Kieran wondered why Woorawa and Tan wanted to stop again and leaned forward to rub George's neck while they caught up.
Their early start this morning had gone to schedule because an eager Woorawa had woken everyone and got things moving. Kieran and Tan had both complained that a couple more hours of sleep would be nice but that had fallen on deaf ears and for half an hour now they'd been following the trail as it made its way through verdant trees and down the gentle slope of the beautiful valley they'd entered only a few minutes after setting off.
"What have you found this time?"
"Nothing really, Kieran. It's just that the track dips down into that stand of extra tall trees and I thought if we spent a quarter of an hour to climb up that rock-face we might get a better idea of what’s ahead."
Kieran considered for a moment then shook his head.
"We’d better keep going, Woorawa. It looks too interesting and we’d end up staying longer than we mean to."
The trees closed in and for a while the overarching branches gave Kieran the feeling they were travelling through a living tunnel and every now and again the group paused to drink in the atmosphere. Eventually the trees changed and the whole aspect opened when the trail entered a large clearing. Kieran's balance faltered when George's head went down to sniff at the grass and that was a good signal for a short stop.
"Okay, we’ll stretch our legs while the eating machines have a go at the grass."
Everyone dismounted and Woorawa looked across to the right.
"Let's check the creek. I reckon it might have grown."
Kieran started walking and, almost as an afterthought, called on the Opal to make a monster check. Regular checks ever since yesterday's Wall crossing had led them to believe the monsters were a Dead World phenomenon, so a purple flash registering from behind was a terrible shock.
"THERE’S A MONSTER COMING!"
Four disbelieving looks changed instantly to the actions they'd planned as part of Rhys's whip practice and everyone rushed to collect their Spook ropes.
"How long, Kieran? Is there enough time to look for shelter or a hiding place?"
"No! Run for the trees. We can't stay here."
Kieran grabbed George and the other two horses and with iron control sent them racing to where the clearing ended and ran with everyone else towards the limited protection the trees would provide.
They didn't make it.
A piercing, angry scream sounded overhead as the monster overshot their position then reversed direction with thundering wingbeats. The five companions ranged fearfully toward it, holding their Spook ropes ready, and staring in horror at the malevolent creature which was landing, surprisingly, some twenty metres in front of them. With jaws agape in a show of deadly intent it stepped towards them and
Kieran, reaching despairingly for some kind of contact, felt something. This was a different monster. It looked the same but it wasn't mindless. The moment of hope was dashed when the normal method of control worked then was brushed effortlessly aside by a surge of pure anger. In his peripheral vision, Kieran saw Rhys take a step forward and raise his arm in readiness to lash with his Spook rope.
The monster swiveled away and, with its wings beating so powerfully the blasts of air rocked the five companions, launched skyward with renewed screams of challenge and rage.
The friends shared this amazing reprieve with a moment of astonishment and disbelief before returning their gaze to the frightening sight of three more monsters plummeting from the sky. New screams of anger and rage clashed against old as the first new arrival collided in a midair maelstrom of lunging beaks, talons and gouging claws. In a cloud of feathers the first attacker dropped away and fell, screaming, almost twenty metres to the ground. The remaining newcomers now attacked with total ferocity, one engaging from the front while the other attached its great claws and talons to the back while its beak ripped into the neck in front of it.
The initial monster’s efforts to stay aloft were over-bourne by the weight on its back and the interference from in front, and the battle descended to the ground where, despite its raging resistance, death came relentlessly. Two powerful heads lifted to the sky to scream success. The third raised from the ground with a weakly echoed version.
The stunned onlookers watched with renewed trepidation as the victory call ceased and the triumphant monsters’ attention turned. Kieran's despair that resistance to such power and purpose was beyond them, changed to astonishment when the fierce aspect of two penetrating gazes was replaced with a bobbing head-motion of apparent recognition. Understanding exploded in his mind and he reached, not for the monster pattern, but for the flesh and blood pattern of any normal bird or animal. The link flared into place and Kieran dropped his Spook rope and grabbed Rhys's arm in a hold of utter relief.
"They’ve come to protect us. They’re as friendly as the joker birds and the deer creatures. They’re ... They’re amazing."
The four wondering looks didn't last because the two great creatures bounded with ungainly leaps to their wounded companion. Two heads touched, preened against the bloodied neck, then once again raised to the sky, this time with piercing calls of distress. Kieran reached again, this time to the wounded creature, and his grip on Rhys's arm tightened involuntarily as, first understanding and then sadness, started tears welling from his eyes.
A strong shake brought him back to Rhys.
"What’s happening, Kieran? You look awful."
Kieran wrenched his mind from the wave of emotion and his grip changed to a tug as he started running.
"He’s the leader, Rhys, and his mind’s giving us a welcome to this country at the same time he’s saying goodbye. He’s going to die unless we help him."
