Chapter 18 Part 2: Falling for a Griffin
Mindy seemed to agree, and Clandestine’s hushed voice seemed to indicate the need for them to tread carefully since she noticed Mindy was being a little more careful with how she walked as they snuck back to where Hogarth was waiting with the horses. Of course, her steps were still heavy, but Clandestine appreciated the conscious effort.
When Hogarth looked up to see them returning so soon he looked a little disappointed.
“Nothing up there?” he asked, his voice low and weary.
“Actually I did find something,” Clandestine answered, hurrying over to Billy’s side and taking a roll of rope off the side of his saddle. Having a good long rope was always a monster-hunting essential. She would be dumb to travel without it. As she swung it over her shoulder she spun on her heel, already turning back. “You can still stay here and watch the horses. I just need to do some investigating,” Clandestine explained, feeling a sober kind of anticipation as she followed the path up to the rock tunnel she’d fallen into. Mindy seemed to lag behind her, but when Clandestine stopped and stared down the hole with the roll of rope in her hands, Mindy was sidling up beside her. Clandestine still couldn’t get a good look at what was down there. It was so dark. If only she had a lamp…
A flicker of an idea popped in her head, but she knew that would be absolutely stupid to do at a time like this. Even if she used magic and Mindy couldn’t see, if there really was a kid down there, she could only imagine them freaking out.
It was a shame though. Even though she was only with James for a short while, she had begun to warm up to the idea of using fire magic for little useful things, like lighting fires, or making sure she could see in a big dark wet cavern with some whimpering child or animal inside.
But she’d already accidentally let some random horse thieves see her magic. She couldn’t risk messing with it again.
She let out a small hiss of a sigh and squatted down by the hole, taking the end of the rope and tying a loop a little bigger than her foot.
“You think the griffin’s down there?” Mindy asked, still sounding skeptical as she whispered.
Clandestine pursed her lips and looked up at the soldier with a small sigh. “I won’t know ’til I go and find out, and if it is in there, with the kid, the last thing I want to do is go in with guns blazing.” That, and she was on a time crunch - but she couldn’t think about that again right now, or her brain would explode.
“So what I’m gonna have you do is hold the rope and let me down slowly. I need you to wait up here with the rope. If I give it a tug, pull me up. Think you can do that?” she asked, already holding the loose end of the rope out towards Mindy.
Mindy took the rope, her brows pinching together. She didn’t look angry? Clandestine couldn’t tell anymore.
“You’re going down alone?” she asked.
Clandestine blinked slowly. A bead of sweat dripped down the side of her neck.
“Yeah. Okay?” she patted Mindy’s arm, and Mindy’s expression relaxed a little. “Keep me steady. I’ll give you one tug when I reach the bottom, so you know to stop giving slack, and two if I need you to pull me back up.”
Mindy took the rope and wrapped the end around one hand, gripping it securely. “Okay,” she said. “Got it.”
Well, that was a relief. Clandestine took the other end of the rope and stuck her foot in it and held it a little higher up. Mindy placed her other hand close to Clandestine’s, and they tested it for a second, making sure it was taut and secure before Clandestine gave Mindy a nod and dropped her roped foot down the hole, slowly lowering herself in.
The first thing she noticed after her head was lowered in a few inches was that the hole didn’t go straight down. It wasn’t like the tunnels the worms carved out under Laura and Kaleb’s farm, where they mostly stayed the same width and height around, matching the size of the supposed worm. This was rock, and this hole seemed to lead into some kind of underground cave. So the rock wall beside her that she’d been using as sort of a guide to follow downward quickly disappeared and she was surrounded by cool air.
The second thing that she noticed was the smell.
It smelled like wet animals. Each animal probably had a distinct wet and dirty smell, but this just smelled like someone took the roof off a barn while it was raining and each pen got soppy and gross. As she looked down, she could still see the faint reflections of water on the now less-distant rocky floor, so she had a feeling something was wet down here. She was going to be too, soon.
As for what she could see, the light was very dim, but at what seemed to be a halfway point to the “ground” there was a shift. She could see a light coming through the side of the open cavern, and it looked like there was another opening further down, but this one looked far bigger. Big enough for a griffin to climb in, at least, and definitely big enough to escape out of, if she had to go out that way. The only problem was she had no idea where it led out to… so that wasn’t the most appealing option.
Then she felt the ground. A soft little plop alerted her as her boots made contact with the shallow layer of water - no deeper than your average puddle - that coated the floor. She tugged the rope once.
Now she was on her own until she came back to the rope. But that was how she wanted it. She didn’t want to drag Mindy down into the dark and murky cave blind. Not after - well - not after what happened with James.
She looked around, letting her eyes adjust as the light of day from the other entrance started to fill the cavern. After the area nearest to her came into focus she spotted something further in the cave, protruding out of the water on a ledge.
There was a nest, and curled up in the middle of it was a griffin that looked to be asleep. Clandestine couldn’t make out many details, but she could see its silhouette and the wings pressed against its back, pressed against its body. It looked like there was something in the nest with it - a smaller figure that barely poked out of the edge of the nest.
