Days passed. The mountains drew near with the star bright above them. Rufus and Raefer took turns scouting ahead and behind, going on foot to search for signs of their pursuers. The way was clear and no one was following. The group marched on beneath sunny skies by day and camped beneath vast, brilliant stars by night.
“Are you sure we’re not being followed?” Dindra said as they broke camp one morning. “I have a funny feeling.”
“Sure I’m sure,” Rufus said, taking a sip of water. “I’m a dryad scout aren’t I?”
“No,” Raefer said, kicking snow over the fire.
“We’re not being followed,” Rufus said. “I did a full sweep before you sluggards were even awake. There’s nothing back there.”
Several days passed in quiet, steady marching. Shilo sat on her horse, laughing on occasion at the chirpings of the cardinal. Byron rode on Dindra’s back and watched the forest go by. He spent long hours staring up at the star. Rufus and Raefer kept up their rounds of scouting and one day, as Raefer came back from a foray ahead, Dindra gave him a long, searching gaze.
Raefer frowned. “What?” he said, glancing at her sidelong. He walked along on foot, stepping high in the knee-deep snow.
“I just remembered something,” Dindra said. She glanced at Rufus riding along beside her.
Raefer shrugged. “Well?”
“Something I read.”
Raefer raised his eyebrows. “And?”
Dindra squinted at the brothers again. “Dryads are supposed to be ghosts.”
“Ghosts?” Byron said.
“Sure,” Dindra said. “You know, spirits.”
“We used to be,” Rufus said.
Byron gaped. “You did?”
“Well, sort of,” Rufus answered. “I mean, Raefer and I never were. It was a long time ago.”
Byron frowned. “What happened?”
“Well,” Rufus said, “we had a queen named Parnassa. She warned the Judges when the Shadowbreather came to kill them. They escaped, or most of them did. Anyway, they rewarded her by granting her one wish. She wished that she could have a body with blood and bones.”
“What’s a Shadowbreather?” Byron said.
“A dragon,” Raefer said. “The stories say he breathed shadows instead of flames.”
Byron blinked. “Gosh.”
“Why’d she wish for that?” Shilo said. “For a body, I mean.”
“Because it’s better having a body,” Rufus said.
“You can throw snowballs,” Raefer said and he pelted his brother in the back of the head.
Rufus leaped from his horse and wrestled Raefer to the ground. Everyone stopped to watch as Raefer’s head disappeared into the snow. Rufus held him there until Raefer put out his hands in surrender. Rufus let him up. When Raefer stood, his face was red and wet and he was laughing.
“There are poems about her,” he said, breathing hard and wiping his face. “One says she loved the trees and the birds and the mountains so much that she wanted to walk among them. Another says she was in love with a human king and wanted to marry him, so she became like him. How does that one go… Parnassa alata nun infarnenesomething, something, demneth tor belfarene.”
“What does it mean?” Byron asked.
“It means ‘brave Parnassa went out to meet him in the flesh where he lived’something like that.”
“What does that mean?” Byron said with a frown.
Raefer shrugged. “I don’t know, but we dryads have had bodies ever since.”
“Who were the Judges?” Shilo said.
“They ruled everything, long ago,” Rufus said, clearing a bit of snow from the back of his neck.
Dindra pushed a branch out of her way. “What happened to them?”
“The Shadowbreather got them,” Rufus said. “One by one.”
Shilo frowned. “So, who ruled after that?”
“He did,” Rufus said, “the Shadowbreather. Or he tried to at least. That was the beginning of the Years of Fire.”
Raefer climbed onto the horse with Rufus and the little company set off again.
“Do you know anything about the griffins?” Shilo said.
“No,” Raefer said.
Rufus shook his head. “You?”
“Not much,” Shilo said.
Dindra shrugged. “I’ve seen them in books.”
Byron raised his eyebrows. “You have?”
“Of course I have,” Dindra said. “You should try looking at a book now and then.”
“The stories say they’re horrible,” Shilo said.
“Horrible how?” Byron asked.
“They can eat you with one bite,” Shilo said. “They have awful claws and great, jagged beaks. And they don’t like to be disturbed.”
“Well,” Raefer said, “the Griffin Stair is the only way over the mountains, unless you can fly.”
“So, where’s this cardinal of yours?” Rufus said.
“Looking for food,” Shilo said. “He’ll catch up.”
“Oh, he said that did he?” Rufus said.
A frown puckered Shilo’s brow. “Yes.”
“Right,” Rufus said with a laugh.
Shilo straightened in the saddle and put her hands on her hips. “He did. Here he comes now, you see?”
