings were dry, which would probably take all night.

He said nothing to Blade, but she must have felt the same urgency. Perhaps long association with him had made her weather-sensitive, too; at any rate, without skimping on her checks, she hurried through the preparations. Sooner than he had expected, she was done. She made a quick final check of the campsite as he shook himself, checking the harness for loose spots.

While she continued to police the campsite, he stretched and did wing-exercises, carefully loosening and warming up every muscle, even those he didn’t normally use in flying. He faced away from the campsite, sunk his talons deeply into the ground, and energetically beat his wings as if he was trying to lift the earth itself. He twisted, writhed, and stretched, in a series of dancerlike movements designed to make sure every muscle was ready to do what he had asked it to. Then, when he finally felt no sense of strain no matter which way he moved, he looked at Blade.

“Ready?” she called, as she made her way back through the fog toward the basket.

He nodded. “Let’s get in the air,” he replied. “There’s a storm coming.”

“I thought so.” She removed the stakes holding the basket firmly to the ground and tossed them in, then vaulted into the basket herself. She shifted a few things with a deft sensitivity to the weight and balance within it, then settled into place with both hands clutching the front of the basket.

That was his signal. With powerful wingstrokes, he rose slowly into the air. Leaves and dust scattered across the forest floor in the wind of his creation, and Blade narrowed her eyes against it.

He rose about three lengths into the air before encountering the momentary resistance of the basket beneath him. But the spell was still holding firm, and the pull against the harness was no more than if he had been hauling a deer-carcass instead of the massive basket.

Immediately, he felt something mildly wrong. The basket felt heavier, and now he noticed a stiffness in his muscles that had not been there when he finished his warm-ups.

Is it the damp and chill?

No matter; he was committed now, and he dared not abort the takeoff. He simply worked a little harder, made his wingbeats a little deeper, strained a little more against the harness.

Blade hung on as the basket lurched up off the ground; this was the moment when it was possible to overset the basket, or novice riders tumbled out. He and the basket rose together through the trees in a series of jerks, propelled by the powerful downthrust of his wings.

He was breathing harder than he should have. What is the matter with me? Did I get less sleep than I thought? Or did I eat too much? The thought of the mushrooms hung uneasily in his mind; they were not poisonous, but what if they had some subtle weakening effect on him?

But if they had, wouldn’t he have noticed it last night? Wouldn’t he have noticed as he was warming up?

Not necessarily. . . .

In the next moment, they were above the layer of fog that clung to the earth and shrouded the leaf-littered ground, hiding it. He looked up, and the spreading branches of the canopy rushed to meet them.

He willed strength into his muscles, strained toward the light. A thousand birds screamed alarm to see them, then fell silent with shock, as the laden gryphon labored up through the branches. He threaded his way through the hole left in the canopy after the death of some millennium-old forest giant, while below him, Blade shifted and released her holds to fend off reaching branches that threatened to foul the ropes or catch on the basket itself. She used a long pole with a crosspiece tied to the far end, cut last night for this specific purpose. As they burst through the last of the branches into the open air, she dropped the pole. They would not need it for the next descent, and it was too long to carry with them without causing problems.

The contrast between the gloom below the trees and the overcast brightness above dazzled Tad until his eyes adjusted; he did not pause, however, for he needed more height. He might not be able to see clearly, but there was no doubt which way he had to go. “Down” was the direction of the dragging on his harness; he rowed his wings in great heaves in answer to that steady pull, and by the time his eyes cleared, he was as far above the canopy as the branches were above the forest floor.

That was enough. He angled out into level flight, taking his direction from his own inner senses, and now the basket hung true beneath him, no longer bobbing with every wingbeat. Blade did not release her hold on the edges, for she might have to shift her weight to compensate for sudden changes in the wind, but she did allow herself some relaxation.

As soon as they leveled out and he was certain that there were no strange winds to contend with, Tad took a survey of the weather. His weather-sense had not betrayed him; the clouds hung low, fat-bellied and gray with unshed water. He could not scent rain on the air yet, but it was just a matter of time. These were not yet storm clouds; the storm, when it came, would roar down at them out of clouds that would tower thousands of lengths above their slate-blue bottoms.

If they were extraordinarily lucky, they might manage to fly out from under this weather system before it developed into a storm, but he was not going to count on it. From the wind, they were flying in the same direction that this storm was going, which made it very likely that they would actually be flying into the teeth of it rather than away from it.

III have plenty of warning before we get into trouble. In fact, I’ll see activity in plenty of time to land.

He might even feel it long before he saw it. We aren‘t making the best time right now, he noted ruefully. In spite of the careful warmup, he still felt— not stiff, not strained, but vaguely achy.

Am I coming down with something? Or did I just eat too much this morning? He drove westward, moving as quickly as he could, watching the horizon for the telltale flickers of the lightning that would herald the storm front. He hoped he was not coming down with a fever; although gryphons were not prone to such infections, they were not completely unknown. This would be a bad time and place to get sick—although, if it proved to be a real emergency, Blade could use the light teleson set they carried with them to call for help. Now that magic was working again, even rudimentary mind-magic like hers could be amplified by the teleson to carry all the way back to White Gryphon. It would be work, but she could get help.

It’s probably just from sleeping in the damp. I’ve never had to sleep in a tent on damp ground before. Now, for the first time, he had a hint of how he might feel in years to come, when his joints began to ache and stiffen. No wonder his father moved so deliberately! And he had thought it was just an affectation, to increase his appearance of dignity!

I don’t think I’m going to like getting old.

He flew on for some distance—and was very glad that they were not making this journey afoot. He had just traversed territory it would probably take days to cross on the ground, and all within a few marks. It wasn’t even noon yet!

Now he scented water, and the air felt heavy and thick, and another explanation for his flying difficulties occurred to him. This is not good air for flying. It may not be me at all; it may only be the atmosphere that is weighing us down. It was as difficult to fly in thick air as in thin, though in different ways, and the extra exertion necessary would certainly be enough reason for the ache in his joints!

There was still no sign of the coming storm, but it could not be far off now. He strained his eyes, hunting for that elusive flicker of blue-white light among the clouds—

Tadrith had no real warning, just a sudden lurching sensation in the pit of his stomach, as if he had been caught in a burst of wind and been hurled up, then dropped. His head spun with disorientation for a moment, and he gasped.

Then—the magic on the basket was broken, like water draining out of a broken pot, all in the blink of an eye.

And the moment it vanished, the basket regained its real weight—the full weight of Blade, all their supplies, and the basket itself.

With nothing more holding it up than one very shocked gryphon.

It dropped like a stone, and pulled him, shrieking in strangled surprise, with it.

The harness cut into his shoulders; the sudden jerk drove the breath from his lungs and all thoughts from his mind. He pumped his wings frantically and with complete futility against the weight that hauled him down; below him, Blade shouted and sawed at the basket-ropes, trying to cut him free.

He had to slow their fall! She was never going to get him loose—even if the ropes were cut, she would still plummet to her death! He wouldn’t leave her!

There was no time to try magic, no chance to concentrate enough for a spell, and what could he do, anyway? With his heart pounding in his ears, and his vision clouded with the strain, he tried to make his wings move faster, harder, scoop in more air. Surely, if he just tried hard enough, he could at least slow the basket! Fear sent him more energy, fueling the frantic wingbeats.

His wing-muscles howled in agony, burning with pain, as if a million tiny demons were sticking him with red-hot daggers. His foreclaws scrabbled uselessly at the empty air, as if some part of him thought he might be able to catch and hold something.

His mind jabbered as they plummeted down toward the forest canopy.

He did not even have enough control to pick where they were going to hit.

Below him, he thought Blade was screaming; he couldn’t hear her through the pounding in his ears. His vision went red with the strain. . . .

Then they hit the trees.

That slowed them. As they crashed through the tree-tops, he felt the basket lighten a little; and for a moment he had hope that the springy boughs might actually catch and hold them.

But the basket was too heavy, and the branches not strong nor thick enough. As the basket dragged him down into the gloom, he realized belatedly that hitting trees with wings spread wide was not a good idea for a flying creature.

He was jerked a little sideways as the basket encountered more branches, which was not good for him; instead of dropping through the hole the basket made, he hit undamaged tree limbs with an open wing.

Pain shot through him like a bolt of lightning.

Then, there was only darkness.

Four

Jor some reason, Blade had never been the kind who sat frozen with shock when something dreadful happened. She had always acted; there was an even chance that whatever she did in an emergency, it would be the right thing. Without even thinking about it, Blade had her crossdraw knife out in an attempt to cut Tad free as they all plummeted toward the tree canopy below. She sawed frantically at the ropes holding him a helpless prisoner of gravity, but it was obviously of no use; they were falling too fast and there were too many ropes to cut.

We’re dead, she thought absently, but her body wasn’t convinced of that, and just before they hit the treetops, she dropped into the bottom of the basket, curled into a protective ball.

The basket lurched about as they hit tree limbs and broke through them. As wood crashed and splintered all around her, she was thrown around in the basket among all the lashed-down equipment like another loose piece of junk. Something hit her shoulder hard and she heard herself scream. The pain was like an explosion of stars in her head. Then, mercifully, she blacked out.

Her head hurt. Her head hurt a lot. And her shoulder hurt even more; with every beat of her heart it throbbed black agony, and every time she took a breath or made the tiniest movement, it lanced red fire down her arm and side. She concentrated on that pain without opening her eyes; if she couldn’t get that under control, she wouldn’t be able to move. If she couldn’t move, she, and probably Tad, would lie here until something came to eat them.

Surround the pain and isolate it. Then accept it. Stop fighting it. Don’t fear it. Pain is only information, it is up to you how you wish to interpret it. You control it. Her father’s lessons came back as she controlled her breathing; she hadn’t ever used them on anything worse than a sprained wrist before, but to her surprise, they worked just as well on this serious injury.

Make it a part of you. An unimportant part. Now let the body numb it, let the body flood it with its own defenses. Blade knew the body could produce its own painkillers; the trick was to convince it to produce enough of them. And to convince it that at the moment, pain was getting in the way of survival. . . .

Slowly—too slowly—it worked. She opened her eyes.

The basket was on its side, a couple of wagon-lengths away from her. It looked as if she had been tossed free when, or just before, it hit the ground.

Fortunately her lashings holding the cargo in place had held, or she probably would have been killed by her own equipment.

The basket lay in a mess of broken branches, wilting leaves draped everywhere. It didn’t look like it was ever going to be useful for anything again.

Probably a fair share of the equipment is worthless now, too, she thought dispassionately. It was easy to be dispassionate; she was still in shock. I’m alive. That’s more than I thought a few moments ago.

She sat up slowly, being very careful of whatever injury made her shoulder hurt so badly. With her good hand, her left, she probed delicately at her shoulder and bit her lip, drawing blood, when her fingers touched loose bone that grated.

Broken collarbone. I’ll have to immobilize the right arm. No wonder it hurts like the Haighlei hells! Well, so much for doing any lifting or wielding any weapons.

Her questing fingers ran over her face and head without encountering anything worse than a goose-egg knot on her skull and more spatters of congealing blood. With the same care as before, she stretched out her right leg, then her left.

Bruises. Lots and lots of bruises, which just at the moment she couldn’t feel at all.

I must be black and blue from head to toe. That could be bad; she’d start to stiffen up soon, and in the morning it would be worse.

She cradled her right arm in her left hand, and worked her legs until they were under her and she was in a kneeling position. She couldn’t see anything but the basket at the moment, but from the direction that the ropes went, Tad should be right behind her.

She was almost afraid to look. If he were dead—

She turned, slowly and carefully, and let out a sob of relief as she saw him—and saw his sides heaving. He wasn’t dead! He wasn’t in good shape, but he was still breathing!

He lay sprawled atop a tangle of crushed bushes, still unconscious. His left wing was doubled up underneath him at an angle that was not natural, with his primary feathers pointing forward instead of back, most of them shredded and snapped. So he had one broken wing for certain, and that meant that he would not be flying off anywhere for help.

As she shifted again, trying to get to her feet, his eyes opened, and his beak parted. A thin moan came from him, and he blinked dazedly.

“Don’t move,” she called sharply. “Let me get over there and help you first.”

“Wing—” That came out in a harsh whisper, and he panted with pain.

“I know, I can see it. Just hold still and let me get to you.” Gritting her teeth, she worked her right arm inside her tunic and belted the garment tightly, using only her left hand. That would do for immobilizing the shoulder for now.

She stood up with the aid of the debris around her, and worked her way over to Tad. Once there, she stared at him for a moment, deciding where to begin. The rain forest was unnervingly quiet.

“Can you wiggle the toes on your left hind foot?” she asked.

He did so, then repeated the gesture with his right, then his foreclaws. “The right rear hurts when I move, but not as if something is broken,” he offered, and she heaved a sigh of relief.

“All right, your back isn’t broken, and neither are your legs; that’s better than we had any right to expect.” The knife she had been trying to use to get him free was gone, but now she could reach all the snap-hooks holding the ropes to his harness. Hissing with pain every time her shoulder was jarred in the least, she knelt down in the debris of crushed branches and scratchy twigs and began un-snapping him.

“I think I’m one big bruise,” he said, as she worked her hand under him to free as many of the ropes as she could without having him move.

“That makes two of us,” she told him, straining to reach one last set of snap-hooks. He knew better than to stir until she told him to; any movement at all might tear fragile blood vessels in the wings where the skin was thinnest, and he would bleed to death before she could do anything to help him.

Finally, she had to give up on that last set. She moved back to his head, and studied his pupils. Was one a little smaller than the other? Without a light to make them react, she couldn’t tell. “You might have a concussion,” she said doubtfully.

“You might, too,” he offered, which she really could have done without hearing. I can’t wait for the concussion-headache to set in.

“Just lie there,” she advised him. “I’m going after the medical gear.”

If I can find the medical gear. If it’s still worth anything.

It had been packed on top of the supplies, even though that meant it had to be offloaded and set aside every time they stopped for the night. Now she was glad that she had retained the packing order that the supply sergeant had ordained for the basket; they would have been in worse shape if she’d had to move foodstuffs, camping gear, and the tent to get at it!

The only question is, did everything fall on top of it?

She worked her way over to the basket again, to find to her great relief that the medical supplies were still “on top”—or rather, since the basket was on its side, they were still the things easiest to reach.

Although “easiest to reach” was only in a relative sense. . . .

She studied the situation before she did anything. The basket was lying in a heap of broken branches; the supplies had tumbled out sideways and now were strewn in an arc through that same tangle of branches. The medical supplies were apparently caught in a forked sapling at about shoulder height, but there was a lot of debris around that sapling. It would be very easy to take a wrong step and wind up twisting or even breaking an ankle—and she only had one hand to use to catch herself. And then, the fall could knock her out again, or damage her collarbone even worse—or both.

But they needed those supplies; they needed them before they could do anything else.

I’ll just have to be very, very careful. She couldn’t see any other way of reaching the package.

“Tad? Tad, can you concentrate enough to use a moving spell?”

All she got back was a croaked “No . . .” and a moan of pain.

Well. . . it wasn‘t a very good idea anyway. A delirious gryphon casting a spell nearby is more risky for me than if I tried running up that tree!

It looked like she would have to make it by foot. It was an agonizing journey; she studied each step before she took it, and she made certain that her footing was absolutely secure before she made the next move. She was sweating like a foundered horse before she reached the sapling, both with the strain and with the pain. It took everything she had to reach up, pull the package loose, then numbly toss it in the direction of the clear space beside Tad. It was heavier than it looked—because of the bonesetting kit, of course. She nearly passed out again from the pain when she did so—but it landed very nearly where she wanted it to, well out of the way of any more debris.

She clung to the sapling, breathing shallowly, until the pain subsided enough that she thought she could venture back the way she had come. Her sweat had turned cold by now, or at least that was how it felt, and some of it ran underneath the crusting scabs of dried blood and added a stinging counterpoint to her heartbeat.

When she reached the spot beside her precious package, she simply collapsed beside it, resting her head on it as she shuddered all over with pain and exertion. But every time she shook, her shoulder awoke to new pain, so it was not so much a moment of respite as it was merely a chance to catch her breath.

With the aid of teeth and her short boot knife she wrestled the package open, and the first thing she seized was one of the vials of pain-killing yellow-orchid extract. She swallowed the bitter potion down without a grimace, and waited for it to take effect.

She’d only had it once before, when she’d broken a toe, and in a much lighter dose. This time, however, it did not send her into light-headed giddiness. It numbed the pain to the point where it was bearable, but no more than that. Another relief; the pain must be bad enough to counteract most of the euphoric effect of the drug.

There was another drug that did the same service for gryphons; she dragged the pack of supplies nearer to Tad, fumbled out a larger vial, and handed it to him. He tilted his head back just enough that he would be able to swallow, and poured the contents into his beak, clamping it shut instantly so as not to waste a single bitter drop.

She knew the moment it took effect; his limbs all relaxed, and his breathing eased. “Now what?” he asked. “You can see what’s wrong better than I can.”

“First you are going to have to help me,” she told him. “I can’t try to move you until this collarbone is set and immobilized. If I try, I think I might pass out again—”

“A bad idea, you shouldn’t do that,” he agreed, and flexed his forelimbs experimentally. “I think I can do that. Sit there, and we’ll try.”

He was deft and gentle, and she still blacked out twice before he was finished amidst his jabbered apologies for each mistake. When he was done, though, her arm and shoulder were bound up in a tight, ugly but effective package, and the collarbone had been set. Hopefully, it would remain set; they had no way to put a rigid cast on a collarbone. Only a mage could do that; the Healers hadn’t even figured out a way to do so.

Then it was his turn.

It could not have been any easier for him, although he did not lose consciousness as she rolled him off the broken wing, set it, and bound it in place. This time she did use the bonesetting kit; the splints and bandages that hardened into rigid forms when first soaked, then dried. She was no trondi’irn, but she had learned as much as she could from her mother, once it became obvious to her that her old playmate Tad was going to be her permanent partner. Besides that, though, she guessed. She didn’t know enough of the finer points of gryphon physiology to know if what she did now would cause lifelong crippling. Thin moans escaped Tad’s clenched beak from time to time, however, and he did ask her to pause three times during the operation.

Finally they both staggered free of the ruins, collapsed on the thick leaf mold of the forest floor, and waited for the pain to subside beneath the ministrations of their potions.

