Rocks seemed to define Piton’s life.
He spent all day at work digging them up, carrying them around, and cutting them up or crushing them at the quarry. Then he spent all weekend climbing the biggest ones he could find. Now, he felt like he’d ended up on the wrong side of a whole pile of the things. And he hadn’t even opened his eyes yet.
With a groan, he reached a hoof up in the darkness, and at least he had enough space. So, not pinned beneath a city-sized boulder, then. Though his headache begged to differ.
Piton rolled onto his side to prop up, and—
A shock of pain shot up his side, his vision flashing an intense white. He pounded a hoof on the ground and gritted his teeth until his panting abated and he couldn’t see anything but the cold blackness again. Night. He must have knocked himself senseless, and his left foreleg—broken. Or badly sprained.
One by one, little snowflakes of memory drifted down on him. He shivered, even though… it was actually warm. Steamy, even. Yeah, summer. He’d gone southwest for some epic climbs, and… he shook his head. A vague sense of falling, but no picture of it in his mind.
Ugh, so drowsy, but he probably shouldn’t sleep in this condition. He had to figure this out. Where was his pack? His canteen? Water. He needed water.
Left side bad, so try the right. A few scrapes and bruises sparked his nerves as he rolled the other way, but he did manage to get standing. And immediately regretted it. He wobbled and his head spun, and he cast about for any kind of hoofhold that might keep him from keeling over, but down he went. On the good side, at least, but his bad leg sure let him know it didn’t appreciate the jolt.
When the sparkles had faded from his vision, he could see a slightly less dark strip overhead. The sky? Yeah, he was in a shallow gulch against the cliff face. No telling how much he’d have to climb to get out. But he’d better start soon, if he could ease himself standing again. He wouldn’t last too long without water come daybreak.
As he sat up slowly—a scrabbling sound, only a short distance away. Piton held his breath. A bear? Coyote? He couldn’t put up much of a fight. Then a voice stabbed into the stillness.
“Oh, you moved.”
Just a hint of a Mexicoltan accent, but hard to place. Sounded more like one of the buffalo, except higher-pitched. Not an adult. Still, something decidedly un-dangerous, he noted as his heart finally dislodged from his throat.
“You prob’ly shouldn’t move. Get some sleep. I can help you find your way outta here in the morning.” The dark shape—small dark shape—clambered closer.
“I don’t think I should sleep with a concussion.”
“Really?” The shadow cocked its head.
“Yeah. Hey, listen. You find any of my stuff? I had a canteen…”
With a glint of starlight, something metallic flashed in front of Piton, and—“Here. I filled it up at the river.”
As fast as he could, Piton unscrewed the cap and gulped down the cold water. Then he wiped the excess off with his hoof. “I don’t suppose you know how to tie a splint?”
“Can you at least bring me a couple of sturdy branches?”
“Yeah!” the kid immediately barked, and she ran off again. And against his better judgment—as if he had a choice—Piton slipped into a shallow sleep until dawn.
“Hey.” A soft voice intruded on a lovely dream of sitting cross-legged atop a balanced rock, and a stick jabbed Piton in the neck. “I found that branch you wanted.”
Nice. He sat up and blinked at the bright sunlight. Day already, but he must not have gone comatose, he had his canteen, and whoever the kid was—
A pegasus filly. Kind of an off-white with a black-and-white flecked mane. She had on some manner of headband with a string of beads and a couple eagle feathers trailing from it. Some time during the night, she must have found and dragged the pack over, so Piton took off the shoulder straps and lashed the stick against his bad leg as best he could. The whole time, the pegasus stared intently, like she was recording everything on a little camera in her head.
When she saw Piton watching her back, she flinched. “Sorry,” she said in that strange accent. Spot on for a buffalo, except she wasn’t one. “I just… I want to study with the tribe’s healer next summer, when I’m old enough.”
Curious kid. Piton gave her a smile, and she grinned back. He’d always had a soft spot for kids, but always somepony else’s. His brother Carrot Cake’s, for instance: the twins Carrot called his “crumbcakes.”
“I’ll take you to my village,” the filly said after Piton had tied off the last strap with a grunt. “Our healer will know what to do. But you should eat something before we go. Get your strength up.”
As she rummaged around in her saddlebag, only then did Piton notice the odd… well, bracelets was the closest thing he could figure. They strapped around the ends of her forehooves and had vicious-looking short blades, like a set of claws. Then her eyes lit up, and she pulled out whatever she’d been looking for.