Rhys didn't say anything. Kieran was looking just as sad and determined as yesterday when Tan was hurt, so, despite the fearsome aspect of the creatures they were approaching, he ran faster. Two great heads, beaks open and keening, turned to watch the oncoming rush. The beaks closed, and the sad keening stopped, as if in surprise when, held by Kieran, Rhys's hands were pressed against the now inert head. Rhys watched Kieran's signature blue glow cover their hands and spread till all three of them were spectacularly enveloped. He saw tension, and then perspiration, appear on Kieran's face.
"Kieran, look after yourself! If you flake we can't do anything."
Kieran looked at Rhys, almost vaguely he was concentrating so much, and the strained look reduced.
"Transfer one hand at a time to his chest wound. We have to stop any more blood from flowing out."
For a moment Rhys was shocked. Touching the horrible gash meant pushing his hands against either the mess of red saturated feathers or the torn and mutilated flesh of the open wound. Well, too bad. Blood would wash off and Kieran was asking. The reach from head to chest was a stretch but the transfer was made and, with red oozing between the fingers of one hand and the slippery feel of torn muscle under the other, Rhys marvelled as warmth built and the flesh quivered. Before his eyes the wound changed, the welling blood stopped, and tissue started to knit. Kieran gave a grunt of sudden concentration.
"Press the sides of the wound together while they mend, Rhys. It has to be hands because we can't do stitches."
"Kieran, can you turn the blue off? It's so bright I can't see properly."
The light instantly disappeared and the first hint of a smile appeared.
"Sorry! The Opal’s working over-time and I always forget about it. You’re amazing, Rhys. You’ve stopped the main blood loss and the biggest flow of healing at the moment is going to some sort of organ. When you’ve closed this gash we’ll start on the talon wounds. I think he’s going to be all right."
Rhys glanced at the great head resting limp on the ground and couldn't see any difference. He didn't dwell on it though because holding the wound edges firm required a steady hand and lots of attention. This worst gash was longer than his own arm and half an hour later, when it was fully closed, Rhys asked for a break. Kieran shook his head.
"Not yet. He still needs us."
Rhys jolted when a burst of well-being filled every part of his body and he suddenly became aware of the surrounding situation. Two creatures were crouched motionless, their wings half spread and watching silently, while Tan and Mr B were sitting a few metres away, also watching. Woorawa? ... There he was, in the distance, with George and the other horses.
"Kieran, Tan woke up after only a few minutes. Are you sure everything’s working all right?"
"Tan had concussion and some breaks. This was much worse and I'm keeping him in a kind of healing trance so he doesn't move and tear anything open again."
"Like an anaesthetic?"
"I guess ... Put your hands on that talon wound. Once we've done those I think we can wake him up."
The talon wounds were everywhere, in sets of three or four, and under Kieran's guidance Rhys held the sides of each gash or puncture for a few minutes while heat built and flesh quivered and renewed.
"Why’s it so fast, Kieran?
"I don't know and it's puzzling me. The Opal energy’s transferring from you to the damaged places a lot faster than it did with Tan and it's more effective as well ... We’ll stop for a while, Rhys, when we’ve fixed that ripped place under his wing. I think ..."
Kieran rested his head against the broad chest and said nothing else. Rhys stared in surprise then yelled for Mr B.
"Quick. I think he’s flaked out. What will we do?"
Mr B checked.
"He's not unconscious, Rhys. He's asleep. Rest your hands on his temples and see if that does anything then I think we should just make him comfortable and leave him to wake up naturally. Remember how tired he was all yesterday after Tan was healed? This is the same except he's done a lot more."
Rhys looked at his messy red hands, gave them a quick wipe on his shirt, then rested them on Kieran's cheeks and forehead for a few seconds. He felt a fleeting tingle, then nothing except an impression that everything was all right. He lifted Kieran's head from its collapsed position and manoeuvred it to the comfortable support of his lap. Two majestic heads lowered. They still looked fearsome, but knowing their friendly intention changed that perception. They touched beaks against the head of their sleeping leader and then gently against Kieran. Four huge eyes regarded Rhys from disconcertingly close and, not knowing what else to do, he started talking.
"They’re both asleep. They’re all right but they both need to rest before we do anything else. Kieran will know what to do when he wakes up but he’s worn out and we’ll have to wait. I hope you can be patient because he mightn't wake up for a long time."
The two heads lifted, as if in response, and with wings half open in what looked like a protective stance, settled to a quiet vigil. Mr B came close and took over tending Kieran while Rhys went with Woorawa and Tan to clean up as best he could in the creek which was bubbling merrily over its stony bed just a minute’s walk away.
"Strip off, Rhys. The blood’s already dry so I hope it hasn't set too much to wash clean. Give Tan your shirt and I'll do your jeans while you clean up your hands and face. We’ll start a fire to dry everything out while we wait for Kieran to wake up."
Rhys paused from rubbing his hands in a sandy patch in the rocks.
"How? We can't start a fire without him."
"Uncle Burrimul's told me what to do so we’ll try that ... Wash your hair too, Rhys. There are patches where you rubbed it."