It felt like forever before she was able to think of anything except the fiery throbbing of her shoulder, but gradually the potion took greater hold, or else the binding eased some of the strain. The forest canopy was still preternaturally silent; their plunge through it had frightened away most of the inhabitants, and the birds and animals had not yet regained their courage. She was intermittently aware of odd things, as different senses sharpened for an instant, and her mind overloaded with scent or sound. The sharp, sour smell of broken wood—the call of one insect stupid enough to be oblivious to them—the unexpected note of vivid red of a single, wilting flower they had brought down with them—

“What happened?” she asked quietly, into the strange stillness. It was an obvious question; one moment, they were flying along and all was well, and the next moment, they were plummeting like arrowshot ducks.

His eyes clouded, and the nictitating membrane came down over them for a moment, giving him a wall-eyed look. “I don’t know,” he said, slowly, haltingly. “Honestly. I can’t tell you anything except what’s obvious, that the magic keeping the basket at a manageable weight just—dissolved, disappeared. I don’t know why, or how.”

She felt her stomach turn over. Not the most comforting answer In the world. Up until now, she had not been afraid, but now. . . .

I can’t let this eat at me. We don’t know what happened, remember? It could still all be an accident. “Could there have been a mage-storm?” she persisted. “A small one, or a localized one perhaps?”

He flattened his ear-tufts and shook his head emphatically. “No. No, I’m sure of it. Gryphons are sensitive to mage-storms, the way that anyone with joint swellings is sensitive to damp or real, physical storms. No, there was no mage-storm; I would know if one struck.”

Her heart thudded painfully, and her stomach twisted again. If it wasn’t a “natural” event. . . . “An attack?” she began—but he shook his head again.

But he looked more puzzled than fearful. “It wasn’t an attack either,” he insisted. “At least, it wasn’t anything I’d recognize as an attack. It wasn’t anything offensive that I’d recognize.” He gazed past her shoulder as if he was searching for words to describe what he had felt. “It was more like—like suddenly having your bucket spring a leak. The magic just drained out, but suddenly. And I don’t know how or why. All the magic just—just went away.”

All the magic just went away. . . . Suddenly, the chill hand of panic that she had been fighting seized the back of her neck, and she lurched to her feet. If the magic in the basket had drained away, what about all the other magic?

“What’s wrong?” he asked, as she stumbled toward the wreckage of the basket and the tumbled piles of supplies.

“Nothing—I hope!” she called back, with an edge in her voice. What’s closest? The firestarter? Yes-there it is! The firestarter was something every Apprentice mage made by the dozen; they were easy to create, once the disciplines of creating an object had been mastered. It was good practice, making them. They were also useful, and since their average life was about six months, you could always barter them to anyone in the city once you’d made them. Anyone could use one; you didn’t have to be a mage to activate it—most were always ready, and to use one you simply used whatever simple trigger the mage had built in. The one in their supplies was fresh; Tad had just made it himself before they left.

It didn’t look like much; just a long metal tube with a wick protruding from one end. You were supposed to squeeze a little polished piece of stone set into the other end with your thumb, and the wick would light.

You could manipulate it with one hand if you had to, and of course, she had to. Hoping that her hunch had been wrong, she fumbled the now-dented tube out of a tangle of ropes and cooking gear, and thumbed the end.

Nothing happened.

She tried it again, several times, then brought it back to Tad. “This isn’t working,” she said tightly. “What’s wrong with it?”

He took it from her and examined it, his eyes almost crossing as he peered at it closely. “The—the magic’s gone,” he said hesitantly. “It’s not a firestarter anymore, just a tube of metal with a wick in it.”

“I was afraid you’d say that.” Grimly she returned to the tumbled supplies, and pawed through them, looking for anything that had once been magical in nature. Every movement woke the pain in her shoulder, but she forced herself to ignore it. The way that the supplies had tumbled out aided her; the last things into the basket had been on top, and that meant they were still accessible.

The mage-light in the lantern was no longer glowing. The tent—well, she couldn’t test that herself, she couldn’t even unfold it herself, but the canvas felt oddly limp under her hand, without a hint of the resistance it used to possess. The teleson—

That, she carried back to Tad, and placed it wordlessly before him. It wasn’t much to look at, but then, it never had been; just a contoured headband of plain silver metal, with a couple of coils of copper that could be adjusted to fit over the temples of any of the varied inhabitants of White Gryphon. It was used to magically amplify the range of those even marginally equipped with mind-magic. All the gryphons, kyree, and hertasi had that power, and most of the tervardi as well.

Tad should have been able to use it to call for help. A shiver ran down her body and she suppressed the urge to babble, cry, or curl up in a ball and give up. She realized that she had been unconsciously counting on that fact. If they couldn’t call for help—

He touched one talon to the device, and shook his head. “I don’t even have to put it on,” he said, his voice shaking. “It’s—empty. It’s useless.” Unspoken words passed between them as he looked up mutely at her. We’re in trouble.

“It wasn’t just the basket, then,” she said, sitting down hard, her own voice trembling as well. How could this happen? Why now? Why us? “Everything that had any spells on it is inert. The mage-lights, the firestarter, the tent, probably the weather-proof shelter-cloaks—”

“And the teleson.” He looked up at her, his eyes wide and frightened, pupils contracted to pinpoints. “We can’t call for help.”

We’re out here, on our own. We’re both hurt. No one at White Gryphon knows where we are; they won’t even know we ‘re missing until we don’t show up at the rendezvous point where we were supposed to meet the last team that manned the outpost. That’ll be days from now.

“It’s a long way to walk,” he faltered. “Longer, since we’re hurt.”

And there’s something nearby that eats magic. Is it a natural effect, or a creature? If it eats magic, would it care to snack on us? It might; it might seek out Tad, at least. Gryphons were, by their very nature, magical creatures.

Don’t think about it! Over and over, the Silvers had been taught that in an emergency, the first thing to think about was the problem at hand and not to get themselves tied into knots of helplessness by trying to think of too many things at once. Deal with what we can handle; solve the immediate problems, then worry about the next thing. She got unsteadily to her feet. “There’s a storm coming. That’s our first problem. We have to get shelter, then—water, warmth, and weapons. I think we’d better salvage what we can while we can before the rain comes and ruins it.”

He got shakily to his feet, nodding. “Right. The tent—even if we could cut poles for it, I’m not sure we could get it up properly with both of us hurt. I don’t think the basket will be good for much in the way of shelter—”

“Not by itself, but two of the sides and part of the bottom are still intact,” she pointed out. “We can spread the canvas of the tent out over that by hand, and use the remains to start a fire.” She stared at it for a moment. So did he.

“It looks as if it’s supported fairly well by those two saplings,” he pointed out. “The open side isn’t facing the direction I’d prefer, but maybe this is better than trying to wrestle it around?”

She nodded. “We’ll leave it where it is, maybe reinforce the supports. Then we’ll clear away the wreckage and the supplies, cut away what’s broken and tie in more support for the foundation by tying in those saplings—”

She pointed with her good hand, and he nodded.

“Look there, and there,” he said, pointing himself. “If we pile up enough stuff, we’ll have a three-sided shelter instead of just a lean-to.”

That, she agreed, would be much better than her original idea. In a moment, the two of them were laboring as best they could, her with one hand, and him with one wing encased and a sprained hind-leg, both of them a mass of bruises.

He did most of the work of spreading out the canvas over the remaining sound walls of the basket; he had more reach than she did. She improvised tent stakes, or used ones she uncovered in the course of moving supplies, and tied the canvas down as securely as she could manage with only one hand. One thing about growing up in the household of a kestra’chern; she had already known more kinds of knots and lashings than even her survival instructor. She wasn’t certain how Tad felt, but every movement made her shoulder ache viciously. There’s no choice, she told herself each time she caught her breath with pain. Rest once it starts to rain; work now. She wasn’t sure what time it was. They hadn’t gone very far before they had come crashing down, and they hadn’t been unconscious for long, or else they would have awakened to find insects trying to see if they were dead yet. Scavengers didn’t wait long in this kind of forest. That meant it was probably still early morning. If the rain threatened by those clouds held off, they had until late afternoon before the inevitable afternoon thunderstorm struck. If our luck hasn’t gone totally sour, that is. . . .

Eventually, they had their three-sided shelter; the limp tent canvas stretched tightly over the remains of the basket and the three young trees that had caught it. There were some loose flaps of canvas that she didn’t quite know what to do with yet; she might think of something later, but this was the best they could do for now.

They both turned to the tumbled heaps of supplies; sorting out what was ruined, what could still be useful even though it was broken, and what was still all right. Eventually, they might have to sort out a version of what could be carried away in two packs, but that would be later.

She would fight to remain here, and so would Tad. Walking off should not become an option until they were certain no one was going to come looking for them.

Always stay with a wreck, if you can. That much she also remembered very well from their survival course. The wreck makes the best target for searchers to find and the first place they’ll look for you when they spot it.

If they could stay here, they had a shelter they could improve more each day, plus what was left of the supplies. Even things that were ruined might be useful, if they had long enough to think of a use for them. If they were forced to leave, there was a lot of potentially useful and immediately useful gear they would be forced to leave behind.

If. That was the trick. She could not for a moment forget that something out there had drained away their magic without any warning at all. If the wreck made a good target for searchers to find, it also made a good target for other things to find—including whatever knocked them out of the sky. Assume it’s an enemy, and assume he attacked. That was the wisest course of reasoning and the one she had to begin planning for.

For that matter, there was no telling what prowled the forest floor. Just because they hadn’t yet run into any major predators, that didn’t mean there weren’t any. The longer they stayed in one place, the easier it would be for predators to locate them.

“Thank goodness for Aubri,” came a muffled sigh from her right, and Tad came up out of his pile of seeming-rubbish at the same moment. He held in his talon a nonmagical firestriker, and Blade put aside the pile she’d been sorting to take it from him. Now she could make a fire with the dry, shellac-coated splinters of the basket and pile damp, green wood around that fire so that it could dry out enough to burn.

Tad remained with his pile; evidently he’d found the box that had held all of the nonmagical gear that Aubri had insisted they take with them. She eyed the improvised shelter for a moment. Think first, plan, then move. If you ruin something, there’s no one around to help with repairs. And not much to make repairs with.

She wanted a way to shelter the fire from the rain, without getting too much smoke into the shelter. And she didn’t want to take a chance on ruining the shelter they already had.

Right. There’s the tent flap. I bend those two saplings over and tie them to the basket, then unfold the tent flap and tie it downthere. And I think I can do that with one hand. Then maybe we can create a wind barrier with long branches and some of those big leaves. Plan now firmly in mind, she one-arm manhandled the saplings into place, then pulled the flap of canvas out over the arch they formed to protect the area where she wanted to put the fire. Carefully she tied the end of the tent flap to another broken tree, fumbling the knot several times; if it wasn’t caught by a big gust of wind, it would hold. At least they wouldn’t be lacking in wood, even though it was very green. They’d brought down a two or three days’ supply with them when they fell and they also had spare clothing to use for kindling. Build the fire first, then see about that barrier.

She scraped the leaf-litter away from the ground until she had a patch of bare earth, then carefully laid a fire of basket-bits, broken boxes, and some of the leaves she found that were actually dry. With the striker came a supply of tinder in the form of a roll of bone-dry lint lightly pressed together with tiny paper-scraps. She pulled off a generous pinch and put the rest carefully away, resealing the tinder box.

The firestriker was a pure nuisance to operate, especially one-handed. She finally wound up squatting down and bracing the box with one foot, and finally she got a spark to catch in the tinder and coaxed the glowing ember into a tiny flame. Frowning with concentration, she bent over her fragile creation and fed the flame carefully, building it up, little by little, until at long last she had a respectable fire, with the smoke channeling nicely away from the shelter. At that point, everything ached with strain.

Breathing a painful sigh, she straightened, and looked over at Tad to see what he’d found. The thing that caught her eye first was the ax. That, she was incredibly glad to see! It was small enough to use one-handed, sharp enough to hack through just about anything. And right now, they needed firewood.

She got painfully to her feet and helped herself to the implement, then began reducing the debris around their improvised camp into something a bit more useful to them.

She tossed branches too small to be useful as firewood into a pile at one side. If they had time before darkness fell or the rain came—whichever was first—she’d make a brush-palisade around the camp with them. It wouldn’t actually keep anything out that really wanted to get at them, but animals were usually wary of anything new, and they might be deterred by this strange “fence” in their path.

And anything pushing through it is going to make noise, which should give us some warning. Now just as long as nothing jumps over it. When Tad needs to urinate, we’ll collect it and spread it around the perimeter, the scent of any large predator should scare most foragers and nuisance animals away. And other than that, it is a perfect day, my lord.

The branches holding huge leaves she treated differently, carefully separating the leaves from the fibrous, pithy branches and setting them aside. When she had enough of them, and some straight poles, she’d put up that sheltering wall.

Every time she swung the ax, her body protested, but it wasn’t bad enough to stop her now that she had some momentum going. If I stop, I won’t be able to move for hours, so I’d better get everything I can done while I’m still mobile.

Evidently Tad had the same idea; he was sorting through the supplies with the same single-minded determination she was feeling. He’d found her two packs of personal supplies, and his own as well and put all of them in the shelter; laid out next to them was the primitive “Aubri gear.” In between swings of the ax she made out candles and a candle-lantern, a tiny folded cook-stove, canteens, two shovels, and three leather water bottles. Two enormous knives good for hacking one’s way through a jungle lay beside that, also a neat packet of insect netting, fishing line and hooks, and a compass. He’d gotten to the weapons they’d carried with them as a matter of course, and she grimaced to look at them. They were largely useless in their present circumstances. Her favorite bow was broken; the smaller one was intact, but she couldn’t pull it now. Nor could she use the sword Tad was placing beside the oiled-canvas quivers of arrows. Beside that he laid his set of fighting-claws—which might be useful, except that he couldn’t walk while wearing them.

And what are we going to do if we ‘re driven away from here and something attacks us on the trail? Ask it politely to wait while he gets his claws on ?

But her heart rose in the next moment, because he had found a sling! He placed it beside his claws, and two full pouches of heavy lead shot beside it. Now that she could use, and use it well, even with only one hand!

That gave her a little more energy to swing, and his next find added to that energy, for it was a short spear with a crosspiece on it, like a boar-spear. It had broken, but mostly lengthwise with the grain of the haft, and what remained was short enough to use one-handed. I can keep us fed with the sling; with the knife and the spear I can fight things off. He has his beak and talons, which are not exactly petty weapons. And he has some magic.

All gryphons had at least a small command of magic; Tad didn’t have a lot, not compared to his father, but it might be useful. . . .

But she shivered again, thinking about what Tad’s magic might attract, and decided that she had chopped enough wood. She ringed the fire with the green logs, stacked the rest at the back of the lean-to, and piled the remains of the basket that she had chopped up wherever she could under shelter. I don’t think I want him using any magic until we know for certain that whatever sucked the magic out of the basket isn’t going to bother us.

She joined Tad in his sorting, sadly putting aside some once-magical weapons that were now so much scrap. Unfortunately, they were shaped too oddly to be of any immediate use. The best purpose they could be put to now was as weights to hold pieces of canvas down to protect more useful items—like wood—from the rain.

She found the bedding at the bottom of the spill and took it all into the lean-to to spread on the ground, over mattresses of leaves and springy boughs. She made another trip with more assorted items and the weapons and gear she could actually use now. The rest, including some broken items, she laid under a piece of canvas; she might think of something to do with them later.

Most of the equipment was just plain ruined, and so was a great part of their food. The rations that survived the smash were, predictably, the kind a mercenary army normally carried; dried meat and a hard ten-grain ration-biscuit made with dried vegetables and fruit. This was not exactly a feast, but the dried meat would sustain Tad, and the hard ration-bread was something that a person could actually live on for one or two months at a time.

He wouldn’t enjoy living on it, but it was possible to do so without suffering any ill consequences.

She paused, and took a closer look at the smashed and ruined food. At the moment, some of it was still edible, though it wouldn’t stay that way for long.

Better save the rations for tonight, and eat what we can of this. She gathered together enough of the food to make a very hearty meal, and placed it by the fire, then laboriously took the rest out into the forest and deposited it a goodly way away from the camp. Better not let the local fauna associate the camp with food. They could set snares another time, for the curious, to supplement the dried-meat ration.

Time for that windbreak-wall beside the fire. She stuck the ends of four of the long, whippy branches into the soil and tied the tops to whatever she could reach along the supported tent flap, using her teeth and her one good hand. Then she threaded the leaves on another of the long branches, overlapping them like shingles. When she came to the end of the branch, she tied that along the base of the four wall supports, about a hand’s length from the ground, once again using teeth as well as her hand. Then she went back to threading leaves on another branch, and tied that one so that it overlapped the one below it. It didn’t take very long, and when she finished, she thought that the result, like the shelter, would hold up fairly well as long as no violent winds came up, which wasn’t too likely under the canopy.

When she left her completed wall, Tad was already sticking brush into the soft loam of the forest floor to make that brush-fence she had considered. She joined him, just as thunder rumbled threateningly in the distance. She took a quick glance over her shoulder, saw that everything worth saving was under some form of shelter and that the fire still burned well. It’ll survive, I hope. We’ll just have to hope our luck has turned. She joined Tad in constructing the “fence.” Their new home wasn’t much of one, but it was, after all, better than nothing. The work went quickly; the earth was so soft here that it didn’t take much effort to thrust the thin branches down well enough to anchor them securely.

Thunder rumbled right above them; she glanced up just in time to catch one of the first fat drops right in her eye.

A heartbeat later, as they were scrambling back to the shelter of the tent, the sky opened up. Together they huddled under the canvas; it was a very close fit, but no closer than it had been when the tent was still a tent.

Water poured out of the sky at a fantastic rate. Now she was glad that she had brought everything under the lean-to that she could, as she found it; she’d seen waterfalls with less water cascading down them! It all came straight down, too, without a sign of any wind to blow it sideways. There must have been some high winds at treetop level, though; the trunks of trees nearest her swayed a little as she watched them. The trees acted as a buffer between them and whatever wind the storm brought with it.

There was no moment when lightning was not illuminating some part of the sky, and there were times when she saw the fat raindrops seemingly hanging in the air due to a trick of the flickering light.

The rain knocked loose what branches hadn’t come down with them; one or two thudded against the shelter, and she was glad that there was canvas and the basket between them and the debris. Canvas alone would have caved in or torn.

She wondered if she should clear the fallen branches away later. If it isn’t hurting anything, I’ll leave it. If we look like a pile of debris to animals, they might leave us alone. Nowhat am I thinking ? The native animals will know what is right or wrong for their own area. I must be delirious.

Tad gazed out at the powerful storm with his eyes wide and his feathers roused against the cool damp. She wondered what he was thinking. Every time one of the really big lightning-bolts flashed across the sky, the back of his eyes glowed greenly.