A squirrel. Hanging there limply in her grasp.
Piton swallowed hard and scooted back. “What… is that?”
“You’ve never seen a squirrel?” When she didn’t get an answer, she gave it a sniff and held it out to him. “It’s still fresh.”
“How can you eat that?” He couldn’t take his eyes off the dangling… lifeless—“You’re a pony!”
With a snort, she gave him a smug stare, turned her nose up, and stood tall, her chest and feathers puffed out. “Nuh-uh. I’m a griffon.”
“But—you—” Piton held up his hoof and nearly shook it at her. “You don’t have a beak! Or talons!”
“Sure I do,” she replied, brandishing those buckled-on claws. “Just a different kind of beak. I have fur, feathers, wings. I can fly and hunt. And my mom says I’m a griffon.”
Would she still say that if she knew the filly picked up dead animals? “Look, if she plays along with you, fine, but I doubt she’d want you touching that thing.”
“It’s not a game! I just turned ten, and I’m out for my first solo hunt, and I was gonna give you the first squirrel I ever caught all by myself, and—” She dropped her prey in the dirt, took a few steps away from him, and dipped her head, teardrops stirring up the dust beneath her. “I know I’m not that good at it, but I’m trying.” She hiccupped. “It’s not nice to make fun of someone,” she mumbled.
“I’m sorry, I didn’t mean—look, what’s your name? I don’t even know what to call you.”
She glanced over her shoulder and gave Piton a once-over, as if deciding whether he was worthy of knowing it. “G-Gyrfalcon,” she finally said.
That seemed to make sense with her cutie mark, at least: some kind of feather. “Is that what kind of bird—?” Piton waved a hoof at her flank.
“Yeah.” And she ran a hoof—or talon, or whatever—down her headdress, too. Not from an eagle, then.
“Well… Gyrfalcon, thank you for offering to share your food with me, but ponies don’t eat meat. I don’t know any who do, anyway. But I’m fine. Let’s just start heading for your home, okay?”
With one last glare, she picked up her squirrel, nodded, and walked off, away from the morning sun. She didn’t even check to see if Piton was following. Though she had to assume so, or she might as well have flown.
Over the next few hours, she’d get ahead, scout the way, and wait for him to catch up. But once the terrain evened out, that didn’t serve much purpose, so she hung back with him, and Piton couldn’t help watching the squirrel tail hypnotically swing back and forth with each stride. She was really committed to the game if she was willing to carry a dead animal around.
If she wouldn’t answer the question directly, then maybe Piton could find another route. “Hey, Gyrfalcon… so, what’s your family like? Is your mom a pegasus?”
She only snorted back. “Why would she be? I don’t even know what that is.”
“Because…” Piton tried pointing at her hooves again—the rear ones, without claws.
A fire lit in her eyes, and Gyrfalcon whirled around. “What is it with you? Nothing but ponies can have kids? My mom’s a griffon, my dad’s a griffon, and I’m a griffon!” she barked.
Definitely not a game, then. Maybe her parents really were griffons? Well, not her parents parents, but…
Now that Piton thought about it, he had caught rumors of an odd griffon clan years ago. Right about the time of the last griffon-pony war, a small group of them broke off to go live in peace. Probably a couple of centuries back, but they’d settled alongside the buffalo so long that they’d taken on a lot of the buffalo culture. And a few griffons would occasionally join them from the main nation or break away again and head back when they tired of or got a taste of blood for the skirmishes that still popped up here and there.
Or so he’d heard. In all his life, Piton had never met a griffon from that clan or known of anypony else who had.
Hm. Maybe one way to tell. “Sorry. I didn’t mean to make you angry.” He took a breath. “Your parents… what are their names?”
She squinted at him and scanned him up and down once more before responding. “My dad’s Gareth, and my mom is Gwendolyn.”
Griffon names, alright. “Gyrfalcon’s different though. Sounds—” His breath caught in his throat. Sounds like a pony name, he’d almost said. “Sounds unusual for a griffon.”
With a faint smile, she faced west again and continued walking. “I’m not like most griffons.”
“How so?” Despite her immediate dismissal, he’d caught her surreptitiously eyeing his hooves a couple times already. She must have seen hooves plenty of times before, though, even if her parents were griffons.
“Well—” she raised a clawed forehoof and flexed it “—I’m just different.” A few steps later, she turned her nose up. “But Mom says it doesn’t matter. I’m another kind of griffon, but still a griffon.”