The cardinal swooped in and landed in a snowy pine tree. The group stopped for a rest and everyone reached for their water skins. The horses put their noses down and nibbled at the snow.
Rufus shrugged. “Ask him a question.”
“No,” Shilo said.
“There, you see, Raef? She can’t talk to animals.”
“I can too.” Shilo said.
“Then do it,” Rufus said. “Ask him something.”
Shilo glared at Rufus. She pursed her lips and hopped down from Old Weatherby.
Rufus leaned on the pommel of his saddle. “Where are you going?”
“Just wait,” Shilo said without looking at anyone. She tied Old Weatherby’s reins to a tree.
“Where are you going?” Rufus demanded.
“I’m not letting you watch,” Shilo said and she started off into the trees.
“But you could just make something up,” Rufus said. “That doesn’t prove anything.”
“Give her a question to ask him,” Dindra said.
“How do we find the Griffin Stair?” Raefer said.
“Good one, Raef,” Rufus said with a laugh. “Go on, ask ‘im!”
Shilo plodded off into the trees with the cardinal following. After a few minutes, Shilo returned. “He hasn’t seen anything that looks like a stair. He said he’ll have to ask a local.”
“A local?” Rufus said.
Shilo nodded. “He’s gone to find someone.”
“This is even better than I imagined,” Reafer said to Dindra. “Of course he’s asking a local.”
“Raefer, stop believing her,” Rufus said.
Raefer shrugged. “Well, who would you ask?”
The cardinal returned and chirped at them from the snowy pine. Then he flew off. Shilo started after him. “He’s found a squirrel,” she said over her shoulder. “I’ll be right back.” A few minutes later Shilo returned. “The squirrel says he knows where the stair is, but he wants payment. Do we have any nuts?”
“I do,” Dindra said, rummaging in her cloak pockets. “Here.”
“Thanks,” Shilo said, taking the nut. “One more thing. He won’t tell me his name. He says if we get caught using his information, he never saw us before and if the word ‘squirrel’ even gets mentioned to anyone, he’ll get even. He says squirrels have ways of getting even. Agreed?”
Everyone nodded. Rufus sat with his mouth open.
A few minutes later Shilo returned with the cardinal on her shoulder. “By the way, Rufus,” she said, “you dropped your spare mittens two hours back. So much for not leaving a trail.”
Rufus turned and groped in his saddlebag. “How do you know that?”
Shilo smiled at Dindra. “It’s one of the things the cardinal couldn’t tell me because I can’t talk to animals.”
“What’s the cardinal’s name?” Raefer said with a smile.
“It’s untranslatable,” Shilo said. “Any other questions?”
No one spoke.
“All right,” Shilo said. “The stair isn’t far. Let’s go.”
* * *
Rocks as tall as trees littered the woods. The squirrel led them on, jumping from branch to branch following a dry streambed. The mountains drew near and the star went out of sight behind the snowy peaks. Just before sundown the streambed went to the right and disappeared into the rocks. A trail split off to the left and climbed up between two tall, pointed stones.
“This is it,” Shilo said. “The squirrel has to stay the night here, Dindra. Could I give him another nut?”
“Sure,” Dindra said. “Give ‘im a bunch.”
“Thanks. I’ll be right back.” Shilo disappeared behind the rocks. When they returned, the cardinal was chirping and Shilo was laughing. When Shilo saw Rufus she bit her lip to stifle a laugh, but it got out through her nose. Rufus put his hands on his hips and frowned.
“Well, now what?” Raefer said.
“We keep going,” Byron said.
“It’ll be dark soon,” Dindra said. “Is anybody hungry?”
“It’s gonna get pretty cold once the sun goes down,” Raefer said.
“Well,” Byron said, “we can’t have a fire here in the open. Let’s go on until we’re out of sight of the forest.”
Tall peaks surrounded them. As the companions climbed higher, cold wind fell upon them from above, blowing sand and snow before it. The great forest of the world west of the mountains disappeared and the Griffin Stair began.
The first steps were simple flat places where the trail had been terraced. Further up, they were chipped from the rock and well leveled, but rough. Still higher the steps were cleaner and sharper. The wind gathered force. To the left of the stair a sheer cliff rose up to form a wall. To the right, a deepening valley formed around the streambed, now hidden in the shadows of evening. The group labored on, heads bowed before the frigid blast.
Their faces were red and chapped with wind and the sting of icy sand as they stepped onto a balcony paved with wide, flat stones. The wind stopped. The companions dropped their packs.
“There’s plenty of wood here,” Dindra said, leading the horses to the shelter of the wall. “Shall we camp?”