Her shoulder began to stab at her again, throbbing in time to the thunder; the drugs she had taken must have worn off a bit. If she was in serious pain, Tad probably was, too, and there was no reason why they should endure it if they didn’t have to. The medical kit contained enough pain-relieving drugs to last two people for two weeks—by then, they would either be found or be in such serious trouble that a little pain would be the least of their worries. She felt for the bag of medicines and fished in it for two more vials of painkiller, handing him his. He took it, pierced the seal with a talon, and swallowed it down before she even had hers open. He took hers away from her and punctured the wax seal for her in the same way; she took it back gratefully, and downed it.

“Should we set a watch?” he asked. “I think we should. I think we should really try to stay awake even if we’re taking painkillers. I don’t like the idea of lying here helpless. It was different when we could set mage-wards, but now. . . .”

She thought about the question for a moment. We probably ought to, even though it’s not likely we could do much against a real enemy. Then again, if all that comes to plague us is scavengers and wild beasts, if we set a watch, whoever is awake can probably fend off any trouble.

“I agree. If you can sleep now, go ahead,” she said finally. “I can’t, not even with this demon’s brew in me. If you’re rested by the time I can’t stay awake any longer, then you can take second watch.”

He nodded, and she draped some of the bedding over him to keep him warm. “I’ll have something for you to eat when you wake up,” she promised. “I think it’s going to rain until well after dark; I’ll wake you up when I can’t keep my eyes open anymore.” She had no idea how he did it, but he was actually asleep shortly after she finished speaking. Must be exhausted, she decided. He was trying so hard to slow our fall; that must have taken an awful lot out of him. I ought to be surprised that he didn‘t just collapse completely after his wing was set.

She ought to feel a great deal more than she did; it was hard to sustain anything, even fear, for very long. That’s shock, and maybe it’s just as well. As long as I plan everything and concentrate, I can carry it out.

Later, perhaps, she would be able to feel and react; now she was oddly grateful for the peculiar numbness.

Since the supplies she had salvaged were pretty much mixed up together already, she used the hodgepodge of foodstuffs to make a kind of giant pancake with meat, vegetables, and spices all baked into it. She made as many of these cakes as she had supplies for; ate one herself, and saved the rest for Tad. After that, she just stared out into the rain. It was growing darker by the moment, although that simply could have been thickening clouds and not oncoming nightfall. A dull lethargy settled over her, and the rain lulled her into a state of wary weariness.

There was no sign that the rain was going to collapse the roof, and no sign that it was going to stop any time soon. Belatedly, she realized that here was a good source of fresh water for them, and she began to rummage through the supplies again. As she found things that could hold water, she stuck every container she could find into the streams of run-off along the front edge of the canvas. Before long, she had all their canteens and storage-bottles full, and had refilled the rest of their containers a second time, and she’d washed and rinsed the dishes.

I can get a wash! That revived her somewhat; she felt sweaty, grimy, and the mere idea of being able to wash herself revived her a little. She put a potful of water beside the fire to warm up; if she didn’t have to wash herself in cold water, she wasn’t going to! They might not have magic, but they still had other resources.

Besides, there were some remedies for bruises in that medical gear that had to be steeped in warm water. When she finished washing, she could do something about her minor injuries. They probably wouldn’t feel so minor when she tried to sleep.

Poor Tad; I don’t think my remedies will work on his bruises; he hasn’t got bare flesh to use them on. No point in soaking his feathers either; that would only chill him and make him feel worse.

Rain continued to pound the canvas; the falling rain was the only sound in the whole forest, at least to her limited ears. She sat with her knees drawn up to her chest and her good arm wrapped around them, watching the silver water continue to pour out of the sky, sent into a trancelike state by the steady, dull roaring. The flash of lightning and the pounding of thunder were the only things that kept her from completely succumbing and falling asleep a time or two. She caught herself with a sudden shock and a pounding heart, jerking herself awake.

When her water warmed, she clumsily stripped off her tunic, fished out a scrap of ruined cloth and bathed her bruises with gratitude in lieu of soap. How good a simple thing like a warm, damp cloth on her aches felt! And how good it felt to be clean! Her sense of being grimy had not been wrong.

Oh, how I wish I had one of those hot pools to soak in. . . . Well, while I’m at it, why don’t I wish for rescue, a soft bed in a deep cave, and enough painkiller to keep me asleep until this shoulder is healed! More such thoughts would only depress her or make her frantic with worry; she should concentrate on now, and on doing the best she could with what she had.

Just being clean again made her feel a great deal better; time to put on clothing that was equally clean. The air had cooled considerably since the rain began; now it was getting positively chill as well as damp. She pulled out a tunic with long sleeves—and realized as she started to put it on that it would be impossibly painful to get her arm into the sleeve without ruining the tunic.

Well, who was there to see her? No one.

She slit the front of the tunic with her knife; she could belt it closed again. But before she put on any clothing, she wrapped a blanket around her shoulders, and went back to the medical kit. She should treat the bruises first, then get dressed.

She found the herbs she needed in the kit, and put them into the pot of remaining warm water to steep. Now the rain did show some signs of slacking off, but it was also getting much darker out there. This wasn’t just thickening cloud cover; it must be just past sunset.

She reached for the shortened spear, and pulled out a selection of knives that could be thrown in a pinch, then considered her next move.

Do I build the fire up to discourage night prowlers, or bank it so as not to attract attention?

After some consideration, she opted for the former. Most animals were afraid of fire; if they smelled the smoke, they might avoid this area altogether. She had to burn green wood, but that was all right, since the smoke it made drifted away from the lean-to and not into it. A bigger fire warmed the interior of their shelter nicely, and beside her, Tad muttered drowsily and settled into deeper sleep.

When the herb-water was a deep, murky brown, she stripped off her blanket; soaking bandages in the potion until the bowl was empty, she wrapped the soaked cloth around the areas most bruised, curling up in the blanket until they dried.

The heat felt wonderful—and the medicines actually began to ease the dull throbbing ache wherever some of the worst bruises were. The scent of the potion arose, bitter and pungent, to her nose.

Good. At least I don’t smell like anything edible. I wouldn‘t want to eat anything that smelled like me. Even the bugs won’t bite me now. Maybe.

It wasn’t long before the bandages were dry enough to take off; she pulled on her breeches with one hand, then got her tunic on over her good arm and pulled it closed. Fortunately the belt fastener was a buckle with a hook instead of a tongue; she belted the slit tunic so that it would stay closed, more or less.

The rain stopped altogether; insects called out of the gloom in all directions. As the last of the light faded, odd whoops and strange, haunted cries joined the buzzing and metallic chirping of insects. Bird, animal, reptile? She had no way of knowing. Most of the calls echoed down from high above and could come from any throat.

It was very damp, cold, and very dark out there. The only other spots of light were foxfire off in the distance (probably from a decaying stump), and the mating lights of wandering insects. No moon, no stars; she couldn’t see either right now. Maybe the cloud cover was still too thick. Maybe the cover of the leaves was too heavy.

At least they had a fire; the remains of the basket were burning very well, and the green wood burning better than she had expected.

Perhaps the most frustrating thing of all about their situation was that neither she nor Tad had done a single thing wrong. They hadn’t been showing off, nor had they been in the least careless. Even experienced campaigners like Aubri and Judeth would have been caught unaware by this situation, and probably would have found themselves in the same fix.

It wasn’t their fault.

Unfortunately, their situation was still a fact, and fault didn’t matter to corpses.

Once Blade had immobilized Tad’s wing, it hadn’t hurt nearly as much as he had expected. That might have been shock, but it probably wasn’t; the break was simple, and with luck, it was already knitting. Gryphon bones healed quickly, with or without the services of a Healer.

It probably didn’t hurt nearly as much as his partner’s collarbone either; his wing was not going to move no matter what he did, but if she had to move and work, she was going to be jarring her shoulder over and over again.

I wish the teleson wasn’t gone. I wish I could fix it! He could fix the firestarter and the mage-light, and probably would after he slept, but the teleson was beyond him, as was the tent and the cook pot. If they had the teleson, help could be here in two days, or three at the most. Now it might be two or three days before anyone even knew they were in trouble.

He had volunteered for the second watch because he knew that she was going to have to be very tired before she could sleep—but once she was, those painkillers were going to hit her hard. Once she fell asleep, it was going to be difficult to wake her until she woke by herself.

For his part, although the painkiller helped, Keeth had taught him a fair amount about taking care of himself; he could self-trance pretty easily, and he knew several pain-reduction and relaxation techniques.

Lucky I have a trondi’irn’sor a brother.

He made himself comfortable, and once Blade draped a blanket over him so that he was warm, he fell asleep quickly.

Strange images, too fleeting to be called “dreams,” drifted with him. Visions of himself, visiting a trading fair in Khimbata, but as an adult rather than a child trailing after his Haighlei nurse, Makke; moments of flying so high above the earth that even with his keen eyesight, humans below him were no more than specks. There were visions that were less rational. He thought, once, that the trees were talking to him, but in a language he didn’t recognize, and that they grew frustrated and angry with him because he didn’t understand what they were trying to tell him.

None of this was enough to actually disturb his rest; he roused just enough to dismiss the dreams that were unpleasant without actually breaking his sleep, then drifted back into darkness.

He was just about on the verge of waking all by himself—half-dreaming that he ought to wake, but unable to really get the energy to rouse himself— when Blade shook him slightly, enough to jar him completely out of his half-sleep.

He blinked up at her; her face was a bizarre mask of purpling bruises and dancing golden firelight. If it had been a little more symmetrical and less obviously painful, it would have been oddly attractive. He tasted bitter herbs in the air as she yawned, and guessed that she had bandaged herself with some of her human medicines.

“I took more painkillers, and I can’t stay awake anymore,” she confessed, yawning again. “I haven’t seen or heard anything that I can confirm, although my imagination has been working away nicely.”

“Fine, then get some sleep,” he said, a little thickly, and blinked to clear his eyes. “I’ll take over until dawn.”

She settled herself between the wall of the tent and him, lying against him. He let her curl up in such a way as to take the most advantage of his warmth; she needed it. And she probably needs the comfort just as much, he thought, as she tried to arrange herself in a way that would cause the least pain to her broken collarbone. It can’t have been easy, sitting here, staring into the dark, and wondering what was out there, with your partner a great snoring lump beside you.

Granted, he wouldn’t have stayed a great snoring lump for long if there’d been trouble, but that was no comfort when you were straining your ears trying to tell if that was a nightbird, a bug, or a maneating whatever out there.

Gryphons were not noted for having powerful night vision, but both Skandranon and his two offspring were better than the norm at seeing in the dark. They weren’t owls—but they weren’t half-blind, either, and they were better than humans. He let his eyes adjust to the darkness, and mentally marked the shadows so that he knew where everything was. Some, he could even identify, by matching the general shape with his memory of the objects surrounding the camp; the place that looked like a crouching bear was really a stump overgrown with inedible fungi. And the bush that seemed to have a deeper shadow at the heart of it really did; it had grown around what remained of a snag, which could have passed for another crouching creature. Deep in the distance, a phosphorescent shape was a rotting tree with a patch of foxfire fungus in it—and it wasn’t really moving, that was an illusion brought on by eyestrain. Things that might have been pairs of eyes reflecting the firelight were nothing of the kind; if he watched them until they moved, it was clear that they moved independently of one another, which meant they were only a couple of light-bearing insects, probably flying in pairs because they were in the middle of a mating dance. A swift and silent shape passing from branch to branch above his head was an owl; one that flew with a faint fluttering just out of range of the firelight was a bat.

Once he identified things in his range of vision, he began cataloging sounds. The obvious buzzes and whirs were insect calls; likewise there were croaks and cheeps he knew were frogs. There were some calls he recognized from around White Gryphon; not all the creatures here were new to him. The occasional sleepy twitter or mutter from high above meant that something had mildly disturbed a bird’s rest—nothing to worry about, birds bumped into each other while they slept all the time.

Then there were the howls, barks, and growls. He took note of all of them, keeping track of where they were coming from and under what circumstances. Most of them originated from up in the tree canopy; that meant that, barring something completely strange, whatever made them wasn’t going to bother the two down below. The things living in the trees would, for the most part, be prey rather than predator; life in the tree tops was difficult, with the most difficult task of all being how to get to water.

Anything living up there had a reason not to want to live on the ground. Any creature up there would probably be relatively small, no bigger than Blade at the most, with a disproportionately loud call, because in the thick leaf cover up there, it would be hard to keep track of herd- or flock-mates. And if you yelled loudly enough when something grabbed you, there was a chance that you might startle it into letting go.

Predators in the tree canopy would either be snakes or winged; four-footed predators would hunt on the ground. While it was certainly possible that there could be a snake up there large enough to swallow Blade or even Tad, it would not be able to seize both of them at once, and it would not be very fast except when it struck. That left winged predators, and Tad was confident that he would be a match for anything that flew, even grounded.

No, what they had to worry about was what lay down here, so sounds up above could be dismissed unless and until they erupted in warning or alarm calls.

While his vision was incredibly keen by human standards, it was even more suited to picking up tiny movements. So once he had identified everything that lay in front of the shelter, he did not need to sit and stare into the darkness as Blade did. He need only relax and let his eyes tell him when something out there had changed its position. No matter how clever a predator was at skulking, sooner or later it would have to cross a place where he would spot it moving through the shadows, even on a night with no moon.

His hearing was just as good, and now that he knew what the normal noises were, he could listen through them for the sound of a grunt, a growl, or the hiss of breath—or for the rustle of a branch—or the crack of a twig snapped beneath a foot.

That was the other reason why he didn’t mind taking second watch. When all was said and done, he was much better suited to it than Blade was.

Now, if anything decided to come up behind them, he wouldn’t see it, and he might not hear it either. But it wouldn’t get through the canvas and basketry of their shelter quickly, and they should have time to defend themselves.

Or so I tell myself.

He stared out into the darkness, watching winking insect lights, and finally acknowledged to himself that, far .from feeling competent, he was feeling rather helpless.

We’re both crippled and in pain, we can’t use most of the weapons we have left, we aren ‘t entirely certain where we are, and we’re too far from home to get back, and that’s the honest truth. I don’t like it at all.

They had to hope that in three days or so, when they didn’t make the appointed rendezvous, they’d be missed, and that White Gryphon would send out a search party looking for them. They had to hope that they could survive long enough to be found!

Oh, stop feeling sorry for yourself and eat! he scolded himself. You aren’t going to get a chance at a better meal for a while, and starving yourself is hardly going to do any good. Whatever Blade fixed, it probably won’t keep past morning.

Slowly, to make them last, he ate the meat-and-vegetable cakes that Blade had concocted. They weren’t bad, considering how awful they could have been. Blade was not noted for being anything other than an indifferent cook, and these had actually been one of her best efforts. The two of them would probably joke about the incongruity of cooking a gourmet meal in the middle of a disaster, after they had escaped this stranding and healed. Of course, to hear the stories about Father, you would think he was so dashing that he would fight off two hundred makaar, seduce his wingleader, arrange a tryst, fight off another hundred makaar, and then pause for tea from a silver cup.

Blade had placed the odd cakes close enough to the fire that they kept warm without burning or drying out much. They would probably stay with him for a while, which was a good thing, since he wasn’t going to be doing much hunting for the next couple of days. And even then, in order to take down the size of prey he was used to, he’d have to somehow surprise it on the ground.

Father’s claims about being able to slip through enemy lines unseen might be true, but deer have keener noses and ears than human soldiers. I’m going to have to be very lucky to catch anything larger than a squirrel.

He was satisfied before finishing the cakes, so he covered the last four of them with a leaf followed by a layer of hot ashes, burying them next to the fire. He would leave them for breakfast; they should keep that long. Then he rested his chin on his foreclaws and resumed his interrupted thoughts.

The trouble is, I have no idea just what it was that knocked us out of the sky.

Obviously, he had several options. It could have been a purely natural phenomenon—or, if not natural, simply an anomalous and accidental creation of the mage-storms.

The trouble with that theory is that there have been a number of folk through here, Haighlei included. So that precludes it being stationary or ground bound. If it was something natural or accidental, it had to be stationary, it seemed, so why didn’t anyone discover it before this? The Haighlei in particular, suspicious as they were of anything magical that was not under the direct control of one of their Priest-Mages, made a point of looking for such “wild” magic, using broad, far-ranging sweeps. They had established the outpost; they would have come this way, though perhaps not this exact route. They should have found something this powerful.

Granted, we were a bit off the regular route. I wasn‘t watching the ground that closely for landmarks, I was watching the sky for weather. I think I was even veering off a bit to avoid the worst of the storm.

Still, a “bad spot,” even a null area, should show up to any skilled mage who was looking for it. It should be obvious to any mage looking for oddities.

I wasn’t looking; I have to think about using mage-sight in order to see things. I’m not like Snowstar, who has to remind himself not to use it.

That left the next possibility; it was something new, or else something that was outside his knowledge. He inexorably moved his thoughts toward the uneasy concept that something had brought them down intentionally, either in an attack or as a measure of preventive defense.

But if it was a defensive measure, how did they ever see us from the ground? The attack couldn’t have come from the air; there hadn’t been anything in the air except birds and themselves. It hadn’t come from the tree canopy, or he would have seen something directly below. It had to have come from ground level, below the tree canopy, so how had “they” seen the basket, Blade, and Tad?

Still, so far, whatever brought them down hadn’t come after them; that argued in favor of it being a defensive, perhaps even a reflexive, answer to a perceived threat.

But it happened so quickly! Unless “they” had a spell actually ready to do something like that, I can’t see how “they” could have done this before we got out of range!

That argued for an attack; argued for attackers who might actually have trailed them some time before they landed last night, and waited for them to get into the sky again before launching a spell that would send them crashing to the ground.

So why didn’t they come see if they’d killed us? Could they have been that sure of themselves? Could they simply not have cared?

Or could they be better at hiding themselves than he was at spotting them?

Could they be out there right now?

It was certainly possible that the attackers had struck from some distance away, and had not reached the site of the crash before he and Blade were up, alert, and able to defend themselves. The kind of attack certainly argued for a cowardly opponent, one who would want to wait until his prey was helpless or in an inescapable position before striking.

Unless, of course, he is simply a slow opponent; one who was making certain of every inch of ground between himself and us before he initiated a confrontation.

He sighed quietly. There was only one problem; this was all speculation. None of this gave him any hard evidence for or against anything. He just didn’t have any facts beyond the simplest—that they had been the victim of something that destroyed their holds on magic and brought them tumbling helplessly down out of the sky.

So, for the rest of the night, he continued to scan the forest and keep his ears wide open, starting at every tiny sound, and cursing his unending headache.