Piton let out a low chuckle. “It’s the feet, huh? And the tail, and the face, and a lot of things.”
Gyrfalcon stopped and let him catch up. And she turned around, staring unabashedly at his hooves this time. And he finally got a better look at her, too: a trio of jagged scars raked across the ribs on her left side, and a notch was missing from the tip of one ear. But as she stood there, she held up a rear hoof and hovered it next to one of his. Her brow furrowed, and she clamped her jaw down on something left unsaid.
“H-haven’t you ever seen hooves before?”
Her back stiffened as she nodded. “Of course I have! There are buffalo all over the place!”
“But… not ponies?”
She opened her mouth to answer, but no words came at first. She dropped her gaze to the red-tinged dirt beneath her. “From a distance, sometimes,” she said softly. “Never up close. They don’t come out here much, and I…”
Space. She needed space. So Piton sat on his haunches, got out his canteen, and took a long pull. Gyrfalcon would speak when she was ready.
“Mom and Dad said to stay away from ponies.”
Piton wiped his mouth and screwed the cap back on. “Then why’d you help me?”
“I… I stumbled on you by surprise. A-and you looked so much like me, I didn’t know if you were a pony. I thought maybe you were a griffon, too.” She smiled, just a little. “The kind I am.”
“The kind with hooves?”
Her cheek twitched, and her lip trembled. Something didn’t add up here, but maybe he shouldn’t press it just now. So he jutted his muzzle toward her side. “How’d you get those scars?”
“Oh, um… learning to use my talons. With my brother.” If he wasn’t mistaken, she’d winced.
“Did he do that to you?”
Immediately, she waved a… talon. “No! No, it was my own fault. I had to get used to them.”
“And your ear?” he said, raising an eyebrow.
“You ask a lot of questions.”
Piton sighed quietly. With all those bits of information, a picture had fallen into place. A pony, taken in by griffons. Maybe kidnapped, maybe captured. Made to think she was one of them, to hunt, to eat meat, but not treated very well. He’d hate to call it abuse, but she seemed awfully self-conscious about those injuries, even to the point of blaming herself. If he was right, though… what would they do to him once he got to their village, to protect their secret? If they let him go, he’d surely talk. But then why allow her free rein out here where she could easily encounter a pony?
They continued on in silence, but Gyrfalcon kept taking glimpses of him whenever she could, way out of the corner of her eye so that he might not notice, but more than once, her inattentiveness to where she was going caused her to stumble, even at the slow pace Piton could manage. The further they went, the more her ears drooped, the more her nose wrinkled, and the more she’d stare off at nothing in between furtive glances back. As luck would have it, he really needed another rest right about the fifth time she’d let her gaze wander to his hooves.
“You want a closer look?” He held up a hoof, but she frowned. “Sorry. That was a question, I know.”
She did come closer. Then she touched his mane, letting the individual strands slide over her foreleg. She peered at his muzzle next and poked his cutie mark. “It’s… not painted on!”
“No,” Piton replied, shaking his head. “Why, is yours?”
“I—no. I tell everyone it is. Only my parents know. And my brother.” She pursed her lips and tapped her scars.
“When he found out—is that when he did that to you?”
Instantly, her jaw dropped, and her eyes went wide. “No! He wouldn’t! I told you, this was my own fault! I was learning to use my talons, and they slipped, and…”
The poor filly was shaking! “I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to scare you.” He curled his foreleg around her shoulder and hugged her, and with that hoof right by her face, she turned her own over, compared the frog, the fetlock, the pastern.
“If… if you had wings…” she ventured.
“Some ponies do,” he answered. Then he patted his forelock. “And some have a horn on their head.”
The last bit of color drained from her face. “I’m not a griffon, am I?” she whispered.
A tough truth, but one she needed to know. “You’re a pony. And you must have a pony family somewhere who loves you—who wonders what happened to you. Do you remember anything about your life before you came to live out here?”
Gyrfalcon shook her head and looked at the dirt. “I’ve always lived here—” she jerked her gaze up and stared at him, her cheeks damp “—but I love my parents, I really do, and they love me!”
That was one of the hallmarks of the area’s clan, right? They weren’t violent, but some violent types did migrate here. It just might take a while for some of them to shake the habit, if ever. Not to mention it’d provide a pretty good hiding place for a criminal. Or a kidnapper. Even if so, she might still love them. But why let her wander around then? Arrogance?