And then it moved, and Clandestine saw the head of a small child pop out and look at her. She was too far and it was too dark to see their features or make out their expression, but she had found them. Or him. James had said it was a family’s son that was taken, right? A little boy. She could imagine how terrifying that would be, getting snatched up by a beast far larger than you, and being wholly defenseless.
But the child was alive? Clearly, he had to be alive if he was moving. Was he unharmed? Was the griffin saving him as a snack for later?
The boy then disappeared again, ducking back down.
She had to get closer. Clandestine hadn’t moved her feet since she’d hit the ground, and it was largely because of the water all over the floor. There were little spots where the cave floor rose and fell, creating dry patches, but she would have to be very careful not to make any sudden movements. So, with the most cautious of movements, she slowly advanced towards the creature. There was nothing she could do about the faint slosh of water as she slowly dragged her foot through it, but she hoped that the faint noises wouldn’t be enough to wake it.
As she got closer, she steadied her breath. She focused on her feet, where she was stepping, and kept an eye on the griffin. Finally, she was able to slide onto a dry patch of rock that curved up towards the nest and continue up it slowly, getting down on all fours to make sure she didn’t slip or lose her grip with wet boots and slick rock.
It was then, being only a few feet from the nest, looking up at it from an angle, that her breath caught in her chest.
The boy popped his head back up, and she could finally see him.
He was so small. He couldn’t have been older than five or six years old.
Short little dreadlocks stuck out about his face, messy and dirty with twigs sticking out of them. His eyes were wide with fear, and he looked tired like the poor kid hadn’t slept in quite some time. As Clandestine continued to approach his expression turned earnest, his brows pinning together and his lips pressing up into a worried frown. He kept turning around, glancing back at the griffin, but his movements were stiff like he was trying to be quiet too.
Clandestine stopped a foot short of the edge of the nest, feeling her heart pounding in her chest. The griffin still wasn’t moving, but she could see its shoulders and back moving up and down ever so slightly. As she raised her head to peer into the nest she could see the griffin’s face was hidden behind its wings. Its neck was craned within itself and its tail was pulled around just as tightly. She could see its purple feathers were crusted with a considerable amount of dried blood, and its left wing looked like it was bent in an awkward way.
She wondered if the griffin hurt itself in the escape, or if it just had a very unlucky run-in with another creature of the forest. In any case, it seemed to have left the poor beast too injured to fly up to the murky, wet cave. She’d never known a griffin to willingly choose such an uncharacteristic place to nest.
Her attention was torn away from the griffin and back to the child when she realized they were nearly face to face.
When she met the boy’s eyes, she could see that they were teary. Her eyebrows arched up and she smiled, before looking back out into the cave from the place that she came. She pointed, letting her finger follow the trail of the rope, hoping he could see it through the dim light. She looked back at him and made a motion with her hand from him towards her, hoping he would understand without words that he should come with. He watched her, his head nodding barely, before he looked back at the griffin, holding his hands together at his chest.
Clandestine waved a hand to get his attention again, pointing from his eyes to her own. All he needed to do was focus on her. She could worry about the griffin.
The boy looked over the edge of the nest, at all of the twigs and leaves jutting out, and he hesitantly lifted his hands, like he was going to try to climb over.
Oh. Oh. No, that was not a great idea. A six-year-old trying to hurdle over a bunch of branches that could easily snap and cause him to trip and wake the griffin? No.
She held out her hands and stood up so she could reach over the nest. She steadied her feet, leaning against the awkwardly angled rocks so she wouldn’t slide down into the water when she bore the child’s weight. The boy stretched out his arms towards hers in a receiving gesture, but the sheer desperation of his movement made her heart twist.
Here she had been worried about the griffin staying free, but this poor boy had been trapped with it for something like two days.
She wrapped her hands around his ribs, under his arms and lifted him up. As she pulled him towards her chest his arms immediately clung to her, his little hands gripping her jacket with a death-grip. It honestly took her by surprise, but she took it in stride, simply smiling and patting his head briefly before reaching out to the rocks with one hand to steady herself.
She tried to imagine the path she took going up. It wouldn’t work as well on the way back. Not when she had the kid. But she’d have to make it work because all other paths meant going through more water, and she wasn’t going to risk the complications of that.
With one arm around the boy and another to steady herself, she started to slide down the rock on her butt, inching downward. But the moment her sheath from her sword on her side began to drag on the rock, she lifted herself up a little.
Things were going well. The griffin was quiet, the cavern was quiet, the boy was quiet. Everyone seemed to be holding their breath, including herself, as she stepped into the water towards the rope, so close to escaping. She gave the boy a small smile as she slid on the soles of her feet, taking hold of it with a firm grip.
Finally, she could breathe. She lifted her foot out of the water and slipped it into the loop and tugged twice.
Clandestine felt a twinge of panic. She looked back at the nest. She tugged again. Twice.
There was another moment of pause before Clandestine felt tension on the rope again and she was lifted up into the air. The boy drew his face into her neck and she could feel him clinging even more tightly to her jacket. She focused on keeping herself steady on the rope and holding balance, her arms locked in place.