Dawn was heralded by nothing more obvious than a gradual lightening of the darkness under the trees. Tad knew that his partner was about to waken when her breathing speeded up and her heartrate increased—both of which he could hear quite easily. At his side, Blade yawned, stirred, started to stretch, and swore under her breath at the pain that movement caused her.

Tad hooked a talon around the strap of the medical supply bag and dragged it over to her so she could rummage in it without moving much. She heard him, and shoved her hand in and pulled out one of the little vials; without being asked, he pierced the wax seal with his talon, and she drank it down.

Blade lay quietly for many long moments before her painkillers took effect. “I assume nothing happened last night?” She made it an inquiry.

“Nothing worth talking about—except that I think there was some squabbling over the remains of the foodstuffs.” He hadn’t heard anything in particular except a few grunts and the sound of an impact, as if one of the scavengers had cuffed another. “We ought to consider putting out snares, especially whipsnares that would take a catch out of reach of the ground. It would be very frustrating to discover we’d trapped something, but a scavenger beat us to it.”

She sat up slowly, rubbing her eyes with her good hand. “I should have thought of that last night,” she said ruefully.

“They wouldn’t have worked last night,” he pointed out. “It was raining until well after dark. Chances are, the lines would have been ruined, or stakes pulled out of the mud. If it doesn’t rain that badly today, we can put them out after the afternoon rains are over.”

She yawned again, then grimaced and gingerly rubbed her bruised jaw. “Good idea,” she agreed. “Snares are a more efficient means of getting us supplemental rations than hunting. We’ll trap the area where I dumped the ruined food. Even if there’s nothing left, animals still might come back hoping there will be. Oh, gods, I am stiff and sore!”

“I know precisely how you feel. I saved us some breakfast.” He scraped away the ashes and revealed the cakes, now a bit crisper than they had been, and a bit grimier, but still edible. I wish I had some bruise medicine that would work as well on me as hers does on her.

“Did you!” She brightened, and scratched the back of her neck with her good hand. “Well, that puts a better complexion on things! And my bruise remedy seems to have the additional value of keeping away bugs; for once I haven’t got any new bites. Do you think you want another dose of your painkillers?”

He shook his head. “I took one as soon as it was light enough to see which vial was which.” He handed her a cake, and ate the remaining three, neatly but quickly. One cake seemed to be substantial enough to satisfy her, though he noted that she did devour every crumb and licked her fingers clean afterward. Thanks to the fact that she had filled and refilled every container they had, he had even been able to get a drink without her assistance from a wide pot.

He waited until she ate, washed her face and hands, and looked a bit more alert. “Now what do we do?” he asked, as she dried off her face on her ruined tunic of yesterday. He made a mental note to have her set that out when the rains started, to give it a primitive wash.

She sat back on her heels, wincing as she jarred her shoulder. “Now—we discuss options,” she said slowly. “What we do next, and where we go.”

He stretched, taking care with his bandaged{wing, and settled back again. “Options,” he repeated after her. “Well, we both know that the best thing we can do is stay here. Right?”

“And build a beacon.” She squinted past the canvas up through the treetops, at the tiny patches of sky visible, now and again, winking through the greenery like bright white eyes. “A very smoky beacon. It’s going to take a lot of smoke to trickle up through that cover.”

“It’s going to take two or three days before they know we’re missing,” he said aloud, just to make certain he had all of his reasoning straight. “We have a shelter, and we can make it better and stronger, just by using available wood and leaves. I saw what you did with that windbreak, and we could certainly add layers of ‘wall’ that way over the canvas and wicker. If you look at the fallen leaves, you’ll see that the ones you used dry up a lot like light leather; they’ll hold up as shelter material.”

She nodded, although she made a face. “It won’t be easy, one-handed,” she warned. “And I’m still the only decent knot tier in this team. You can bite holes, I can tie cord through them, but it is still tedious.”

“So we take it slowly. I can do quite a bit, I just have to be careful.” He paused for a moment, and went on. “We’re injured, but I’m still a full-grown gryphon, and there aren’t too many things that care to take on something my size, hurt or not.”

“In that two or three days, whatever brought us down can find us, study us, and make its own plans,” she countered, falling easily into the role of opposition—just as he would, when she proposed a plan. “We have to assume we were attacked and plan accordingly to defend ourselves. This place isn’t exactly defensible.”

He nodded; that was obvious enough. There was cover on all sides, and they didn’t have the means to clear it all away, not even by burning it down.

Assuming they could. He wasn’t willing to place bets on anything. Chances were, if they tried, nothing would happen; after all, they had no way to take down trees with trunks big enough for two and three men to put their arms around. But there was always the chance that they would succeed “better” than they anticipated—and set fire to the whole forest, trapping themselves in an inferno. He had not forgotten that the green wood around the fire last night had certainly burned more efficiently than he had anticipated. No, setting fire to this place to get a defensible clearing was not a good idea.

“We ought to be someplace where our beacon has a chance of being seen at night,” she went on. “I don’t think we made that big a hole in the tree cover when we went through it.”

“We didn’t; I checked.” Too bad, but she was right. Half the use of the beacon was at night, but there wasn’t a chance that a night flyer would see a fire on the ground unless it was much larger than one that two people could build and tend alone.

“The last problem is that there’s no source of water here,” she concluded, and held up her good hand. “I know we’ve had plenty of rain every afternoon ever since we entered this area, but we don’t dare count on that. So—we’re in an undistinguished spot with no landmarks, under the tree canopy, with nothing to put our backs against, and no source of water.”

He grimaced. “When you put it that way, staying here doesn’t seem like much of an option.”

“We only have to go far enough to find a stream or a pond,” she pointed out. “With luck, that might not be too far away. We’ll get our break in the cover, and our water source, and we can worry about making it defensible when we see what kind of territory we’re dealing with. But I think we ought to at least consider moving.”

“Maybe,” he said, doubtfully, “but—”

What he was going to reply was lost in the rumble of thunder overhead—and the spatter of rain on leaves.

“—not today,” he breathed, as the rain came down again, as torrential as yesterday, but much earlier in the day.

Blade swore and stuck her head out to get a good look at the rain—a little too far, as she managed to jiggle the canvas and wicker of their roof just enough to send a cascade of cold water down the back of her neck. She jerked back, and turned white with pain.

The stream of oaths she uttered would have done a hardened trooper proud, but Tad didn’t say anything. The cold water was insult enough, but when she lurched back, she must have really jarred her bad shoulder.

“I’ll get wood,” he offered hastily, and crawled slowly out of the shelter, trying not to disturb it any more.

Getting soaked was infinitely preferable to staying beside Blade when several things had gone wrong at once. She was his partner and his best friend—but he knew her and her temper very, very well.

And given the choiceI’d rather take a thunderstorm.

Five

“Wet gryphon,” Blade announced, wrinkling her nose, “is definitely not in the same aromatic category as a bouquet of lilies.”

“Neither is medicine-slathered human,” Tad pointed out mildly. “I’ll dry—but in the morning, you’ll still be covered with that smelly soup.”

Since he had just finished helping her wrap her limbs and torso in wet, brown bandages, he thought he had as much right to his observation as she had to hers.

In fact, he had shaken as much off his feathers as he could before he got into the tent, and he was not wet anymore, just damp. “And it could be worse. You could be sharing this shelter with a wet kyree,” he added.

She made a face. “I’ve been stuck in a small space with a wet kyree before, and you are a bundle of fragrant herbs, if not a bouquet of lilies, compared to that experience.”

Supper for her had been one of the pieces of travel-bread, which she had gnawed on rather like a kyree with a bone. They had been unbelievably lucky; Blade had spotted a curious climbing beast venturing down out of the canopy to look them over, and she had gotten it with her sling. It made a respectable meal, especially since Tad hadn’t done much to exert himself and burn off breakfast.

He had gone out to get more wood, searching for windfall and dragging it back to the camp. Then he had done the reverse, taking what wreckage they were both certain was utterly useless and dropping it on the other side of their brush-palisade where they wouldn’t always be falling over it.

Blade had gone out in the late afternoon to chop some of the wood Tad had found, and bathe herself all over in the rain. He had been a gentleman and kept his eyes averted, even though she wasn’t his species. She was unusually body-shy for a Kaled’a’in—or perhaps it was simply that she guarded every bit of her privacy that she had any control over.

At any rate, she had gathered up her courage and taken a cold rain bath, dashing back in under the shelter to huddle in a blanket afterward. She claimed that she felt much better, but he wondered how much of that was bravado, or wishful thinking. She was a human and not built for forceful—or bad—landings. Although the basket had given her some protection, he had no real idea how badly hurt she was in comparison with him. Nor was she likely to tell him if she was hurt deeper than the skin-obvious. To his growing worry, he suspected that her silence might hide her emotional wounds as well.

After she was dry, she had asked his help with her bruise-medicines. There was no doubt of how effective they were; after the treatment yesterday, the bruises were fading, going from purple, dark blue, and black, to yellow, green and purple. While this was not the most attractive color-combination, it did indicate that she was healing faster than she would have without the treatments.

He finished the last scrap of meat, and offered her the bones. “You could put these in the fire and roast them,” he said, as she hesitated. “Then you could eat the marrow. Marrow is rich in a lot of good things. This beast wasn’t bad; the marrow has to have more taste than that chunk of bread you’ve been chewing.”

“Straw would have more taste,” she replied, and accepted the larger bones.

“I can bite the bones open later, if they don’t split, and you can carve out the cooked marrow. We can use the long bone splinters as stakes. They might be useful,” Tad offered.

Blade nodded, while trying unsuccessfully to stretch her arms. “You try and crunch up as much of those smaller bones as you can; they’ll help your wing heal.” She buried the bones in the ashes and watched them carefully as he obeyed her instructions and snapped off bits of the smaller bones to swallow. She was right; every gryphon knew that it took bone to build bone.

When one of the roasting bones split with an audible crack, she fished it quickly out of the fire. Scraping the soft, roasted marrow out of the bones with the tip of her knife, she spread it on her bread and ate it that way.

“This is better. It’s almost good,” she said, around a mouthful. “Thanks, Tad.”

“My pleasure,” he replied, pleased to see her mood slowly lifting. “Shall we set the same watches as last night?” He yawned hugely. “It’s always easier for me to sleep on a full stomach.”

“It’s impossible to keep you awake when your belly’s full, you mean,” she retorted, but now she wore a ghost of a smile. “It’s the best plan we have.”

His wing did hurt less, or at least he thought it did. Gryphon bones tended to knit very quickly, like the bones of the birds that they were modeled after. Just at the moment, he was grateful that this was so; he preferred not to think about the consequences if somehow Blade had set his wing badly. Not that his days of fancy aerobatics would be over, but having his wing-bones rebroken and reset would be very unpleasant.

He peered up at the tree canopy, and as usual, saw nothing more than leaves. And rain, lots of it.

“I’m afraid we’re in for another long rain like last night,” he said ruefully. “So much for putting out snares.”

“We can’t have everything our way.” She shrugged. “So far, we’re doing all right. We could survive a week this way, with no problem—as long as nothing changes.”

As long as nothing changes. Perhaps she had meant that to sound encouraging, but as he willed himself to sleep, he couldn’t feel any encouragement. Everything changes eventually. Only a fool would think otherwise. We might think we know what we’re doing, but it only takes one serious mistake out here and we’re dead. Even a minor mistake would mean that everything changes.

The thought followed him down into his sleep, where it woke uneasy echoes among his dreams.

He slept so lightly that Blade did not need to shake him awake. He roused to the sound of water dripping steadily from the leaves above, the crackling and popping of the fire, and the calls of insects and frogs. That was all. It was very nearly silent out there, and it was a silence that was unnerving.

The forest that he knew fell silent in this way when a large and dangerous predator—such as a gryphon—was aprowl. He doubted that the denizens of this forest knew the two of them well enough to think that they were dangerous. That could only mean that something the local creatures knew was dangerous was out there.

Somewhere.

“Anything?” he whispered. She shook her head slightly without taking her eyes off the forest, and he noticed that she had banked the fire down so that it didn’t dazzle her eyes.

He strained both eyes and ears, testing the night even as she did, and found nothing.

“It isn’t that everything went quiet, it was that nothing much started making night-sounds after dark,” she whispered back. “I suppose we might have driven all the local animals off—”

“Even the things that live up in the canopy? I doubt it,” he replied. “Why would anything up there be afraid of us?”

She shrugged. “All I know is, I haven’t heard or seen anything, but I have that unsettling feeling that something is watching us. Somewhere.”

And whatever it is, the local creatures don’t like it either. He had the same feeling, a crawling sensation at the back of his neck, and an itch in his talons. There were unfriendly eyes out there in the night, and Tad and Blade were at a disadvantage. It knew where they were and what they were. They had no idea what it was.

But if it hadn’t attacked while he was asleep, hopefully it wouldn’t while Blade took her rest. “Get to sleep,” he told her. “If there’s anything out there except our imaginations, it isn’t likely to do anything now that I’m on watch. I look more formidable than you do, and I intend to reinforce that.”

Under the packs holding Blade’s clothing were his fighting-claws. He picked up her packs with his beak and fished them out. The bright steel winked cruelly in the subdued firelight, and he made a great show of fitting them on. Once Blade had fastened the straps, he settled back in, but with a more watchful stance than the previous night.

If there’s nothing out there, I’m going to feel awfully stupid in the morning, for putting on all this show.

Well, better to feel stupid than be taken unaware by an attacker. Even if it was just an animal watching them, body language was something an animal could read very well. Hopefully, in the shiny claws and the alert stance, it would read the fact that attacking them would be a big mistake.

Blade pulled blankets around herself as she had the night before, but he noticed that she had a fighting-knife near at hand and her crossdraw knife under her pillow.

I just hope she can make herself sleep, he fretted a little. She’s going to be of no use if she’s exhausted in the morning. If there was the slightest chance of convincing her to drink it, I’d offer her a sleeping tea.

He waited all night, but nothing happened. Drops of water continued to splat down out of the trees, and frogs and insects sang, although nothing else moved or made a sound. He began to wonder, toward dawn, if perhaps they had frightened away everything but the bugs and reptiles.

It wasn’t likely, but it was possible. . . .

By the time the forest began to lighten with the coming of dawn, every muscle in his body ached with tension. His eyes twitched and burned with fatigue, and he could hardly wait for Blade to wake up. But he wouldn’t awaken her himself. She needed her rest as much as he needed his.

Finally, when dawn had given way to full daylight, she stirred and came awake, all at once.

“Nothing,” he said, answering her unspoken question. “Except that nothing larger than a gamebird made a sound all night, either, near the camp.”

Now he moved, removing the fighting-claws, getting stiffly to his feet, and prowling out into the rising fog. He wanted to see what he could before the fog moved in and made it impossible to see again, shrouding in whiteness what the night had shrouded in black.

He was looking for foot- or paw-prints, places where the leaves had been pressed down by a body resting there for some time.

This was the area of which he was most proud. He wasn’t just a good tracker, he was a great one. Blade was good, but he was a magnitude better than she.

Why a gryphon, who spent his life furlongs above the ground, should prove to be such a natural tracker was a total mystery to him. If Skandranon had boasted a similar ability, no one had ever mentioned it. He only knew that he had been the best in his group, and that he had impressed the best of the Kaled’a’in scouts. That was no small feat, since it was said of them that they could follow the track of the wind.

He suspected he would need every bit of that skill now.

He worked his way outward from the brush-fence, and found nothing, not the least sign that there had been anything out in the darkness last night except his imagination. He worked his way out far enough that he was certain no one and nothing could have seen a bit of the camp. By this time, he was laughing at himself.

I should have known better. Exhaustion, pain, and too many drugs. That’s a combination guaranteed to make a person think he’s being watched when he’s alone in his own aerie.

He debated turning and going back to the camp; the fog was thickening with every moment, and he wouldn’t be able to see much anyway. In fact, he had turned in his tracks, mentally rehearsing how he was going to make fun of himself to Blade, when he happened to glance over to the side at the spot where he had left the wreckage he had hauled out of the camp yesterday.

He froze in place, for that spot was not as he had left it. Nor did it look as if scavengers had simply been rummaging through it.

Every bit of trash had been meticulously taken apart, examined, and set aside in a series of piles. Here were the impressions he had looked for in vain, the marks of something, several somethings, that had lain in the leaf mold and pawed over every bit of useless debris.

His intuition, and Blade’s, had been correct. It had not been weariness, pain, and the medicines. There had been something out here last night, and before it had set to watch the camp it had been right here. Some of the larger pieces of wreckage were missing, and there were no drag marks to show where they had been taken. That meant that whatever had been here had lifted the pieces and carried them off rather than dragging them.

And except for this one place, there was no trace of whatever had been here. The creature or creatures that had done this had eeled their way through the forest leaving nothing of themselves behind.

This couldn’t be coincidence. It had to be the work of whatever had brought them crashing down out of the sky. Now their mysterious enemies, whatever they were, had spent the night studying him, Blade, and as much of the things belonging to them as had been left within their reach. They now had the advantage, for he and Blade knew nothing of them, not even if they ran on four legs, six, eight, two, or something else. All that he knew was that the creature—or creatures—they faced were intelligent enough to examine things minutely—and cunning enough to do so without clear detection.

He turned and ran back to the camp, despite the added pain it brought him. It was not simple fear that galvanized him, it was abject terror, for nothing can be worse to a gryphon than an opponent who is completely unknown.

As Tad spoke, Blade shivered, although the sun was high enough now that it had driven off the fog and replaced the cool damp with the usual heat and humidity. The pain, weariness, the drugs—all of them were taking their toll on her endurance. Her hands shook; her pale face told him that it wasn’t fear that was making her shake, it was strain. This just might be the event that broke her nerve.

Tad had tried to be completely objective; he had tried only to report what he had seen, not what he had felt. Out there, faced with the evidence of their watchers, he had sensed a malignant purpose behind it all that he had no rational way of justifying. But Blade evidently felt the same way that he did, and rather than break, this new stress made her rally her resources. Her face remained pale, but her hands steadied, and so did her voice.

“We haven’t a choice now,” she said flatly. “We have to get out of here. We can’t defend this place against creatures that can come and go without a sign that they were there. If we’re lucky, they’re territorial, and if we get far enough out of their territory, they’ll be satisfied.”

Once again, the wildlife of this place was mysteriously absent from their immediate vicinity; only a few birds called and cried in the canopy. Did they know something that the two below them did not?