“I just… never saw a pony before,” she said. “Not up close.” She absentmindedly rummaged around in her saddlebag and pulled out some dark brown strips of what looked like jerky. He’d seen it at griffon markets before. It sure smelled like jerky, and it nearly made him gag. At least it wasn’t that squirrel. But she chewed away, her wings twitching and fidgeting the whole time. “Sorry, I-I get hungry when I’m nervous.”
He left her in silence for a while. She kept staring off into space, and the crease never relaxed from her forehead. But he had to try. “Do you ever think you might, y’know, want to find out? We could look it up, see if a filly about your age went missing.” Before he could think better of it, he broke into a grin. “My brother Carrot Cake loves kids—he’d have no problem taking you into his family if we couldn’t find—”
“I have a family!” she shouted. “I don’t need you telling me I belong s-somewhere else and—”
“But can’t you see what they’ve done to you? For Celestia’s sake, you’re a pony eating meat and hunting and getting scarred up—”
“I don’t know what I am!” Gyrfalcon slipped out of his grasp and trotted on ahead of him. “I wish I’d never found you,” she whimpered.
For most of the day, Gyrfalcon had taken to flight, hovering far enough in front of Piton that they couldn’t talk and every couple of hours flitting off to refill his canteen, then pushing it back to him without a word. He hadn’t seen a single hint of civilization anywhere nearby, and the trail he hiked yesterday to get here was in the other direction. Not to mention the sun had swung overhead and back down steadily, and now it shone directly in his eyes. He could have gone four times as far on a good leg, but nothing to be done about it, and she wasn’t strong enough at this age to carry him. That left him at her mercy. And he couldn’t help asking himself: What would they do to her when they found out she knew? What would they do to him when they found out he told her? Maybe she was leading him nowhere, waiting for nature to get rid of the problem for her.
No, no, why get him water then? She could have claimed there wasn’t any around, or just fly away. He hadn’t seen any predators, but she’d know better where they would go prowling.
Still, even with a good read on her, no telling what the real griffons would do.
So his heart caught in his throat when he crested a low rise to see the setting sun’s long shadows mingling with an array of tent-like buildings. Do or die time. Not the best choice of words.
A few other griffons came and went, and none of them seemed to have noticed Piton yet, until Gyrfalcon gave a sharp whistle from her spot in the sky above him. Across the encampment, a shrill answering call sounded, like the screech of a hawk. Instantly, a dozen griffons swarmed her and… hugged her?
They all wore huge grins, but nothing compared to the pair who emerged from one of the buildings near the back, especially when she glided down to them with that awful squirrel cradled in her forehooves.
Then Gyrfalcon pointed at Piton, and every one of those griffons stared.
After a whirlwind of children and adults alike crowding around for a better look, the two with Gyrfalcon—presumably her “parents”—each came up to him and… lent him an arm for support?
They wanted to help?
Something lay hidden behind their eyes, though, like… like decades ago, when his own parents had told him their old dog needed to go to the veterinarian one last time.
It felt like watching somepony else go through it all on a movie screen as the two griffons undid his makeshift splint, tied on a proper one, and dabbed a poultice on his cuts and abrasions, chattering away the whole time.
The female… Gwendolyn. Yes, Gwendolyn—she craned her neck to see behind her, through the cloth flap into the next room—likely a kitchen, based on the scent of spices. “...Yes, I saw, dear! And a fine squirrel it is! And all on your own for the first time! I’m so proud of you!” She had that same curious accent as Gyrfalcon. Gareth said nothing, but he positively beamed, and his chest swelled.
They sure didn’t seem hostile. Maybe it’d put them in a worse mood once they had a chance to talk to Gyrfalcon, but he didn’t see the need to plot his escape from an untimely death anymore.
“Please, Mr…?” Gwendolyn said.
She nodded and cast her eyes downward. “It’s getting dark. We’ll call our healer over to see you, but I hope you will accept our hospitality for tonight. In the morning, if you are ready, we can fly you to the nearest town with a train station.”
“Thank you, um… Gwendolyn, ma’am.” Wait, did griffons mind that? Should he have waited until she’d given her name before he used it? “Gyrfalcon told me your names. I’m sorry if…”
She waved it off, but still, some weight tugged at the back of her eyes. Gareth had left the room several minutes ago, and hushed conversation carried in from the kitchen. Without looking up, she led Piton in there, and sure enough, Gyrfalcon stood with Gareth, stoking a cooking fire that vented bitter smoke through a hole in the ceiling.