Rufus nodded. “Let’s get a fire going, Raef.”
A rumble shook the ground. Everyone stopped.
“Thunder?” Byron said.
“It came from inside the mountain,” Dindra said, steadying Melody and Old Weatherby.
“Will ya quit it?” Raefer said to Rufus as they crouched over the tinderbox.
“You always use too much,” Rufus said.
“Just lemme do it!” Raefer said.
Soon there was smoke and flame. Before long, a tall fire was burning.
“Look at that!” Byron said, pointing at the wall.
“What is it?” Raefer said.
“A carving,” Dindra said.
Byron took a branch from the fire and held it up to the wall. A great carving began where the stair stepped onto the balcony and continued on around to where the stair resumed, leading up and into darkness out of sight.
A rampant unicorn reared high and two parades of creatures marched toward it from the left and right, all dancing and leaping. There were satyrs and centaurs, humans and dryads, short, stout little human-like creatures and enormous ones as tall as trees. There were fabulous winged creatures with heads like eagles and bodies like lions. Water folk bobbed along in pools and streams, waving their arms. In the sky above the unicorn was carved a single star.
No one moved for a long time. They lingered, viewing the carving with wide eyes and open mouths. One by one they went back to the fire, until only Byron remained, holding the torch. He stayed until the light went out and then joined the others who had gathered around the fire to eat their supper, watch the stars and fall asleep.
* * *
A rumbling woke him. Byron sat up on the shaking ground. The sun was up. It threw light on the far side of the ravine but left the balcony in shadow. The fire was out. Byron shivered. The rumbling came again and another sound with it. It was a sound he knew, like crow feathers when they fly low, but much louder and
What else … bigger?
Byron turned and before he could move or scream or even feel afraid, a pair of enormous talons plucked him off the balcony and lifted him into the air.
He looked down on the snowy world. The talons were strong as tree roots and he could not move. He saw feathers and the tips of vast beating wings. The air was terribly cold and his eyes watered.
High, snowy peaks were beneath him. The world beyond the mountains opened and he saw the star, so close he tried to reach out and touch it. His insides leaped for joy at the nearness of it. Hills and valleys rolled on and on, with forests and rivers and lakes all locked in winter’s grip. A loud noise, like thunder, came from the west face of one of the mountains. A blast of dust and rock, like steam from a kettle, shot sideways into the air.
Byron’s captor let out a call like a roar and a shriek both at once. The great wings shifted and the creature banked away south. The view of the spewing mountainside was replaced by a sky filled with huge winged creatures. Two were close at hand, like lions with the heads and wings and front talons of eagles. Each of them held one of his companions in its grasp. Byron saw Shilo’s yellow hair and the gray-white cape of one of the brothers. The call was echoed from the cave entrances in the peaks that drew near.
“Griffins!” Byron said.
“Yes!” said his captor.
They headed for the dark opening. The griffin began a dive and fell faster and faster from the great height. The sudden swoop as they entered the darkness threatened Byron’s stomach and his breath left him as he was snatched back in a sudden stop and set down upon his hooves. Byron fell to a seat on the ground, gulping for air.
As the shaking left his legs, he saw Dindra and Rufus standing together between a pair of the magnificent creatures. Byron looked up. Two enormous, beautiful eyes looked down on him. The griffin had brown feathers and a jagged, silver beak. Byron would have been afraid, but there was humor and kindness in the griffin’s gaze.
Dindra galloped across the floor of the wide cave. “Byron!”
“What’s going on?” Byron said.
“You have come to the aeries of Gulthenna, the Griffin Queen,” said the griffin. “I for one am glad. I’ve always wanted to meet one of the findrel folk. Now I have not one but two! I am Cryolar and until my queen decides otherwise, you are welcome.”
“Why have you brought us here, Cryolar?” Byron said.
“No one may pass the stair of the griffins without leave from the queen. You have nothing to fear, so long as you show respect and your reason for using the pass is sound. If it is, you will be allowed to continue. If not, well, the law will determine your fate. Come, I will lead you to the queen.”
* * *
Arched openings to the sky filled the halls with light. The passages were wide and paved with smooth white stone. Frigid wind howled through the arches. The companions bundled themselves against the awful cold, but Cryolar fanned his wings and put his face to it.
“The heights are breezy this time of year,” he said.
“Breezy?” Raefer said with chattering teeth. He pulled the side of his hood down over his face and ducked his head. “Did he say breezy?”
Byron nodded. “That’s what he said.”
“Who built this place?” Dindra said.
“The dwarves,” Cryolar said. “Long ago, for Weln Six Pinion.”