“And if we’re not, we’ll be on the run with no secure place to hole up,” he argued. His focus sharpened, and he felt the feathers along his cheeks and jaws ripple. “If they can come and go without our seeing them, they can track us without our knowing they’re behind us! I don’t want some unseen enemy crawling up my tail. I want to see whoever I am against.” That unnerved him, and he was not ashamed to show it. The idea that something could follow them, or get ahead of them and set an ambush, and he would never know it until it was too late. . . . It just made his guts bind and crawl.

Blade was quiet for a moment, chewing on her lower lip. All around them, water dripped slowly from the leaves, making the long fall to splash into puddles below, and the air was thick with the perfumes of strange flowers. “Look,” she said, finally. “We didn’t fly all that far before we were brought down. Twenty, maybe thirty leagues at most. We can go back in the direction of our previous campsite. That was defensible; remember, there was a cliff nearby? And remember the river that ran alongside it?”

Nervously, Tad flexed his talons into the loam. New scents rose to his nostrils, of earth and old leaves, dampness and the sharp aroma of a torn fungus. “You have a point.” He thought about her suggestion, mentally trying to figure out how long it would take two injured people to walk the distance that two uninjured people had flown. It isn‘t so much the distance, as what we have to cross to get there. “It might take us as much as four days,” he pointed out. “We don’t have any real way of getting good directions other than the north-needle, and we’re going to be crawling through leagues of this—” He waved his claw at the tangled undergrowth. “We’re going to be carrying packs, we’ll have to guard our backtrail and watch ahead for ambushes, and we’re both injured. All of that will delay us; in fact, we probably ought to assume that we’re going to be creeping through the forest, not hiking through it.”

If we’re going to do this, I want to creep. I want to go from bit of cover to bit of cover; I want to walk so that we leave no sign and little scent. I want to leave traps behind.

“But when we get there—we’ll be at a cliff face, Tad. That means caves, probably at least one waterfall; even if we don’t find the river at first, we can work our way along the cliff until we do find the river. We’ll at least have someting we can put our backs against!” She looked unbelievably tense, and Tad didn’t blame her. Of the two of them, she was the most vulnerable, physically, and the least able to defend herself, knife skill or not.

Not that either of us will be particularly good at it. In terrain like this, I’m at a distinct disadvantage. If anything gets in front of me, I can probably shred it, but at my sides and rear I’m badly vulnerable at close quarters.

If they left this camp, their choice of how to proceed was simple; pack out what they could, or try to live off the land with very little to aid them. Take the chance that they could improvise, or—

Or find out that we can’t. We’re hurt; we are going to need every edge we can get. That means tools, weapons, food, protection.

“The one advantage that we have is that whatever these creatures are, they don’t know us, so they can’t predict us,” she persisted. “If we move now, we may confuse them. They may linger to look over what we left. We aren’t going to lose them unless they lose interest in us, but we may leave them far enough behind that it will take them a while to catch up.”

If only they had some idea of what kind of creature they were up against! The very fact that they would be trying to slip quietly through the forest rather than running might confuse their foes.

Or it might tempt them into an attack. They might read that as an admission of weakness. There was just no way of knowing.

He nodded, grinding his beak a bit. “Meanwhile, if we stay, they can study us at their leisure,” he admitted. “And that makes us easy targets.”

Go or stay? Remain where they were or try to find some place easier to defend?

Either way, they were targets. The only question was whether they made themselves moving targets or entrenched targets.

Aubri and Father always agreed on that; it’s better to be a moving target than a stationary one. “All right, I agree,” he conceded. “Let’s make up two packs and get out of here. You might as well load me down; it isn’t going to make a great deal of difference since I can’t fly anyway.”

She nodded, and wordlessly turned to rummage through the supplies cached in the tent. In a few moments, she handed him a pack to fill.

He joined her in picking through all the supplies they had salvaged. It was obvious what they were going to leave behind; just about everything they had saved. They would have to abandon everything that wasn’t absolutely essential.

Their discards went everywhere, now that there was no point in sheltering them. If their foes did come to rummage through what they left behind, the confusion of belongings might gain them a little more time.

Clothing, personal items, those joined the rejected items; it was easier to decide what to leave than what to take. The piles of discards grew larger, with very few items making it into the packs. The medicine kit had to come along; so did the weapons, even though the pouches of lead shot were heavy. So far, there hadn’t been anything around that Blade could use in the sling instead of lead shot. This was the wrong time of the year for fallen nuts; the soil here wasn’t particularly rocky, and they couldn’t count on a cairn of pebbles turning up at a convenient moment.

The only distance-weapon she could use one-handed was the sling, so the shot had to come, too.

The food had to come with them, and some of the tools, and just enough bedding and canvas to keep them warm and dry at night. All of that cloth was bulky and heavy, but if they got soaked, they could easily die of cold-shock, even with a fire to keep them warm and dry them out. Then again—if they got soaked in another long rainstorm and they were caught without shelter, there would be no way to build a fire to warm them. No, the canvas half-shelter and a blanket apiece had to come along.

They were leaving a great deal for their opponents to look over, and Tad hoped that it would keep them very, very busy. And if only I knew something, anything about “them,” I’d be able to think of a way to keep them even busier.’

Part of their training included this sort of selection process, and they had learned just what was truly essential to survive. It didn’t take long before they had two packs put together, one large, and one small. Blade would carry two spears and use them as walking sticks; that way she would have both aid and weapon in one. It had taken some ingenuity to rig her pack so that it would stay on with a minimum of pain—there couldn’t have been a worse injury than a broken collarbone when it came to carrying a pack. Much of the weight was going to fall on her hips, now, and would probably cause bruises and abrasions. Both Tad and Blade had come to accept that pain was going to be an omnipresent part of their immediate future, and their concern regarding it was more a case of figuring out ways to lessen its immediate impact, since eliminating it was impossible, “endure now, heal later” was the philosophy that would serve them best.

The morning fog was just beginning to lift when they took a bearing with the north-needle and headed into the west. Blade led in more open areas. She was small—they both had the feeling that if an attack came, it would come from the rear. He was better suited to bearing the brunt of an attack from the front than she, and in open areas he could turn around quickly to help Blade. In close quarters, he led, with Blade guarding his tail. They were still vulnerable from the sides, but it was better than a completely unguarded rear. They had discussed booby-trapping the camp, but decided against it. If their foes were kept nicely busy with what remained, that was good, but if one of their number was hurt or killed by a booby-trap, it might make them angry and send them hot on the trail, after revenge. Also, discovery of one trap might make whatever it was give up on a search of the camp entirely and go straight into tracking them, which would lose them valuable distance.

As they left the area, Tad paused once for a look back at the camp, wondering if they were making a dreadful mistake. They were leaving so much behind, so much that they might need desperately in the next few days! But their pathetic little shelter looked even more vulnerable now, and rationally, he knew that it couldn’t withstand a single determined blow, much less a coordinated attack by several creatures at once. In fact, with its canvas-over-wicker construction, it could become a trap for both of them. It wouldn’t take much to drive the supporting saplings through the wicker-work. . . .

A shiver ran along his spine at that thought, for it was all too easy to picture something slamming the cup of wicker down on top of them, trapping them inside, where they would be helpless to defend themselves. . . .

With a shudder, he turned away, and followed after Blade as she picked her way through the tangled growth of the forest floor.

There was still fog in the treetops, just high enough that there was no real way for them to tell precisely where the sun was. In a little while, the last of the fog would burn off completely, and then they might be able to cross-check their bearings with the angle of the sun—although so far, they hadn’t been able to manage that yet.

We’ll know where we are exactly, but only if we can find a hole big enough to see the sun through. And then it will only be possible if the sun is high enough to shine down through the hole at the time we find it.

Living in this forest was like living inside an enormous, thick-aired cave. How could anything that lived here know where it was? It was very disorienting for Tad not to be able to see the sky, and somewhat claustrophobic; he wondered if Blade felt the same as he.

She seemed determined to concentrate on the forest ahead, slipping carefully through the underbrush in such a way that she disturbed as little as possible. The kind of leaf litter that served as the forest floor didn’t hold tracks very well, and if their enemies could just hold off following until the afternoon rains started, it wouldn’t hold a scent very well either. If she found their surroundings claustrophobic, she wasn’t letting the feeling interfere with what she was doing.

But he kept swiveling his head in all directions every time they paused to pick a good route. Those frequent pauses as she pondered her route to the next bit of cover gave him ample opportunity to feel the forest closing in on him. His nerves were afire with tension; he couldn’t imagine why she wouldn’t feel the same.

But maybe she doesn‘t; maybe this doesn‘t bother her. Maybe she doesn’t even need to feel sky and wind. He had always known that humans weren’t like gryphons, and that thought made her seem positively alien for a moment.

But, then again, she lived in a veritable burrow back in White Gryphon, so maybe this landscape felt cozy to her, rather than constricting. But oh, how he longed for enough room to spread his wings wide, even if that longing reminded him pointedly that he couldn’t spread them at the moment!

As Blade eeled her way between two bushes that were barely far enough apart to let him through, he realized something else that was very strange. There weren’t any game trails here.

That realization was just as disconcerting to him as not being able to see the sky. He knew there were some large animals that lived down here on the forest floor, so why didn’t they leave regular trails? There should be deer trails, going to and from water. Deer couldn’t collect rainwater in vessels to drink, obviously; they had to have a water source. He had never in all of his life encountered a deer herd that didn’t make paths through their territory just by virtue of the fact that there were a lot of them going in the same direction.

Was there something living down here that was so dangerous that it was suicidal to have a regular trail, foolhardy to move in groups large enough to make one?

Could that something be what had brought them down, and what had been examining their ruined belongings?

That’s altogether too logical, and is not a comforting thought. I know there are large cats like lions here, and bears, because the Haighlei told us there wereyet I have never seen deer and wild pigs afraid to make game trails in lion or bear country. If there is something else living here that makes creatures who regularly face lions afraid to leave a game trail. . . .

The answer could be that whatever this putative creature was happened to be so fierce, so bloodthirsty, that it wasn’t safe for herbivores to travel in herds. That it was the kind of creature that slaughtered everything within its reach, whether or not it was hungry. He swallowed, his throat feeling tight and dry.

But he might be overreacting again. He didn’t like this place; perhaps his imagination was getting the better of him. Maybe we just are in a bad place in the forest. Maybe there’s nothing here worth foraging for to bring deer and other browsers into this area. There certainly doesn’t seem to be anything tasty for a plant eater to feed on; all these bushes are extraordinarily tough and we’ve seen precious little grass. Maybe that’s why there aren’t any trails through here; it simply isn’t worth a deer’s time to come here.

And perhaps that was the reason for the unnatural silence all about them.

There might be an even better explanation for the silence—they were dreadfully obvious to anything watching and listening. Despite the fact that they were trying very hard to be quiet, the inevitable sounds they were making were an unholy racket in contrast with the silence surrounding them. Try as they might, as they passed from one spot of cover to the next, they rattled vines and rustled bushes, and none of those noises sounded natural.

And anything living up in the trees is going to have a fine view of us down below. I doubt that Blade looks harmless to what’s up there, and I know I don’t. I look like a very large, if oddly shaped, eagle.

Tree dwellers might not recognize Blade as a predator, but they would certainly recognize Tad. There were eagles here, they knew that for a fact, for he had seen them flying below him, hunting in and above the forest canopy. Anything that looked like an eagle was going make a canopy dweller nervous.

And yet. . . there hadn’t been a silence this wary and profound since they had felt as if they were being watched. For that matter, the tree dwellers hadn’t been particularly quiet in any of the other places that they had camped before they had crashed.

This is exactly like the silence that falls when an eagle-owl is hunting, and everything stays absolutely quiet and motionless until the moment it makes a kill, hoping that whatever it is hunting, it will not find one of them.

There weren’t even the sounds made when other animals hunted . . . but when a greater predator prowls, the lesser remains silent and hidden. Are we the greater predators, or is something else?

Perhaps he should put his mind to thinking of ways to delay pursuit.

If whatever-it-is does come after us, it wouldn’t matter now if I laid booby-traps behind us. Would it? How much worse could I make things, if I hurt something that was following us?

Well, the answer to that could well be—much worse. Why anger something that was following only out of curiosity?

Perhaps not booby-traps then, at least not yet. Perhaps just things to confuse the trail. The first thing to confuse would be scent, because that was of primary importance to a ground-dwelling predator in an environment like this one. There wasn’t much of a line-of-sight, but scent would hold and cling until the next rain washed it away. And by then, a trail would more than likely be too cold to follow anyway.

He began watching for a vine with leaves veined with purple and red; it had a pungent, peppery smell. He’d noticed that they were fairly common, and when he finally spotted one, he hissed at Blade to stop for a moment.

When they next moved on, it was with the thick juice from those leaves rubbed all over their feet and hands—and they were going to have to remember not to rub their eyes until they washed it off, for it burned just like real pepper! There were other plants, less common, that had equally distinctive odors, and as he came across them he intended to gather generous samples. Every time the current scent was about to wear off, he’d change it. If anything came hunting them depending on its nose, he’d have handed it a surprise. And maybe one of these plants would have the effect of numbing a sensitive nose.

He had to hope this ploy would work, for they were certainly proceeding at a crawl to begin with, and their progress only slowed as the day progressed. His pack was awkward, heavy, and made his bad wing and all his bruises ache; he wasn’t suited to walking in the first place, and his injuries combined with the pack only made it worse. Fortunately for his own feelings, Blade wasn’t doing any better, so he wasn’t in the position of knowing that he was the one impeding their progress.

The longer they walked, the worse it got. Eventually the fog burned off, and the temperature rose, so that he was overheated as well as in pain. Blade’s shirt stuck to her, dark with sweat. He couldn’t sweat, so he panted. Neither sweating nor panting brought any relief in the humid air; it must have been nearly as sultry as a Kaled’a’in steambath. There wasn’t a breath of breeze down here to stir the heavy air. If he had been left to his own devices, he’d have called a halt and flung himself to the ground for a rest.

As he had predicted, their progress was measured in furlongs, not leagues, with no discernible differences in the territory that they crossed. He could only be certain that they were not walking in circles by virtue of the fact that Blade kept checking the north-needle every time they stopped moving. They stopped for a brief break and something to eat. The sun actually penetrated the canopy in a few places eventually, but it was not much help in showing them where they were. There wasn’t enough of it visible to help them get a bearing from it, either by using a measuring stick or by taking the angle of it.

In fact, the sunlight proved to be something of a new hazard. The beams of sunlight lancing down through the dark green leaves were very pretty, very picturesque, but they were also to be avoided at all costs. Pinned even for a moment in such a bright light, they would be extremely obvious as something that didn’t belong there.

There were still no signs of any watercourses, either, which probably meant that this forest depended on rain rather than ground water for the trees to thrive. That was not precisely a surprise, given the daily thunderstorms.

But a creek or a small stream would have given them a path to a river, and a way to break their trail completely. If they were ever able to wade for some distance along the path of a creek bed, they would completely lose anything that hunted by scent. He had been hoping for a stream, in fact, for that very reason.

That, and stream water would certainly be cooler than the water in my water skin. The tepid liquid he was carrying had not been particularly refreshing, although he had drunk his ration dutifully. And it would taste better. Much better.

But there was no sign of any sort of a stream, and eventually the beams of sunlight faded, the light all about them dimmed, and a distant rumble heralded the afternoon storm approaching. At that point, despite their lack of progress, he was almost grateful to hear it. Now they would have to stop and rig a shelter for the night, because it wouldn’t be long before the rain started to fall and made it impossible to get anything constructed.

Blade stopped, held up her hand, then motioned him up beside her.

“We’ve got to stop and get our canvas up,” she said, weariness in every syllable. He felt instantly sorry for her; she sounded even more tired than he was.

She pointed ahead, to one of the few distinctive places he’d seen in this forest. There was a break in the cover, through which the fat, gray bellies of the clouds were clearly visible; at some point in the past few years one of the forest giants had toppled here. They edged forward to a place where the hollowed-out carcass of an ancient snag stood, half-covered with vines, the remains of the rest of the tree lying on the ground beside it, smothered in vines and plants. “That snag is big enough to hold both of us. We’ll use that for the base of our shelter; it’s the closest thing I’ve seen today to something that we can count on to protect us overnight.”

And she doesn‘t mean from the rain. He nodded. Abandoning any pretext at moving quietly, they thrashed their way through the undergrowth to the giant snag. It stood a little taller than Blade’s head, and as she had stated, was just large enough to hold both of them in its hollow interior. There was no room for a fire, but in confines that close, they would keep each other warm with the heat of their bodies.

And I’m not certain that I want afire to advertise our presence tonight.

They were going to need one initially, though— otherwise they were going to be sharing this shelter with a wide variety of multi-legged guests. Rotten wood meant insects, and some of them could be noxious or even poisonous.

They didn’t have much time before the storm broke, though; perhaps not enough time for Blade to use the firestriker to start a fire in the hollow. But he was a mage, and the easiest spell in the lexicon was to call fire.

Dare I? It could have been the mere presence of magic that got us attacked. . . . Well, if I don’t, she might not get a torch going before the rain comes. And the fire-spell is so very small, so limited in scope and durationI’d better chance it. “Move back,” he ordered her; as soon as she had obeyed, he closed his eyes, concentrated—and called fire into the midst of the hollowed-out trunk.

There was enough in the way of dry leaves and dry, half-rotted woodchips on the floor of the snag to start an enthusiastic and very smoky fire. The smoke had the immediate effect of driving out everything that could leap or fly; Blade bundled other burnables together into two torches and they lit both at the fire and proceeded to char the interior. Smoke rose all about them in a thick fog; he coughed and backed out to get a breath of cleaner air more than once. Half-rotten wood did not give off the kind of pleasant smoke that made sitting beside a campfire a pleasure. It was a pity they hadn’t come upon this place earlier; some of the grubs might have been very tasty, especially cooked. Now their only concern was to rid the tree of all other inhabitants before the rains came.

He coughed again, as a new and more acrid set of odors joined the heavy smoke. We must have hit a nest of something nasty. Ugh. Or maybe we ‘ve just incinerated a crop of unpleasant fungi. He hoped that whatever they burned off didn’t give off poisonous fumes. A little late to worry about that now.

They didn’t quite beat the downpour completely. They were in the process of roofing the snag with their canvas and tying it down when the first cloudburst descended, wetting them both to the skin.

At that point, Blade gave in to the inevitable and stood in the downpour until she and her clothing had been flushed clean, and he let the rain wash all of the soot and dirt from his own feathers before shaking himself partially dry under the shelter of a nearby tree. It was too bad that Blade’s clothing didn’t sluice clean so easily, nor could she shake herself dry. He made a dash to the snag and squeezed himself into the downed tree with the supplies. She had already gotten out blankets and bread and dried meat. He tucked the packs up in a way that she could sleep on them, and put her blanket on top of the pile. He had to put the dried meat out into the stream of water pouring off the canvas and soak it until he could eat it. Meanwhile, Blade emptied and refilled their water skins, then joined him in their shelter.