They’d arranged bowls around the fire, with some kind of soup in three of them. It smelled like that jerky. The fourth just had corn, beans, and squash. So either Gareth knew what ponies ate, or they’d made a very good guess.
As long as he could ignore the odor of roasted meat permeating the whole place, it actually tasted pretty good. But whatever conversation had occurred earlier between Gyrfalcon and Gareth didn’t resume. They simply ate in silence, with the fire seemingly brightening as the evening shadows crowded around it. Afterward, Gwendolyn collected the bowls, then guided Gyrfalcon outside with her.
Gareth cleared his throat.
“I understand Gyrfalcon offered her squirrel to you,” he said. A hint of a smile crinkled the feathers around his eyes. “Her first solo hunt, her sign that she is now an adult, and she freely offered it to you.”
He hadn’t seemed nearly as curious about Piton as Gyrfalcon had, though. Didn’t he know—? “I… I appreciated it, but I couldn’t…”
Gareth nodded. “Of course. But I am proud of her for the gesture. She’s grown into a fine young hen.”
Odd. Gareth didn’t have much of an accent at all. Piton almost said it, but from the crease on the griffon’s brow, he’d already anticipated the question. “I knew this day would come. As it must. It’s right, but that doesn’t make it easy.”
More and more questions piled up, but Piton had to pick a place to start. “Where did she come from?”
And Gareth let out a long sigh. “You have to understand. This place—” he gestured at all the surrounding tents “—started out as a single clan, probably centuries ago, who wanted to live peacefully away from the other griffons. A lot of the original family lines are still around, but any others looking for peace are welcome.”
He blinked and glanced at the sound of clanging metal where Gwendolyn and Gyrfalcon had gone to wash up. “I used to have a huge chip on my shoulder toward ponies. Don’t know why, and the last war happened long before I was born, but some of the individual clans would still get in fights with them here and there. I fell in with a group that was little more than highway robbers, convinced we were doing our part for some grander scheme. We set on her family, and…”
Gareth covered his eyes with a talon. “The others killed them when they resisted. They’d never done it before, and I don’t know what made them snap, but I grabbed Gyrfalcon—she was just an infant!—and guarded her from them. I’d had enough. They grumbled all evening, but I took the first watch back at camp, and when they fell asleep, I ran off and took her with me. Then I ended up here.”
“Then… you didn’t know anything about her,” Piton said, squinting at him. “Not even her name.”
With a shake of his head, Gareth looked back up. “As a baby, she didn’t need one. By the time she could talk, I’d met and married Gwendolyn, and we called her ‘Little Gwen.’ Then she got her cutie mark flying around with the hunting birds that nest in the cliffs, and I chose something I thought would work for a pony or a griffon, plus it suits her color. Made a little ceremony about it and everything, so it’d be something she’d earned, and the chief gave her that feathered headband to wear. Like any of us, Gyrfalcon falls under her protection, too. And enough of the other griffons around here wear little totems that the cutie mark wasn’t too out of place.”
“Okay,” Piton said. He rubbed a hoof across his mouth. “But why make her live like a griffon? You feed her… squirrel, a-and I’ve seen the scars!” Gareth’s eyes had gone wide, and for a moment—just for now—Piton lowered his voice to a hiss. “On her side! And that ear. What did you do to her? Or did you let the other kids have at her for being different? She said her brother—”
A low growl sounded from Gareth’s throat, and his eyes flashed. “Never!” he said in a harsh whisper. “Her little brother adores her! He was trying to show her how to use her new talons, the ones the smith made for her, a-and she slipped, they fell off, she slid across them—” Those same steely gray eyes softened, and he wiped tears away. “Nobody felt worse than he and I did. But Giraud has his share of scars, too. All the children do, from the games they play, the wrestling, the mock hunts.”
The bile rising in Piton’s stomach, he opened his mouth to retort, but Gareth cut him off before he could. “And no, she isn’t overmatched. I’ll have you know she’s one of the best in the whole village. By choice. You think I didn’t know she was different? At first, we fed her the same things you just ate, but she wanted what we had! Do you think it’s fair that she’d be the only griffon here not allowed to have meat? I hoped she’d hate it, refuse to eat it again, and the problem would solve itself! But she wanted so much to be just like all of us in everything. Who am I to deny her that? Shouldn’t everyone allow her to make her own choice?”