“Who?” Rufus said.
“The great six-winged griffin, the mother of our race. She lived long ago. The dwarves are masters of stone and metal and were like kin to the griffins in ages passed.” A rumble echoed up from far below as another blast quaked the mountains. Cryolar sighed and shook his head. “In ages long passed,” he said.
He led them through a tall, wide passage into a vast chamber with arched portals open to the air all the way around. Sunlight and blue sky filled the place. At the far side of the chamber, a single griffin sat on a raised platform, glaring down at a young griffin who had dappled brown feathers and wings not fully strong. As Cryolar reached the place where he stopped to wait, the queen finished with the griffling who made her way toward the companions. Another griffin waited ahead of Cryolar and turned to greet him as he came up.
“Hello, Cryolar,” she said. “Ah, the trespassers!”
“Passage seekers, Irolene,” Cryolar said.
“We’ll see,” Irolene said. “Hello, Princess Quill.”
“Hello, Princess Quill,” Cryolar said.
Quill said nothing. She was staring with wide eyes at the visitors. Her pace slowed as she passed. She turned her head until she had to walk half sideways to look back.
“Irolene?” the queen said. “Ah, Cryolar. Why don’t you both approach together, we can finish things more quickly. I need to get out and stretch my wings.”
The queen eased herself down until she was lying on her side. She was enormous. Her wings, beak and talons were all golden, her fur was deep brown and her eyes were old and clear.
“Now then, Irolene,” the queen said. “I hear for myself that the dwarves are still blasting. You have not persuaded them to stop, as I asked you to do. Have you at least found out why they are doing it?”
“Yes, Your Highness,” Irolene said. “They are opening holes for light in the west faces of the mountains and sealing off the east-facing portals. It’s an effort to gain ‘relief,’ as King Thrudnelf puts it, from the sight of the star.”
“Madness,” said the queen. “The star has driven everyone to madness. Even the king of the dwarves! Thrudnelf is a dull-witted fool but I’ve never known him to be afraid of anything.”
“The move was counseled by the king’s brother, Prince Dornthelf.”
“Ah, yes,” the queen said. “Dornthelf the schemer. Well, enough, we’ll come back to this matter another time. Cryolar?”
“These are the visitors that were reported, Your Highness. They seek permission to pass the stair.”
“Do they indeed?” the queen said. “How courteous! And whom do we have? A pair of shades from haunted Ghostwood.” The queen looked at Rufus and Raefer closely. “And brothers, if not twins, by the look of you.”
Rufus and Raefer straightened and glanced at each other sidelong.
“And you three, I think, are from the Woods of Deep,” the queen said to Byron, Shilo and Dindra. “A pair of findrels and the daughter of a woodsman.”
“Yes, Your Highness,” Shilo said.
“Yes,” said the queen. “You are the second band of creatures to pass this way in as many weeks, though the first to ask permission. A strange sight it was to see: a pair of grizzlebacks in company with a raccoon and a rabbit.”
“Manakar!” Shilo said. “So they found a rabbit who wanted to go! They were hoping to!”
“Go? Go where?” the queen said.
“Why,” Shilo said. “After the star, of course.”
“What?” the queen said. She flapped her wings and pulled herself up straight.
“But that’s what we’re doing,” Shilo said.
“Shilo!” Byron said. Raefer, Rufus and Byron all smacked their foreheads.
“What?” Shilo said. “I just… oh… sorry, everybody.” Her shoulders sagged and she looked at the floor.
“So,” the queen said. “This insanity has reached the western wood, has it? I might have known. You satyrs haven’t changed, I see. I’d expect more from a centaur. You’ve got four hooves on the ground, after all. And what other mischief is afoot? Cryolar, send a scout. It’s too long since I looked in on that part of the forest.”
“I’ll go myself, Your Highness.”
“Good. Choose a flight party and take these truants with you. No doubt their grown folk are worried to death about them. It frightens me to anger when my daughter even mentions following the star. Here these five have gone off and done it!”
“Yes, Your Highness,” Cryolar said. “I’ll see they are all taken where they belong.”
“Good,” said the queen. “The next time you seek passage on my stair consider what reason you can give me for letting you. Consider it carefully.”
“But Your Highness&emdash;” Byron began.
Gulthenna let out a shrieking roar that shook the columns. Cryolar and Irolene bowed low and covered their faces with their wings. The companions froze and cast down their eyes. Byron forgot to breathe.
“Not another word,” the queen said. She stepped down off the platform, spread her wings and took flight out one of the arches. The wind bore her up and she was gone.