Their combined body heat did do something to warm the interior; with blankets over each of them, they weren’t completely miserable, and Blade’s clothing actually began to dry out. And the strong smell of smoke wasn’t too bad after a while—though they must not have gotten all of the bugs out of their shelter, since periodically he would feel a small one taking a trip-under his feathers, or Blade would slap at something. Once again, the rain persisted until after nightfall, though once it stopped, it was— again—uncannily silent beneath the trees. “Damn,” Blade whispered. “I was hoping. . . .”

“That we’d left them behind?” Tad was altogether glad of the thick wood at his back, and of the deep shadow of the interior of their shelter. Not even an owl would be able to see them in here. “It might not be them that’s making everything so quiet. It might just be the smell of smoke; you know how most wild things fear fire.”

“And I might be the Haighlei Emperor. No, they’re out there. They followed us, I’m sure of it.” She stared out into the darkness fiercely, as if willing her eyes to be better than they actually were.

“Well, they can’t get us in here,” he said, and meant it. “It’s safe enough for you to sleep if you want to take second watch this time.”

“You can’t sleep?” she asked. He shook his head.

It was true, he wasn‘t going to be able to sleep for a while; he was horribly tired, but not sleepy. His muscles kept twitching and jumping with accumulated fatigue. His nerves all felt strung as tightly as a Kaled’a’in horse-bow, and every tiny sound out there had him peering into the darkness as fiercely as she. It was going to be some time before he relaxed enough to fall asleep.

“Well, I think I’ve reached the limit on my nerves,” she replied, punctuating the sentence with a yawn. “Believe it or not, I’m going numb. Right now, I hurt so much that all I want to do is drink my medicine and drop off as soon as the pain stops. In fact, right now, they could come kill me as long as they did it while I was asleep; I just can’t get up the energy to care.”

“I know how you feel.” Awkwardly, he managed to pat her leg in sympathy. “You go ahead. I’ll take the first watch as long as I can.”

She sounded fatalistic; he wasn’t quite ready to share that emotion, but there was something else to consider. I’m not sure it would matter if we both fell asleep tonight. So far, we haven’t any evidence beyond the fact that something probably dangerous is probably following us. They haven’t actually done anything. Even assuming that they intend to attack us, as cautious as they have been, I don’t think they’re ready to try and pry us out of some place like this. “I think we’re as safe as we can be under the circumstances. Get some sleep while you can.”

She didn’t need a second invitation. In an instant, she had downed her vial of medicine and curled up against his side in her blanket, propped up by the packs to save her shoulder. Provided she didn’t get a kink in her neck from sleeping this way, or stiff muscles from a chill, she ought to be more comfortable tonight than she had been since the accident.

He stared out into the darkness until his eyes burned—and just as he was contemplating waking her to take her watch, the forest itself woke. But not with sounds of alarm—to his intense relief, these were normal night sounds, the same they had heard every other night of this journey.

The whoop of something up above startled Blade awake. She came alive with a jerk and a thin gasp of pain. “What?” she demanded, then relaxed as she recognized the noises outside their shelter for what they were.

The sudden onset of normal night sounds had been the trigger that let all of his own fatigue catch up with him. Suddenly, he could not keep his eyes open, no matter how hard he tried. He was actually nodding off even as he stared into the dark.

“Can you take over?” he whispered, and felt her nod. That was all he needed; a moment later, not even the scream of a makaar would have awakened him.

For the second time that morning, Blade motioned to Tad to freeze. Obedient to her hand gesture, he went rigid, and for something as huge as he was, he blended into the forest surprisingly well. His eyes were fixed on her, not on the forest around him; that was because she hadn’t used the gesture that meant danger, just the one that meant wait.

In fact, there was no danger, only an opportunity. She had spotted another of the long-limbed tree dwellers climbing cautiously down out of the canopy, in pursuit of something it had dropped. This must be a young one; the elders never were so foolish as to risk coming down into the danger zone just because they wanted something they had lost. If she was lucky, this one would not survive a lesson in why they did not.

Although this hunting was delaying them, it was a necessary delay.

Her quarry dropped down off the tree trunk and took two cautious steps on the forest floor, reaching for the bright object it had lost. It had four long limbs, a pointed snout, and large eyes set on the sides of its head. If it had been up in the canopy, she would never have been able to spot it, for its brown fur blended in beautifully with the bark of the tree. Not that she could have reached it with her puny weapon, either. Nothing short of a very powerful bow would put a missile up into the canopy with force great enough to kill.

She whirled her sling twice and let fly.

The beast barely had time to register the movement and start to turn his head. Then the lead shot struck it squarely on the skull with a wet crack, and it dropped to the ground, instantly dead.

Grinning with elation, she ran forward anyway, just to make certain of it with her knife; fresh meat was too precious a commodity for her to take any chances that it might simply be stunned. When she finished, she stood up and motioned Tad to come up and join her.

She straightened and walked over to see what it had dropped. The brightly colored object that had exerted a fatal attraction for this tree dweller proved to be absolutely unidentifiable. It was bladderlike, and a bright blue and red. It could have been a flower, a seed pod, a fruit, even an insect carapace or a portion of some other unfortunate animal. She ignored it at that point; perhaps it was edible, but this was not the time nor the place to experiment.

Tad, meanwhile, had made short work of her prey. It hadn’t been very large, and he had dismembered it and eaten it almost whole. This was the second such catch she’d made this morning for him, and he looked much the better for the fresh meat. The first had been a rodent, both rabbitlike and rat-like; bigger than a rat, but small for a rabbit. This one was about the size of a large rabbit, though the long limbs had made it look bigger. If her luck kept up, she’d be able to keep him in fresh-killed prey, mouthful by mouthful. That would take one worry away from her; how to keep him from starving. Gryphons weren’t big eaters just by choice.

Although the forest sounds had by no means returned to normal, there were more signs of other living things now, which made her feel a bit better. Maybe they were outdistancing their invisible trackers. Or maybe those trackers were just waiting until nightfall to move in on them.

At least this meant that she could actually see some game to take down.

I can probably get enough small animals and birds over the course of the day to keep Tad in good shape, she decided, retrieving the bit of lead shot and pocketing it before checking her north-needle. Tad had cautiously taken the downed creature into the shelter of a bush to eat it; she pressed herself against the bole of the tree and picked the next landmark they would head for. That was how she was navigating, in line-of-sight increments; checking her north-needle, picking a particular bit of distant cover that was farther west, and moving in toward it. Not only were they—hopefully—avoiding being spotted by their foe, they were not frightening the game.

She made two more such moves when she spotted another one of the rat-rabbits, nosing about on the forest floor in search of something edible. She warned Tad to freeze and potted it, too. That made three pieces of small game in about three marks, or one piece per mark, and she was beginning to feel very proud of herself. That was not at all bad for someone hampered by a bad shoulder, with a primitive weapon, in unfamiliar territory. If I remember my gryphon-rations correctly, he should actually prosper on that amount of food. Granted, it’s like feeding a hawk by tidbitting it, but beggars can’t be choosers. If he isn’t exactly full at any one time, he isn‘t going hungry, either.

He looked faintly annoyed at being asked to swallow another bit of game every mark or so, but he didn’t say anything. He was used to eating once lightly, and once hugely, then sleeping on that larger meal. He probably wondered why they were stopping so frequently just so he could eat.

But if she carried the game until they had enough for him to have that single large meal, she’d be weighing herself down for no good purpose. Let the game ride in the most efficient way possible; inside Tad.

If he hasn’t figured out what I’m doing, he will soon, she decided, moving on ahead.

She was worried about him; in spite of the fact that she was the one with the worse injury—as her shoulder reminded her sharply of just how badly hurt she was, every time she moved a bit too quickly—in some ways he was the more vulnerable of the two of them.

She knew, only too well, just how vulnerable he was. Trapped on the ground as he was, he had as many weaknesses as she did. Unless he could get his back up against something to protect it, he could not only be attacked from the rear, but from below. Most of what he had learned about fighting was meant for aerial combat, not ground fighting. Granted, he could improvise, and granted, he had four sets of very nasty “knives” on the end of each limb, not to mention the weapon in the middle of his face, but he was made for another element. Faced with the need to fight on terms and terrain he was not suited to, he was vulnerable in ways even he probably didn’t realize.

His other weakness was the sheer volume of food he had to consume in order to stay in decent physical shape. If she couldn’t get that into him—well, too many days of rain-soaked dried meat, and he wouldn’t be in good condition at all.

Too many days of that kind of ration, and we‘II have to find a permanent place to hole up, because he won’t even be able to travel.

Walking was much harder on him than flying; he wasn’t built for it. Intellectually, of course, she had known that; watching him try to move through the underbrush had driven it home to her in a more concrete form.

He was not clumsy; he was a great deal more graceful at this sort of travel than his classmates had ever been. He was, in fact, as adept at it as some humans—but he tired easily, and occasionally his wings got caught up on some obstacle or other. It would be some time before his legs strengthened and gained the endurance for steady walking, and until then, he was handicapped.

If they ever ran across a large browser like a deer, he should be able to bring it down so long as they surprised it, but until then she was the better ground hunter. He was going to be depending on her for something he was normally self-sufficient at.

She was just grateful that he was as good a tracker as he was. He’d done a fair amount to confuse their scent and backtrail, and that could only help right now.

That might be one of the reasons I’m spotting game today; that muck he had us rub all over ourselves is probably hiding our scent and confusing the tree dwellers. Scent rose, especially in this heat; a wary canopy beast would not come anywhere near the ground with the scent of a large predator coming up to meet his nose, but at the moment all that they smelled like was crushed plants.

And that might very well be the explanation of why they had been surrounded by silence until lately. Quite frankly, Tad was damp, and he smelled like—well—damp raptor, a combination of wet feathers and the heavy musk that was peculiar to gryphons and birds of prey. He hadn’t been able to dry out properly since the accident, and that made his scent more obvious. Could be that when we first camped, not only was he not as fragrant, but we simply weren‘t on the ground long enough for the scent to rise into the canopy. Now we are.

That speculation made her feel a little better; and the current state of affairs did seem to offer support for that speculation. Tad didn’t smell like raptor, wet or dry, at the moment. The juicy plant he had her rub all over both of them imparted a peculiar, sharp, mossy scent to their respective hides. It made a hideous mess of her clothing, streaking it a mottled green, but she wasn’t particularly worried about stains.

Besides, the stains make a fairly good impromptu camouflage.

She ought to start looking for a good place to go to ground for the night. As she kept an eye out, she tried to mentally reckon up the time it would take for them to be missed. They ought to start putting up some sort of signal if there was any chance that the White Gryphon people might be looking for it.

We should have made our rendezvous today or tomorrow, so by tomorrow or the day after, the Silvers we’re relieving will know there’s something wrong. They have a teleson; they ‘II let Judeth know, but it would take a team of rescuers coming at full speed another two or three days to reach here. Sowhat does that make it? Another two or three days before help will have a chance of being here at best. More likely a week.

So there’was no point in looking for a shelter and a place where they could set up a good signal fire. Shelter alone would do for today and tomorrow.

Nothing presented itself for another mark—except the first signs she had seen yet of large animals on the forest floor. She came across a place where a pig had clearly been rooting at the base of a tree, searching for underground fungi, and with regret she saw that the trail went off into the north and not the west. A pig would have been very welcome to both her and Tad.

But she was not going to risk going off in a different direction on just the chance that they might be able to bring one down.

The heat was oppressive; when the rains came again, she had every intention of soaking herself and her clothing. If she didn’t, by tomorrow morning her tunic and trews would be able to stand by themselves, they were so saturated with sweat. She was grateful to Tad for his subterfuge with the plant scent for more reasons than the obvious; without the pungent aroma of crushed leaf hanging around her, she would be smelling herself by now.

On the other hand, maybe if I smelled bad enough, our trackers would be offended and leave us alone. Hah!

Sweat trickled steadily down the back of her neck, and her hair itched unbearably. For that matter, so did her feet, shins, armpits . . . any number of tiny forest insects were finding her tasty fare, and she was covered with itching, red welts. Something she had forgotten was that their original tent not only set itself up and took itself down, the spells on it protected them from insects. Without that protection, she seemed to be the only source of food for every bloodsucker for furlongs about, except for the ones buzzing about poor Tad’s eyes and ears. Her bruise-medicine eased the itching enough for her to sleep, but she would have given a great deal to discover a plant that rendered her inedible to bugs. Every time she paused, she found herself reaching inside her clothing to scratch at another itch.

She kept reminding her herself to rub, not scratch. If she broke the skin, she opened herself up to infection—if she bled, she added a particularly tasty scent to her own, and one the plant juice would not cover.

Something near her ear buzzed, landed, and bit. She slapped and swore, as Tad crept into cover beside her.

We may not need stalking beasts to finish us off. The insects may nibble us to death.

“Ants,” Tad muttered in her ear.

“Is that what just got me?” she asked without turning her head.

“No. That had wings and a long nose. I am reminding myself to lie on an anthill, if we can find some of the small brown ones. It will be irritating, but they will rid me of any passengers I may be carrying. Their secretions, when the ants are angered, drive away mites and other small pests.”

She felt a twinge of raw envy; if only it could be that easy for her! But lying on an anthill would do her no good since most of the bugs that plagued her were winged, and the subsequent ant bites would be just as irritating as her current crop of bites and stings.

She couldn’t wait for the afternoon rain; sweat made the bites itch worse, and standing in the pouring cold water gave her the few moments of complete relief she got from the incessant itching.

Time to move. Maybe we’ll find a stream today, and I can go to sleep lying in it! Then again, given our current luck, if we found a stream it would be infested with leeches.

Never mind. The one thing they had to do was keep moving, and cope with whatever came up. It couldn’t be more than a week until help came.

All they had to do was to survive that long.

Six

Ah, hells. This isn’t easy, one-handed. A bit off-balance because of her injured shoulder, Blade threw her final bundle of branches over the canvas of tonight’s shelter just as the first rumbles of thunder began in the distance.

Ah, damn! That hurt!

Blade doubled over despite herself. Her chest felt constricted, as if cinched tight with rope. Thunder rumbled again, nearer. She’d finished just in time, though not too soon so far as she was concerned; she was ready for the rain, more than ready by now. As she straightened up, she had no doubts that she was ready for rest as well.

This shelter was both superior and inferior to the last one; like last night’s, it was also based on the remains of a fallen tree, but this tree had fallen quite recently. The splintered wood of the trunk shone fresh and pale against the greenery, which was how she had spotted it in the first place. Although there were no hollow places in the trunk or snag to shelter in, the tree had taken down another right next to it in its fall, and there was an intersection of the two trunks, providing a triangular area with two man-high “walls” of wood. Stretching the canvas over the top of this place made a roof; piling branches on top of the canvas disguised their presence. A further barricade of brush hid the entrance, and they would even have the luxury of a small fire tonight, screened from view by the brush. More branchlets over a pile of big leaves made a springy floor, giving them more comfort tonight than they had enjoyed since the accident.

Now if only she could find something in her medicines to numb these damned insect bites!

Thunder rumbled again, overhead this time. In the course of gathering their branches, she had stirred up many tiny animals; mice, lizards, snakes, and frogs. She had caught and killed as many of those as she could, and tonight she and Tad would supplement their dinner with these tidbits. Individually, they weren’t impressive, but she had collected an entire sack of them, enough to give Tad much-needed supplements. She’d probably appropriate a couple of snakes to roast and give some flavor to her flavorless bread, but the rest would go to Tad.

She would be adding insects to her ration, for she had found grubs of a wood-borer that she recognized, ant pupae, and crickets, all of which she could choke down so long as they were toasted. When she had been going through survival training, she had never really pictured herself putting any of her training into practice!

Well, I have this much revenge; if the bugs are eating me, I’m eating the bugs! Insects were really too small to do Tad any good, so by default they went to her.

Tad was inside the shelter arranging things and getting the fire going, and she thanked the Star-Eyed that he had enough magic to light fires again. With the help of magic, even the greenest, wettest wood could be coaxed to burn. Without it—they’d have a poor fire, or none, and she could not bear the thought of eating untoasted bugs.

I’d rather go hungry a bit. I might get hungry enough to consider it, but not now.

Their shelter lay underneath a long slit of sky, cleared by the falling tree. It had shown gray when they first arrived here, gray with those fat, round-bellied clouds, and had been growing steadily darker ever since, as the inevitable afternoon storm gathered strength. Was it her imagination, or were those storms coming earlier every afternoon?

She remained standing where she was, watching the clouds overhead, while the dark gray went bright white periodically and thunder followed the lightning. As the sky darkened steadily, the ambient light dimmed, stealing the color from the leaves, softening the edges of the shadows, and painting the clearing in shades of indigo blue. White light suddenly flooded the entire area, not just the clouds. Lightning lanced across the raw sky and thunder cracked right overhead, making her jump and yelp involuntarily—and jolting her shoulder again, which made her swear.

She forced herself to hold still, to wait for the pain to ebb. I ought to be used to this by now— But she wasn’t; every time she jerked her shoulder, the pain lanced down her arm and up her neck. It wasn’t getting any better. She could only hope that she was just being impatient, and that this didn’t mean that it wasn’t healing.

Two breaths after the lightning came the rain. As always, it poured down in a torrent. She held out her good arm and tilted her head up, letting the sweet, cool water wash away all the sweat and grime she had accumulated, opening her mouth and drinking the fresh, clean liquid. It actually eased her thirst and did not taste of warm leather. As sweat washed away and her skin cooled down, her insect bites stopped itching.

With walls of trunk on either side of her, she felt secure enough to stand out in the open and indulge herself; the only thing that would have improved the situation would have been a bar of soap! But even with nothing but water, she was getting reasonably clean, and that always made her temper improve. She stood out in the downpour until the dark green stains on her tunic faded to match the others already there, until she was as chilled as she had been overheated the moment before, until the swollen welts of her insect bites stood out against her cold, pallid arms and the bites themselves no longer bothered her at all. There was something very exhilarating and elemental about standing out in a storm like this one; powerful storms back home had always been too cold and dangerous to “play” in, something that had disappointed her ever since she was a child. But here—there wasn’t much chance that she would be struck by lightning when everything else around her was so very much taller than she, and to be able to stand out in rain so heavy that it literally stole the breath was an intoxicating experience. It was enough to make her forget her pain, almost enough to make her forget their danger.