It was when they were about halfway up that a rock suddenly came tumbling down past Clandestine’s head and splashed into the water. Clandestine instinctively shielded the boy’s head with her own, leaning forward, before snapping it back up and looking back at the griffin.
The griffin hadn’t woken up when she almost fell through and rocks came down, right? It would still be asleep -
The griffin let out a terrible, terrible screech that echoed through the cave. It sounded scared, and defensive, and pained.
The boy whimpered by her ear as she turned and saw the griffin crawling out of the nest, running towards them. Its left wing swung loosely at its side while the right flapped, but it didn’t catch air. It looked ready to leap.
Clandestine tensed. “Hurry!” she shouted, sure that Mindy must’ve heard the screech too. “I’ve got the kid!”
As the words left her mouth, the griffin leaped upwards. Giant paws stretched out towards Clandestine’s feet, and she tucked her legs up towards her chest, her whole body engaged in keeping herself steady at the end of the rope.
Its paw caught on her shins, but its claws only scraped against the surface of her pants. It fell back down with another screech, opening its beak wide before jumping back up, this time missing entirely as the speed of their ascent suddenly quickened.
“Are you okay?” she could hear Hogarth shout from above. He must’ve come to help.
Light broke through over her face and she squinted looking up at them. She didn’t have a free hand to navigate the jagged, rocky opening, so her back took most of the beating. Before she could even answer she was being pulled up by four arms, and the boy was being torn away from her.
“Oh my gods, there really was a child,” Mindy said breathily, taking the boy in her arms. He was crying. “Don’t worry, you’re okay now,” she said softly. “We’ll get you home.”
Hogarth was pulling up the rest of the rope, looking down the hole. Clandestine's attention was torn in two directions but she chose to look down with him. The kid was safe. The griffin was arguably not.
“What about the griffin?” Hogarth asked.
The griffin was still in view. It jumped once more, before circling beneath them.
“It must be really weak,” Clandestine said, her forehead creasing. “It broke a wing. It must be miserable.”
Hogarth let out a low whistle. “A broken wing is hard to repair…”
Clandestine looked over to him. “You think they’d take care of it? Mend its wing?” she asked hopefully.
Hogarth’s face was serious, and his eyes were half-lidded, fatigued. He met her eyes and sighed.
“No one wants a broken griffin. Even a healed wing makes a weak contender. It means - we didn’t come out here for nothing, of course, since you saved the boy, but we can’t bring the griffin with us,” he said, putting his hands on his knees and then standing up. “There’s no point.”
Clandestine stared at him, frozen as she crouched on the ground. Her eyes followed him as he walked over to Mindy, who was rocking the boy in her arms and cooing to him gently. The boy continued to cry.
“There’s no… point?” she repeated under her breath.
She had come all the way out here to save a griffin. To make sure it didn’t get captured. And in the end, it didn’t need to be brought back at all. Because it was broken.
She looked back down the hole. The griffin was gone.
“But what if it goes and takes a kid again? Or hurts someone?” she asked.
Hogarth had been whispering something to Mindy and the two of them looked up.
“With a broken wing?” Hogarth replied incredulously.
Clandestine's confidence faltered. Hogarth had a point. The griffin couldn’t easily swoop down and snatch people up anymore. But now it was doomed to die in the wild.
The sobbing of the little boy grew louder and finally registered in her ears. The boy was terrified. Traumatized. It mattered more that he got home safe.
Had that been why James had agreed to this whole thing in the first place?
Oh, gods. James. She’d almost forgotten. He was out there arranging a heist to steal back a wounded griffin mother’s egg. For her.
She stood back up, marching over to Hogarth, since he wasn’t busy comforting the little boy.
“Well, I guess you guys should get this little guy back home,” she said. “It looks like my job here is done.”
Hogarth raised his eyebrows. “You’re leaving?”
“Well, I didn’t catch a griffin like I said I would, did I?” Clandestine asked, trying to keep her voice down. It felt insensitive to talk business in front of the kid.
Hogarth paused. “We need you there to file paperwork.”
Clandestine blinked. “File what.”
“Barlowe keeps thorough records of everyone she hires. Even failed missions,” Hogarth explained with another sigh.
Clandestine’s mind was racing again. Stay at Barlowe’s mansion to fill out paperwork? The mansion where Alexander was? No, she had to go warn James. She had to go help him. She had to warn him!
Her face went blank apart from one sole eye twitch. Her gaze drifted to Mindy, who stood a few steps behind them. Mindy’s hair was even frizzier than before, but what Clandestine really noticed was how motherly she looked, with the boy on her hip, and her soft, comforting smile, and the way she held the boy so tenderly. Like a kid, and not a sack of weight. And the boy was finally beginning to calm down, sniffling as she bounced him on her hip.
Something inside her stomach twisted.
“Can’t we find the kid’s home first?”
Hogarth looked back at Mindy, watching. Mindy looked up at the two of them, her expression immediately hardening.
“Yes,” Hogarth said, a hesitance in his voice as he looked to Mindy for approval. She nodded. “Let’s do that.”