Callie sneaks away from the village in search of help against the Madach. She’s discovered she can understand the rabbit she rescued from a Madach cage, and now the rabbit is taking Callie to where help will be found…
Beyond the screen of greenery, the ground was unexpectedly bare. A wide, grassy slope opened to either side of Callie and down into a valley. Beyond the valley, the forested hills rolled into the distance, range after range until they were a smear of deep purple against the sky. Callie gazed at the faraway hills. She thought of Gwen and Mark in that vastness, searching for the Sleih. A long and dangerous journey.
Despite the day’s bright warmth, a thick white mist filled the valley below her. The rabbit, ears straight up, was skipping down the grassy slope into the mist, apparently expecting Callie to follow.
Callie hesitated. It’d be easy to get lost in that whiteness.
What sort of help was the rabbit expecting to find in the mist-filled valley? Wanting to know the answer to this question made up Callie’s mind. She took a deep breath and plunged into the fog.
The thick white mist wasn’t thick at all. But below its moist, shallow layer, Callie’s familiar Forest was gone.
She and the rabbit stood on the side of a deep, wide natural bowl where green, pink and golden butterflies dipped and hovered above a tumult of gloriously coloured wildflowers. Mossy rocks, small ferns growing from beneath them, lay scattered at the bottom of the bowl. Grand old trees, their leaves glowing as if each one had been waxed and polished, grew in stately fashion between the rocks. Birds as bright as the butterflies darted between their branches. Despite the mist above, it was sunnily bright in the grassy bowl. It was also quiet, except for the tumbling splash of water plunging down a crumbling yellow stone wall into a pool ringed with more of the yellow stones.
Callie pushed back her damp, dark curls, frowning. Was she dreaming?
She must have fallen asleep under the willow, waiting for the rabbit to come.
Remembering her thirst, she made her way to the pool, scooped up a handful of water and drank. The water tasted sweet.
The rabbit jumped onto the stones and drank alongside her. Is it good?
To the side of the pool, a red-flowering vine trailed over the ruins of a stone arch set against the steep slope of the grassy bowl. A dim light gleamed through the red flowers, suggesting the arch had once been the grand entrance to a cave.
The rabbit hopped to the arch, paused and looked back at Callie.
Come on. Help’s here.
Imagining bears and wolves which lived in caves, Callie was reluctant to push the red-flowered curtain aside. The rabbit didn’t hesitate. It skipped through as if expecting to greet an old and dear friend. Callie once more took her lead from the rabbit and stepped through after it.
An angry, yet weak, bird-like cry greeted her, followed by a smothered mewling. Callie stopped, one hand on the crumbling arch.
In the muted light from a hole in the rocky roof, she saw she was indeed in a wide cavern. Water dripped, splashing into a pool or a stream. The air was cold.
Callie waited to be able to see in the dimness. She wondered where the rabbit was.
The weak cry came again.
Callie started, and drew back at the sight of the huge beast which lay on its side on the hard-packed earth floor, its massive head facing her.
The beast’s eyelids fluttered, a fierceness gleaming from dulled green eyes.
Not a bear or a wolf. Callie was still afraid. She’d never seen an animal like this one. It had the neck and head of an eagle, although the feathers were a pale, sickly, blue. Its body was like a large cat, or a lion, as in the picture Callie remembered seeing in a book from school. Her widened eyes travelled the beast’s length to see the tail, long and muscled, tipped with a tuft of coarse white hair. One long dark wing closed against the lion body, another spread, all hollows and peaks like a feathered mountain range, on the floor of the cave. The beast’s scaly front legs bore patchy tufts of the same blue feathers as its head. Massive talons slowly flexed.
The beast raised its head and opened its curved beak. Another weak cry came, this one no longer angry. Exhausted by the effort, the beast’s head slumped to the floor.
Callie’s fear fled. The poor, beautiful beast was ill. Rather than the beast helping her, Callie had to help the beast.
Callie. The beast spoke to her mind … hesitant, painful.
Callie’s eyebrows rose. The beast knew her name?
We are gryphon … our fate, to guard … to wait … the treasure … until the time …
There was a long pause. Callie crouched by the eagle head, larger than her own head. She didn’t dare touch it. She couldn’t be so familiar with a beast as regal as this.
My destiny … not to see … The gryphon blinked, wearily, heavily, at Callie. The child … his destiny, to see … take care … treasure.
A translucent film hid the already faded green of the gryphon’s eyes. Its eyelids closed, and did not open again.
Callie reached out, daring now to stroke the pale blue feathers. There was no movement from the gryphon. Callie knelt by the gryphon’s head and quietly cried.
The rabbit pushed its head into Callie’s lap.
Is she dead? The rabbit shuddered, as if it too was crying.
They stayed that way for some time, Callie with one hand on the gryphon’s lifeless neck, the other on the rabbit’s warm fur. A deep sadness grew inside her, gathering up her grief for her lost father and her lost sister with her grief for the gryphon.
Callie considered the gryphon’s words. Treasure? She peered vaguely around the cave through blurred eyes. She couldn’t see any treasure.
The mewling cry Callie had heard before came again, startling both her and the rabbit. Something moved on the other side of the dead gryphon. The wing which reminded Callie of a small mountain range was shifting.
Callie walked around the long body and found the child, hidden under the wing.
Not a Danae or Madach child. This was the gryphon’s child. The baby gryphon mewled, crawled out from under his mother’s wing and flopped at Callie’s feet. Deep green eyes gazed up at her.
Callie couldn’t help smiling at the plump bundle of tawny velvet fur with its skinny lion’s tail which ended in a white bob whose size and fluffiness would make a rabbit jealous. Downy, palest silver blue feathers covered his head and his front legs. His stick-thin back legs sprawled behind him, as if they had nothing to do with the rest of him.
Although a baby, he was already half Callie’s size.
The rabbit’s pink nose twitched, its brown eyes fixed on the gryphon.
‘You’re too big for it to eat,’ Callie said to the rabbit. The rabbit gave her a doleful look.