Is this what Tad feels when he flies? If so, I envy him. Is this the way it feels to not face people, not be in a building or cave, and be encompassed by the elements? To stand alone and alive as a living creature only, and not as Someone’s Offspring? Is this the moment that makes all the pettiness of everyday living worthwhile?

Only when she was so chilled she had begun to shiver did she duck her head and scuttle back to the heap of branches that covered their shelter.

She pushed past the brush and almost went back out into the rain when she encountered a thick cloud of eye-watering smoke.

“What—what is this?” she demanded as, coughing, she fanned her hand in front of her face and dropped to the ground where the air was marginally clearer.

“Sorry,” Tad said apologetically. “I’m trying to get rid of the bugs, both in here and on me. It’s working; I certainly got rid of my little plague.”

“You almost got rid of me,” she grumbled, crawling all the way inside to settle beside him. More thunder punctuated her statement. “I suppose it’ll be worth it if this smoke-weapon of yours allows us to get a good night’s sleep.” Then she laughed. “But if I’d known that this was how you were going to interpret my wish for an herb to repel insects, I might have been more careful in what I asked for!”

He gryph-grinned at her, his beak gaping wide. “You didn’t remember Drake’s favorite proverb— ‘Be careful what you ask for’—”

“I know, I know,” she groaned. Tad had been snacking, and the bag was almost empty, but he had saved her two of the biggest snakes—though they weren’t very big, being no longer than her forearm. One was brown, one was green, and both looked vaguely orange in the uncertain light. Tad carefully scraped some hot coals to one side with a stick, then added drier wood to the rest of the fire.

She skinned out the snakes with Tad’s help, then arranged her snakes, along with her harvest of crickets, grubs, and pupae, on the blade of their shovel and placed that on top of the glowing coals. There wasn’t much aroma, but her bugs did toast quickly, and she was very hungry by now. She picked them gingerly off the hot metal and ate them, trying not to think too hard about what she was doing. They weren’t too bad, though; she could almost imagine that she was eating toasted grain if she didn’t pay too close attention to the shapes.

The snake was better, and made it possible to finish her ration-bread. Tad, meanwhile, had placed his dried meat out in the rain to soak; he wolfed it down with no expression of pleasure when it was soft enough to eat.

“Do you take first watch, or shall I?” he asked. She put a pan of water on the fire to steep her bruise-remedy in, then made up her potion with the addition of a couple of recognizable, foraged herbs known to numb sore throats. If they soothed a sore throat, perhaps they would make her bites stop bothering her.

“I’d appreciate it if you would,” she replied. “I’m hoping this stuff will let me fall asleep without clawing my skin off, but it’s bound to wear off before daybreak. If I’m going to be itching, I might as well be awake so I can control myself.”

He nodded. “The smoke worked as well as an ant hill, and my passengers are no longer with me to bother either of us. At the moment, I’m feeling fairly lively. You might as well get to sleep while you still can.”

By now her clothing and her hair were both dry, though only her gryphon-badge was as pristine as it had been when they set out. Besides being stained, her tunic and trews were torn in several places, and the hems were beginning to fray. I look like a tramp, she thought ruefully. I hope Ikala is not with a search party . . . oh, that’s ridiculous. He would hardly expect me to look like a court lady, and I would be so happy to see a rescuer that the last thing I would be thinking of would be my clothing!

Tad helped her wrap her herb-steeped bandages around the worst of her bruises, and to dab the remainder of the mixture on her insect bites, as best as his large, taloned hands would allow. At first, she thought she was going to be disappointed again in her attempt to heal her bites, but as the mixture dried, she noticed that her itching had ebbed, at least temporarily. The tenderness of her flesh was perhaps in some way eased by the tenderness of the gryphon’s care of her, as well.

Tad looked at her, disheveled feathers slightly spiked from the moisture, with inquiry in his expression.

She sighed with relief. “It’s working,” she said. “I’ll have to make more of this up and keep it with me in one of the waterskins. If I keep putting it on, I might find it easier to freeze in place without being driven mad.”

Tad chuckled. “Good. Now we just need to find something that will keep the bugs off us in the first place—without driving us crazy with the smell!”

With her mind off her itching, she turned a critical eye on Tad, and without warning him what she was about to do, reached over to feel his keelbone, the prominent breastbone that both gryphon and bird anatomy shared. That was the first place that a bird showed health or illness, as muscle-mass was consumed by a gryphon or bird that was not eating enough.

It was a bit sharper, the muscles on either side of it just a little shrunken. Not something an ordinary person would notice, but Tad was her partner, and it was her job to do as much for him as she could. “You’ve lost some weight,” she said thoughtfully. “Not a lot, but it has to be either the short rations or the fact that you’re using up energy in healing. Or both.”

“Or that I’m building leg-muscle and losing wing-muscle because I’m not using it,” he pointed out. “I don’t remember walking this much before in my life. Much more of this and I’m going to look more like a plowhorse than a hawk.”

She granted him a skeptical look, and crossed her legs and rested her chin on her good hand. “I wish we’d find the river,” she replied fretfully. “No matter what is following us, if we just had the river, we could fish; I’d get some decent food into you. Even if there’s something following us and scaring off the game, I doubt that fish would be frightened off by a land predator.” The river, the promise of the river, it now seemed to embody the promise of everything—food, shelter and rescue as well. Perhaps she was placing too much hope on a strip of water, but at the moment it was a good goal to concentrate on.

He heaved a huge sigh and scratched at one bug-bitten ear. “I really have no idea where we are in relation to the cliff and the river,” he confessed. “And this kind of forest is very strange to me. If this place were more like home, I could probably find a river, but I can’t see the sky and the ground cover is ten or twelve layers thick here. . . .”

“I know, and I’m not blaming you,” she assured him hastily. “How could you know anything about this kind of forest? We never trained here. We expected we’d be going to an established outpost, with shelter, a garden, food stores, and weapons.”

“Emphasis on the food stores,” Tad said hoarsely, as if the momentary thought of all the food he was used to eating made him homesick. He rubbed at his throat a moment and then swallowed. He’d been gulping more air for days than was healthy for him.

She frowned with frustration. “I’m sure there are plenty of things to eat growing all around us, if only I knew what they were! Roots, stalks, leaves—even some things you might be able to eat, too!” She waved her hand, helplessly. “We haven’t the luxury of experimenting, since we don’t dare make ourselves sick, so we’re stuck. Only a native would know how to find his way around a place like this.”

“A native like Ikala?” Tad replied shrewdly, and chuckled when she blushed involuntarily. “Well, I wish he was with us.”

“I do, too—” she began, intending to change the subject, quickly.

“And probably for more reasons than one!” he teased, not giving her a chance to change the subject, and sounding more like his old self than he had in days. “I can’t blame you; he’s a handsome fellow, and he certainly accounted well for himself in training. It wouldn’t be a bad thing to get to know him better.”

“I suppose,” she said, suddenly wary. There was nothing that Tad liked better than to meddle in other peoples’ love lives. “If we’d had a chance to ask him more about forests like these, we might be faring better now.”

He saw what she was trying to do. “Oh, come on, Blade!” he coaxed. “Stop being coy with me! Am I your partner, or not? Shouldn’t your partner know who you’re attracted to?” He gave her a sly, sideways look. “I know he’s attracted to you. It’s obvious, if you’re watching.”

“And you were watching, I suppose,” she grumbled, giving up on her attempt to distract him to something more serious. He laughed.

“I’m supposed to watch out for you, aren’t I? You’d be happier with a male friend to share some— hmm—pleasant moments with, and I know it would be easier dealing with you if you were happier.” He tilted his head comically to the side.

“Oh, thank you,” she said sarcastically. “Now you sound like both my parents. They can’t wait to get me—attached.”

Into bed with someone, you mean, she thought sourly. And Tad knows it. He should know better than to echo them! He knows how I feel about that!

‘They’re obsessed with it, and have built much of their lives around pleasures of flesh. They think of it as a means to all happiness, even if it is by a strange, obscure path! Seeing you bedded with someone is not my goal. I simply want to see you content in all areas of your life,” Tad said persuasively. “He’s certainly a fine prospect. Good-looking, intelligent, and open-minded enough that you wouldn’t get all tangled up in Haighlei custom with him. Good sense of humor, too, and that’s important. And being trained as a prince, he knows that you have to be able to concentrate on your duty, you can’t just devote yourself slavishly to a man. Hmm?”

Blade fixed her partner with a stern and fierce gaze, neither agreeing nor denying any of it. “You’re matchmaking,” she accused. “Don’t try to deny it; I’ve seen you matchmake before, you’re as bad as an old woman about it! You want to see everyone paired off and living—well, if not happily ever after, at least having a good time while the affair lasts!”

“Of course!” Tad replied smugly. “And why not?”

She growled at him. “Because—because it’s invasive, that’s why not! I repeat—I get enough of that kind of nonsense from my parents! Why should I put up with it from you?”

He only snorted. “I’m your partner, I have to know these things, and I have to try to help you get what you want and need, whether or not you know what it is! I’d tell you, and I’d expect you to help me. We both have to know if there’s something that is going to have us emotionally off-balance, because that’s going to affect how we do our job. Right? Admit it!”

She growled again, but nodded with extreme reluctance. He was right, of course. A Silver’s partnership was as close as many marriages, and partners were supposed to confide in each other, cooperate with each other, in and out of the duty times.

And for some reason, what seemed so invasive from her parents didn’t seem so bad, coming from Tad. Perhaps it was because Tad was a gryphon, and not human. Despite the gryphons’ abilities to see things like a human did, Tad would always be one step removed from complete empathy with Blade, and that gave her a barrier of safety.

“So tell your partner how you feel about it.” He settled his head down on his foreclaws. “What do you think of Ikala, then?”

Rain drummed down outside their shelter and pattered through the branches they had piled on the roof. Lightning made patterns of the branches screening the front of the shelter, reflecting whitely off Tad’s eyes and the silver gryphon-badge on her tunic. As usual, rain and thunder were the only sounds that could be heard outside.

Inside—the smoke had finally cleared away and the fire burned brightly. She was dry, full, and warm. Her shoulder didn’t hurt too much, and she was in a well-camouflaged shelter with two very solid walls on either side of her and a cushioning of springy boughs between her and the cold, damp ground. In short, there was nothing to distract her from her thoughts, which were confused to say the least.

“I suppose I don’t really know,” she said slowly, as Tad’s dark eyes watched her with that intensity that only a raptor could display. “He is very handsome, he’s very charming, he’s quite intelligent . . . but I just don’t know. Part of the time I think I like him for himself, part of the time I think I’m attracted to him just because he’s so exotic, and part of the time I think it’s because he’s the only person in White Gryphon that my father doesn’t know everything about!”

Tad chuckled heartlessly. “There is that. I’ve noticed that Ikala has never once had the occasion to patronize a kestra ‘chern. Amberdrake should find him more of an enigma than you do.”

“That would certainly be an improvement,” she said acidly. “It would be very nice for once to have a conversation with someone without the person wondering if Father was going to tell me all the things he’d really rather I didn’t know.”

“And it would be very nice for you,” Tad commented, “to talk to your father without wondering if he was going to tell you things you’d rather not know.” Blade nodded, and Tad shrewdly added, “I don’t go to kestra’chern, so you are doubly safe talking to me about how you feel; word will not reach your father. May I give up all my hedonism if I lie.”

Blade smiled despite herself. Depend upon a gryphon male to count that as the ultimate oath.

“He’s under control,” she added. “He’s a very controlled person. I like that.”

I like it a great deal more than unbridled passion, truth to tell

Tad coughed. “Still,” he prompted helpfully. “Some might say that argues for a certain coldness of spirit?”

She snorted. “You know better than that, you’ve worked with him. He loses his temper about as often as anyone else, he just doesn’t let it get away from him. And—so far as not visiting a kestra‘chern—”

“And?” Tad’s eyes sparkled with humor.

She blushed again. “And he hasn’t exactly been— well—chaste. He’s had female friends while he’s been here. They just weren’t kestra’chern. Even if they were casual. Recreational.”

And I could almost envy Karelee. I wish she hadn‘t been so enthusiastic about his bed abilities.

“Oh?” Tad said archly. “He hasn’t been chaste? I suppose you were interested enough to find out about this.”

She coughed and tried to adopt a casual tone.

“Well, one does, you know. People talk. I didn’t have to be interested, people gossip about that sort of thing all the time. I only had to be nearby and listen.” She favored him with a raised eyebrow, grateful to feel her hot face cooling. “Winds know that you do enough talking, so you ought to know!”

“Me? Gossip?” His beak parted in silent laughter and he squinted his eyes. “I prefer to call it the ‘gathering of interpersonal information,’ for ‘management of sources and receivers of pleasure.’ “

“Well, I call it gossip, and you’re as bad as any old woman,” she retorted. “You are just as bad when it comes to matchmaking. And as for Ikala—he is attractive, and I don’t deny it, but I think you’re getting way ahead of yourself to tie the two of us together in any way. I don’t even know how I feel, so how could I even speculate about how he feels? And anyway, you and I have our missions to run, and when we get out of here, we have a long tour of duty at a remote outpost to take care of. If we don’t die of embarrassment at having to be rescued.”

If we are rescued, if we do get out of here. . . . The unspoken thought put a chill in the air of the tent that the fire could not drive away. All frivolous thoughts faded; this was the change in subject she had tried to make, but not the new subject she would have preferred. Reflexively she glanced out through the screening branches. It was getting darker out there, and it looked as if—once again—the rain was going to continue past nightfall.

That might not be so bad, if it keeps our unseen “friends“ away.

“Well,” she said, as lightly as possible, which was not very, “now you’ve got my brain going, and I’m never going to be able to get to sleep. I’ll just lie awake thinking.”

He yawned hugely. “And I am warm and sleepy. I always get worn out listening to people’s reasons why they won’t be happy. Shall we switch watches?”

He didn’t wait for her to answer, settling his head back down on his foreclaws. She shrugged. “We might as well,” she replied, and edged over until she was in a position where she could see through a gap between two of the branches hiding the front of their shelter. She memorized the positions of everything in sight while the light was still good enough to identify what was visible through the curtain of rain. The flashes of lightning helped; if she concentrated on a single spot, she could wait until the next lightning bolt hit to give her a quick, brightly-lit glimpse of what was there, and study the afterimage burned into her eyes.

Tad hadn’t been lying about his fatigue; within a few moments, she heard his breathing deepen and slow, and when she turned to look behind her, she saw that his eyes were closed. She turned back to her vigil, trying to mentally review what she had done when she constructed the shelter.

She had tried not to take too many branches away from any one place. She had tried to pile the ones she brought to the shelter in such a way that they looked as if they were all from a single smaller tree brought down by the larger. With all this rain, every trace of our being here should have been washed away. No scent, no debris. . . .

Smoke, though—the smoke Tad had used to drive out insects had been very dense and odoriferous, and she wondered if the rain had washed all of it out of the air. If not—how common would smoke be in a forest that experienced thunderstorms every day? Common enough, she would think. Surely lightning started small fires all the time, and surely they burned long enough to put a fair amount of smoke into the air before the rain extinguished them.

Well, there wasn’t anything she could do about the smoke—or the shelter itself—now. If there was anything looking for them, she could only hope that she had done everything she needed to in order to cover their presence. Last night it would have been difficult for their possible followers to find them; she hoped tonight it would be impossible.

The rain turned from a torrent to a shower, and slowed from a shower to a mere patter. Then it wasn’t rain at all, but simply the melodic drip of water from the canopy above, and the sounds of the night resumed.

She breathed a sigh of relief, and checked the fire. No point in letting it burn too high now; the inside of the shelter was at a good temperature, and with two walls being the trunks of trees, it should sustain that level without too much work. She rebuilt the fire, listening to the hoots and calls from above, tenting the flames with sticks of green fuel and banking the coals to help conceal the glow. This should let the fire burn through the night without needing too much more fuel or tending. It would burn slowly now, producing a bed of deep red, smokeless coals instead of flame. That was precisely the way she wanted it.

With the level of light in the shelter down to the point where Tad was nothing more than a large, dark shape, she turned her attention back to the outside.

Nothing had changed; the creatures of the canopy continued to go about their business with the accompanying noise, and now the luminescent insects she had noted before began to flit about the foliage. She allowed herself to relax a little further. It just might be that whatever had been following them had decided to leave them alone.

But don’t count on it, she cautioned herself. Assume the worst. Assume that they’re still

Something moved out in the darkness.

Just a shape, a shifting of shadow, but she knew that there should not have been a shadow in that place, much less a moving one. Instantly she was on the alert.

Whatever it was, it was big. Bigger than the tame lion she’d seen in Shalaman’s menagerie. She knew to within a thumb’s breadth just how wide a distance lay between each bush, how tall a young tree was. The head of the shadow would rise a little above hers, she thought, though she had the impression of a very long, slender neck; the chest briefly obscured one bush while its hindquarters still lay behind another. Altogether, that would make it about the size of a horse, perhaps a little smaller. She couldn’t quite tell how bulky it was, but the fluid way in which it moved and the fact that it melted in with the other shadows so well suggested that it had a slender build.

Her view was a narrow one, limited to the wedge of forest between the two long walls of log—yet in a moment, as she concentrated further, she knew that there was more than one of those creatures out there. One shadow flitted as another froze; further flickering in the distance suggested that either they were incredibly fast, or there might be a third.

Two, at least, for certain. But they don’t seem to know we‘re here.

The first of the shadows darted suddenly out of sight; a heartbeat later, and a bloodcurdling scream rang out into the night.

Blade’s heart leaped into her throat, and she felt as if she had been plunged into ice water. Tad only wheezed in his sleep. It took all of her control to remain frozen in place. She had an impression that those shadows possessed extremely sharp senses, and that if she moved, even obscured by branches as she was, they might spot the movement, or hear it.

Silence descended, as Blade tried to get her heartbeat started again. It was a good thing that she had heard the death scream of a rabbit before, or she would have thought that one of those somethings had just killed a child.

Now, as if the canopy dwellers had only just noticed the shadows’ presence, the silence extended up into the tree-tops. Only the insects and frogs remained unaffected, chirping and trilling as calmly as they had a moment before.

She blinked—and in the time it took her to do so, the shadows vanished, at least from her view.

She did not breathe easier, however. From the silence, she knew that they were still out there, and she had no intention of letting them know her location.

I can only hope that they haven’t had the bright idea to come take a walk on top of the sheltering logs.