Piton ground his teeth. But in Gareth’s place, wouldn’t he have done the same thing? “She’s a pony,” he replied, with far less resolve than he intended. “That matters.”
“Does it?” Gareth chuckled, but then he let out another heavy sigh. “I was responsible for making her an orphan, so I raised her as my own. That’s our way. And I love her as much as anything in this world. But she isn’t a pony. Or a griffon. She’s whatever she chooses to be, and I’d never ask anything more of her.”
No argument. Piton couldn’t think of anything to say to that. As long as Gareth allowed her the freedom to find her own answer. And it seemed he had.
Once more, Gareth averted his gaze down. “I told her to avoid ponies. I shouldn’t have done that, but I knew she’d eventually disobey me, and truthfully… I wanted her to. Kids. Heh. The quickest way to get them to do something is forbid it, right?” He laughed quietly to himself, then he locked eyes with Piton. “So yeah, I knew this day would come. If that means you have to take her back with you, then I won’t stop you. But only if she wants it, alright?”
Gareth didn’t wait for an answer. He merely stood and walked out, leaving Piton alone next to the fire.
Gwendolyn had kindly made up a pallet for Piton to sleep on, but as soon as they’d doused the candles and gone to bed themselves, he’d crept outside. The healer had come by right before all that, so everything seemed in order. Tomorrow, he could go home.
Home. Not the easiest concept anymore. For him, yeah, but Gyrfalcon…
He sat leaning against the woodpile while staring at the sky. Gareth knew this day would come. He’d said it several times. But that also meant explaining the whole story to her. Would she hate Gareth for it? Would she forgive him?
A rustling sounded behind him.
“Oh!” Gyrfalcon jumped and held a claw to her chest, but even with that surprise, she turned her eyes up to the sky, and she seemed… smaller somehow. “What are you doing out here? You need your rest.”
Piton smiled. “I can sleep on the train. I’ll be able to leave in the morning.”
She didn’t reply, but she didn’t go back inside, either. The desert air didn’t hold warmth very well at night, and he considered doing the responsible thing and going back to his cozy pallet. Then Gyrfalcon spoke, tears on her voice.
“Do you think I actually have family somewhere? Should I find out who I am?”
“Your dad talked to you then? While you cooked?”
She nodded hurriedly.
“What did he say?”
Chin held to her chest, she gathered her words, then she touched the beads trailing down past her drooping ears. “That we’d need to talk more later, if I c-could stay, if I wanted to stay. And that even if I wasn’t a griffon, I was still his daughter, and nobody in the clan would ever turn their back on me or treat me different.”
Piton took a deep breath, in and out, turning to mist as it drifted away on the breeze. “You might have another family. But even so, they’ve lived without you this long. I think they’ve managed to cope, but if you wanted to know for sure sometime, I wouldn’t blame you. For now, it’ll keep.”
“Then—” she gulped “—you’re not taking me back with you? Mom said you would, and that she’d have to let you.”
“If you want to,” Piton answered. Then he turned to her. “Look, I’m sorry. I got involved in something I didn’t understand, and I still don’t understand it all, but—”
“It’s okay,” she said, starlight glinting off her eyes. “I would have found out eventually. But it’s all different now.”
“No it isn’t.”
A frown stole across her face. “I’m a pony. I can’t change that.”
And another clouded sigh puffed away from his nose. “You’re Gyrfalcon. That’s it. You may look like a pony, but what you are is up to you. Everyone here considers you a griffon, and I can’t say they’re wrong. You have to choose, and not right now. Griffon, pony, whatever—it doesn’t matter. Stay true to yourself and follow your heart. Do that, and everything will work out for the best. Okay?”
She pursed her lips for a moment and glanced at the other tents. But she still had those talons on, still wore the feathered headband. They suited her, even if he didn’t understand, even if he didn’t like all that came with them. In the end, it wasn’t his place to decide.
Then she nodded, stifled a yawn and stumbled inside. The stiffness gone from her shoulders, she gazed one last time up at the cliffs, then disappeared through the cloth flap.
With a grin, Piton watched the same cliffs. Some other kind of falcons, probably—gyrfalcons would be out of place in a desert, normally, but she’d fit perfectly into the most unlikely of places already. Come daybreak, he’d return home, alone, as those birds emerged again, turning and wheeling on the air currents, a cutting edge through this inhospitable place, keen and watchful and formidable, right where they belonged. And wild and free.
Just like their namesake.