The very idea made her want to shiver. The back of her neck crawled as she imagined one of those creatures sniffing around the brush piled above her head. There was nothing between her and these hunters stronger than a layer of canvas and a pile of flimsy branches and leaves. Surely if one of the hunters got close, no amount of brush and herb juice would obscure their scent. Surely the scent of the fire alone would tell the creature that they were here—

But I’m assuming that the thing is intelligent, that it would associate a fire with us. I’m assuming that it’s hunting usit could simply be here, we could have wandered into its territory. We haven’t seen any large predators nor any sign of them; this could simply be the local equivalent of a lion.

And yet. . . something about the way it had moved had suggested intelligence and purpose. That could be her imagination, but it might be the truth. It was wary; it moved carefully, but when it did move, it was quick and certain. That was an indication of something that either had incredible reflexes, or something that decided very precisely what it was going to do before it acted.

In any case, there was no reason to take any chances, and every reason to be painfully cautious. No matter what else, these creatures were hunters, predators. The behavior of the canopy dwellers showed that, and demonstrated that the animals that lived in the treetops recognized these beasts and feared them.

Even if those things are just the local equivalent of a lion, they’re still big, they’re still carnivorous, and they’re hunting. There’s no reason to put myself on their menu.

A new thought occurred to her; what if they were not dealing with one enemy, but two? One that had brought them down, and a second that was hunting them? In that case, there were two possibilities; the shadows were either wild hunters that had nothing to do with what brought them down—or they were allied with it. In the second case, the shadow shapes out there could be the equivalent of a pack of hunting hounds, trailing them for some unknown master.

It was not something that was unheard of; that was the problem. Urtho wasn’t the only mage that created living things. Ma‘ar did, and so did others who never participated in the wars. The ability to create a new species was a mark of prestige or a symbol of ability above and beyond the status of being an Adept. Among the higher mages there were a handful that had created new creatures for centuries before the war with Ma‘ar.

That gave her yet another possible scenario; a mage who hunted other intelligent creatures, and had chosen them for his next prey. Their chasers were his dog pack—

Ma’ar had been one such, and she’d heard tales of others, both from her own people and from the Haighlei. That, in fact, was one of the reasons why the Haighlei restricted magic use to the priests; they had a tale of a sadistic, powerful mage who captured men and brought them to his estate to hunt them like beasts. A brave young priest had suspected what was happening and allowed himself to be taken, thus giving his fellows an agent within the spell-protected walls through which they could channel their own power to destroy the mage.

That was how the story went anyway.

She grew cold all over again, and restrained herself from running her hand through her hair nervously. Her imagination went wild again, taking off all on its own. She had never had any difficulty coming up with scenarios for trouble. Sosuppose that one of the neutral mages came down here to hide before the Cataclysm. Even if he wasn’t Urtho’s equal, he could have guard-beasts and birds to warn him when anything was in the area. The Haighlei never travel through the wilderness in groups of less than ten, and that includes a priest, but all he‘d have to do would be to stay quiet while they passed by. Unless they actually stumbled over him, they wouldn ‘t find him. Then he could hunt individuals at his leisure.

There was just one problem with that hypothesis; no one had ever been reported missing from here. Unless a Haighlei was so antisocial as to sever all familial and clan ties and go off wandering the wilderness, someone would have raised a fuss by now if anyone had vanished, wouldn’t they? Woodcutters, explorers, trappers, hunters—they all told friends, neighbors, and fellow workers where they were going, what route they intended to take, and when they should be back. They did so especially if« they were going off into poorly-explored lands; if something happened, they would want others to mount a rescue as soon as possible.

Perhaps there had been a few Haighlei hermits who had wandered in here only to vanish—but not enough to provide sport for a maniacal manhunting mage.

Well, all right, thenwhat if he came here to escape all the conflict. What if he wants to be left alone, and he brought us down to keep us from revealing his presence?

But that didn’t make any more sense than the first hypothesis. There had been others through here; they had all flown overhead on the same route. Why hadn’t they been brought down?

Because we were the only gryphon-human pair?

But there had been Aubri and Judeth. . . .

Oh, winds. I should be a storyteller.

She gave it up as a bad notion. It was getting too complicated, and usually, the more complicated a hypothesis was, the more likely it was that it was incorrect.

Stick to the two possibilities that work best. Simple answers work best and are more likely. First: we hit some kind of accidentalthingthat brought us down, and now we’re having to guard ourselves from the local predators which are following us because we ‘re hurt and look like easy prey. Second: something down here brought us down for reasons of its own and now is hunting us. And the first is more likely than the second.

That didn’t mean they were in any less danger. Wolves and lions had been known to trail wounded prey for days, waiting for it to die. And if her guess about the size of the shadow-creatures was right, they were a match for Tad, which would make them formidable opponents indeed. If the shadows knew that she and Tad were hurt, that might well put them in the category of “wounded prey.”

A bird called; another answered. And as if that tentative call had been meant to test the safety of the area, or to tell other creatures that the menace had gone for the moment, the canopy above began to come to life again.

She sighed, and let her shoulders relax. She cast a wry glance at her slumbering companion.

Somehow, Tad had managed to sleep through it all.

Tad yawned, and stretched as best he could, blinking in what passed for light in their shelter. When

Blade woke him for his watch, she had looked tired, but that was to be expected. She also looked nervous, but how could she not be? He would be nervous on his watch, too. Nervous sentries remained living sentries; relaxed ones had short epitaphs.

“I saw something out there that might account for the way everything goes silent every so often,” she offered. “It was pretty big, and I think there were two or more of them. I didn’t see anything more than a shadow, though. One of them caught a rabbit, and every bird and beast in the canopy shut up and stayed that way for a long time.”

Well, that accounts for the nerves, and for the fact that she looks tired. Nerves wear you out and she didn‘t have much of a reserve when she began her watch.

“Huh.” He glanced out into the darkness, but didn’t see anything—and some of the local creatures were acting as if they were in the middle of a singing competition. “Well, if silence means that there’s something out there we should be worried about, I’d say you can sleep in peace until dawn. I’m surprised I slept through it. I must have been more tired than I thought—or my medicine is stronger than I supposed.”

She managed a ghost of a chuckle. “It got my hackles up, I can tell you that much. It’s quick, very quick, and I didn’t hear a rustle of leaves or a single broken twig. I’d say the one I saw was about the size of a horse, which would make it a formidable predator in a fight. It might have been my imagination, but I thought that it acted fairly intelligent.”

“So do the big cats, hunting,” he reminded her. “Everything acts intelligent in its own realm. Drink your painkillers, get some sleep. We’ll see what’s out there in the morning. I set some snares before the rain—”

She chuckled again. “Don’t count on there being anything left. I think you were robbed. That may have been where our shadows found their rabbit.”

He sighed. “Probably, but it was worth doing. And we’ll know how intelligent they are by how the snares were robbed. If it was just snatch-and-eat, then they won’t be any more intelligent than the average lion.”

“Good point.” She settled herself down at the back of the shelter; he was certain she was going to get a good rest for the rest of the night, so long as things stayed noisy up in the canopy. The mattress of boughs and leaves he’d made was very comfortable, and she should be able to lie cradled in a way that permitted her to sleep soundly, rather than fitfully. With her shoulder supported so that pressure was off her collarbone, she should be in less pain.

He had not wanted to mention it before this, but he had already seen signs on their backtrail that something was following them. It could have been anything, and he hadn’t seen any signs that their follower was particularly intelligent—just alert and incredibly wary. The trouble with telling her now was that there was nothing to prove whether or not the shadowy creature that was following them was something they had just picked up today, or if it had been following them all along and only now was feeling bold enough to move in where he might catch a glimpse of it. It could certainly match the description that Blade had given him of the creature she saw tonight.

That basically was all that he knew as a fact. This, of course, had nothing to do with what his own imagination could conjure up.

In his imagination, the sighting confirmed the fear that he’d had all along, that they were being followed for some specific purpose. The only question in his mind now was if the purpose was a simple one—kill and eat the prey—or something more complicated than that. If it was simple, then these creatures were simple predators, and relatively “easy” to deal with. If, however, there was a larger purpose in their minds—if his imagination was right, and in fact these creatures had something to do with their accident—then he and Blade were in very deep trouble.

Such extreme caution combined with curiosity as these “shadows” had exhibited was very unlike most predators he was familiar with. In general, large predators tended to shy completely away from anything that was not familiar, at the most watching it from a distance. Only if the unfamiliar object continued to remain in a predator’s territory would it gradually move in closer to investigate it.

Predators are very nervous, very jumpy. They have a lot of competition, and normally they can only take down large creatures if their prey is old, sick, very young, or wounded. Prey that fights back is to be avoided, because the predator can’t afford to be injured in the struggle. Being a carnivore is an expensive business, as I well know. When your dinner can run away from you, you’re going to spend a lot of energy hunting and killing it. Vegetarians have.it easy. Their dinner can’t move, and they don’t have to do anything other than walk up and open their mouths.

That meant that the predators following them were not following “normal” behavior; the gryphon and the human were strange, they might be dangerous, hence there was no reason to follow them. In fact, there was every reason to avoid them—unless he and Blade were giving off signals that fit the profile of “sick, old, very young, or wounded,” or had become familiar enough for their pursuers to investigate.

Either the territory these shadows claimed was so very large that he and Blade had been within its boundaries all along, or these creatures were something out of the ordinary.

The fact that one of them had killed and eaten a rabbit did not tend to make him believe that they would not attack him or Blade. Wolves made very good meals of mice, yet did not hesitate to pull down deer. For that matter, he was eating mice this very night! No, a predator’s prey on a given night did not necessarily define what it could take. Something as big as a horse could very easily consider something as big as a gryphon to be reasonable prey. Top predators often pulled down animals very much larger than they themselves were; the only exceptions were birds of prey, who would ideally not kill anything larger than they could fly off with—generally much less than half the bird’s own body weight. The only eagles that had ever carried off lambs were Kaled’a’in-bred bondbirds, who had the required wingspread and muscle mass, and carried them off at the behest of their bondmates.

I think we are going to have to set traps around our camps at night, he decided reluctantly. Even if these creatures manage to escape from a trap, there is a chance that we will make them hesitant to attack us by frightening or even injuring one or more. If they are nothing more than animals, the mere fact that one of them is hurt should make them give up on making us into dinner.

They would just have to also take the chance that in frightening or injuring one of those shadows, they would not make an attack more likely.

Well, if we anger them, at least we‘II know that they have the intelligence to connect a trap outside the camp with the people inside itand the intelligence to want revenge for an injury.

There was one point on which he felt Blade was incorrect; he was fairly certain that the creatures she saw had been very well aware of the presence of the camp, and its precise location. They had also probably thought that they would not be seen where they were. They must have very keen senses to hunt at night, and their sense of smell, at least, had clearly not been deceived by his subterfuges with the plant juices. They must have been able to scent the fire. Where the fire was, there the camp would also be. And no matter how well-banked the fire had been, some hint of it was surely visible out there in the darkened forest. No, those creatures knew exactly where the camp was; the only encouraging part was that they had not felt it necessary to surround the camp and place it in a state of siege. Nor had they decided to rush the camp to try and take the occupants by surprise.

So they don‘t feel ready to try and confront us yet. I hope that their interest is only curiosity.

Noise was priceless; an indicator that the shadows had gone elsewhere to hunt for food.

At least, I hope that’s the case. I hope the canopy dwellers are better at spotting these creatures than we are.

All this was enough to give a gryphon a headache.

Wait until morning, and I’ll see to it that we’re more careful. And I’ll try and make the best time afoot that I can, since I’m the slower of the two of us. Maybe we can lose them. Maybe we’ll find a river and really be able to hide our scent and our trail. And tomorrow night, if they follow us again, maybe we can find a way to discourage them from continuing to do so.

And maybe horses would fly, and maybe they would stumble upon a lost enclave of amorous female gryphons, and maybe this was all just a bad dream.

Tad surveyed the remains of his snare—pulled up out of the ground, and left carelessly tangled, but all in a heap, as if it had been examined closely, then dropped. It looked very much the same as the debris back at the crash site that had been so carefully examined.

“Well, as I warned you, this is where our friends found their rabbit last night,” Blade said with resignation. “See over there?”

He’d already noticed the few bits of fur and the drops of blood on a dead leaf. “I should have known better than to expect that anything would leave a snared rabbit alone,” he sighed. “It doesn’t look as if they found any of the other snares—but neither did any rabbits. Then again, if any rabbits had, they’d probably have gone the way of this one.”

At least the shadows hadn’t gone looking for other snares. Or had they? They’d examined this one that had been sprung; had they gone looking for others, found them, and left them alone once they saw how the snares were set?

Or was he ascribing far too much in the way of intelligence to them?

He regarded the scraps of fur ruefully. Hardly fair to stalk me and then eat my breakfast. He thought wistfully of how nice that rabbit would have tasted, and resigned himself to a tasteless meal of dried meat, but Blade had been out and prowling before he was, and had a surprise for him.

“Maybe your snares didn’t work, but my sling did,” she said, with a tiny smile. She pulled a decent-sized rabbit out of the game bag at her side, and his mouth watered at the mere sight of it.

“Thank you,” he said, doing his best not to snatch it out of her hand. He took it politely, but his hunger was too great for more than that. Fortunately she was quite used to watching him eat, for his growling stomach made it impossible for him to wait long enough for her to go elsewhere while he dined. Nor was he able to do anything other than devour his meal in a few gulps.

“What about you?” he asked belatedly, a moment later, when the rabbit was a mere memory and a comfortable feeling in his crop.

At least I managed to resume civilized behavior without a rabbit leg still sticking out of my mouth.

“I’m appropriating a bit of your dried meat,” she replied. “And I can eat that as we move. Let’s get the packs on and get out of here; I don’t want to stay here a moment longer than we have to.”

“Agreed,” he said firmly. “Especially after last night. Luck permitting, we should find the river today or tomorrow.”

The canopy dwellers had gone silent once more on his watch, although he had not seen anything. That had given him a very strange feeling; his hackles had come up, as he wondered if the shadowy hunters had decided to take a walk on the great tree trunk and come at them from the rear. He’d never know until the moment that they came crashing down through the branches and canvas. . . .

But they hadn’t, and the noises had resumed within a very short time, remaining at a constant level until dawn. Blade had made another batch of her herb concoction and had poured it into one of her waterskins after dabbing her itching bites liberally with it. He hoped it worked as well for her in the heat of the day as it had last night.

He put some effort into confusing their backtrail, while Blade set the course. This time he laid some false, dead-end trails, even taking one up a tree. That made him think; if they had trouble finding a place to shelter tonight, perhaps they ought to go up a tree—

Oh, no. Blade can’t climb with only one hand. Well, so much for that good idea. I could perhaps pull her up by rope if it came to that, but the risk of hurting her further would be too great.

Once again, however, they were in luck. This time, in late afternoon, they came upon another good site to hole up. It was another fallen tree, but this time it was one with a large den dug out underneath it. Whatever had dug it originally wasn’t home, and from the look of things, hadn’t been resident for some time. It did have some current occupants, far too small to have dug the den originally, and between them, he and Blade bagged the entire family of five. He wasn’t certain quite what they were; something like a beaver with no tail, and about the same size. He didn’t even know what species they were, and it really didn’t matter. They had rodent teeth, and that was enough for him. Rodents were always edible.

This bit of good fortune more than made up for the fact that Blade had not been as lucky with her sling; the rabbit she had gotten for his breakfast was the only kill she’d made all day. She’d had targets, but had missed her throws. She was so crestfallen about it that he had done his best to reassure her that it was all right.

Well, tonight he would have a truly full stomach for the first time since the crash. The fresh meat had made a great deal of difference to him; he felt much more energetic and lively after having it.

With his help she made a fire outside their den. While she built it up into something respectable, he excavated the den quite a bit more. His talons weren’t well suited to digging, but he did have determination, and the earth was soft. When he finished, he knew that it would be a tight fit for both of them, but that they would manage. To keep them off the raw earth, he lined it with branches and packed the dirt he’d dug out into a little dam to prevent water from coming in during the rain. He took a torch and charred the underside of the log to prevent “visitors,” then went out to collect a tangle of vines to conceal the entrance. Blade roasted her share of the catch, made up her medicine, then put out the fire and buried the ashes, doing her best to obliterate any traces of their presence that might persist through the afternoon downpour. Like the hollow snag, there would be no room in this den for a fire tonight. As long as the den stayed dry, he didn’t think they’d need one.

Need and want, why are they so far apart sometimes?

By the time Blade was done tidying things, he was ready to eat; she took over, clumsily weaving the vines with one hand and both feet into a rough mat that they could pull over the hole. Last of all, she collected a lot of leaves from that peppery plant and tucked them into the mat to kill their scent.

As soon as the rain started, they would climb into this hole and pull the mat over the entrance. There they would remain until dawn. In his opinion, this was their most vulnerable camp yet, but he had an answer to that.

Although she couldn’t climb, he could, and since the den was barely big enough for the two of them without their packs, he had an idea.

“Help me with this,” he said, as soon as he’d finished gulping down his meal. “I want to make some decoys.” He dragged in some more vines and began making them into bundles that resembled a human and something with four feet. She was puzzled, but gave him a hand, as the clouds began to gather for the afternoon rain.

“What are you planning on doing with these?” she asked, as the bundles began to take shape. “They aren’t going to fool anything for long.”

“Not if they’re on the ground—but what if they’re up there?” He nodded up at the canopy. “I’m thinking of taking the packs and these up to a good branch and tying them there. Maybe our trackers will see ‘us’ up there, and decide we’re becoming too much work to pursue. Provided, of course, that they can’t climb.”

Somehow, I don’t think they can, even though the canopy creatures are afraid of them. I think they’re too big; there’s a maximum size that a tree-climbing predator can be and still hunt successfully, and I think they’re bigger than that maximum size.

“If you really want to, it’s worth trying.” She didn’t look convinced, but at least she wasn’t too negative. He was just as glad that she didn’t object to him taking the packs elsewhere to store; although the tree he had in mind was a dwarf by the standards of the ones around him, he was not looking forward to the climb, and that was giving him enough qualms without having to argue with her.

He accomplished the feat by clamping all four sets of talons into the bark and hitching himself up like an inchworm. This used an entirely new set of muscles, as well as awakening a new set of pains in his broken wing, and by the time he reached a suitable place to cache the packs and the two decoys, he wished with a strength beyond telling that he would have been able to glide down instead of climbing. He was not looking forward to retrieving the packs in the morning!

He had taken a rope with him, rather than the packs and the decoys themselves. Once he got himself securely in place, he dropped the end down, and Blade tied it to the first pack as best she could with one hand. When he had hauled that up and tied it successfully in place, he dropped the end back down. The second pack came up next, and following that, the two decoys.

And now, if there is a disaster, Blade will at least have a rope she can try to escape by. If there is any time to escape, I can come back up here and pull her up. Maybe.