After the cleanup Mr B insisted on staying with Kieran, and Rhys sat next to the fire which had taken a great deal of trial and effort to start, wondering how long he’d stay asleep. The biggest drama was watching one of the griffins, as he’d labelled them, launch into flight and leave soon after the fire was going, and discussing why it was leaving. Rhys's jeans were just reaching the stage of being dry enough to wear comfortably when Woorawa pointed to the sky.
"Wow! Look! It's back and it's carrying something."
Woorawa raced to where the griffin landed and a few minutes later was back at the fire puzzling how to dress two rabbit like creatures with Tan's pocketknife for cooking.
"I wish Kieran was awake to say thank you. They must be very intelligent to associate a fire with food. I wonder if it means they understand we might have to stay here for a while? Tan, the knife’s getting blunt. Is it okay to sharpen it on a bit of rock? We’ll have to be careful not to wear it down too quickly but I need it sharp enough to skin these creatures properly."
Time passed and just when Tan was sampling one of the creatures he'd been patiently rotating over the fire on a skewer stick, there was a soft call and a wave from Mr B which sent Rhys and Woorawa rushing over.
"He's been stirring and restless the last few minutes. I think we can wake him up."
Mr B was whispering, unsure if he was right, but Rhys went ahead anyway and grabbed Kieran's nose while poking him in the stomach.
"Slug! Wake up, slug!"
Kieran's eyes jerked open and his head twisted away from the grip on his nose.
"? ... What's happening?"
"You flaked out and Mr B made us let you sleep. You've been slacking for ages while we’ve done everything else. Tan’s got some roast meat ready in case you’re hungry."
“ ... Hungry?"
Kieran sat up and took in the concerned looks. Full awareness returned and he instantly reached for the mind of the huge body beside of him
"Quick, Rhys. Healing hands on his head so I can work out what to do."
"What about you first, Kieran? You flaked out, so you mightn't be ready yet."
"... Flaked out? Really?"
"Yes! Like a light switch turning off in the middle of a sentence."
Kieran paused, grabbed Rhys's hands, and pressed them to his temple.
"... I’m all right, just tired ... And starving. Put your hands on Krol."
"He’s got a name?"
"Of course, and the others are Kron and Kan."
Rhys's hands moved and Kieran concentrated.
"... He needs more healing, but not desperately ... He needs food ... And he needs water even more."
There was a call and one of the griffins launched skyward.
"Kron’s gone to hunt. Cooked meat’s no good. How are we going to get water? … We’ll have to carry it from the creek in our mouths."
He looked across to where Tan was watching from beside the fire.
"... Tan too. Our own cooking will have to wait."
"Kieran, look at the size of him! We’ll need about twenty mouthfuls each."
"It's the only way we can carry water so what else can we do? He needs it right now, Woorawa. I think it's because of all the blood he lost before Rhys closed the wounds. Rhys, you’d better stay here while I wake him up. He might need some special healing."
Woorawa and Mr B collected Tan, who was a bit disconcerted about what to do with the almost cooked meat, and rushed towards the creek while Kieran directed Rhys to rest his hands against the great head lying dormant on the ground.
"I want to give him an energy boost to help him wake up, Rhys.
"This could be dangerous. What if he panics and lashes out in a kind of reflex to defend himself before he knows what's happening?"
Kieran paused then turned to concentrate on the attendant griffin.
"Whoo! Kan says you’re right and he’s given me permission to take control of Krol's muscles while I explain what we've done. I’ll have to wake him up very slowly and carefully."
"Yes. Like I do with you. I'll explain later."
A quiver of movement started under Rhys's hands and continued for a long minute till two giant eyes snapped open. The look was so powerful Rhys couldn't help jerking nervously away.
"Don't worry, Rhys. Krol says he’s hungry enough, but he won't eat one of his flock."
Rhys's expression made Kieran laugh again.
"I told him how your hands saved him and it's his way of saying thank you."
"I'm in his flock?"
Kieran concentrated before replying.
"Only if you want to be. He hopes you’ll accept and take a flight with him."
Kieran laughed for the third time, then, turning to the sound of Woorawa, Mr B and Tan approaching, got his concentration look again. Krol's head twisted skyward and his beak gaped open to receive the first mouthful of water from Woorawa. Mr B and Tan followed and then the beak closed.
"Krol says thank you. Rhys, you can help collect water now and I’ll help next time. We’re still communicating."
Rhys jogged off with the others and paused at the campfire while Woorawa collected the skins he’d so painstakingly stripped from the two rabbit creatures.
"I knew we could use them somehow, though I was thinking more of moccasins than water carriers."
Quick experimentation at the creek showed the pliable skins could hold far more than a single mouthful. Thank goodness, because even with this greater efficiency the water carrying exercise continued for almost a quarter of an hour. There were interruptions every time rabbit creatures were dropped by hunter Kron and Krol’s voracious maw fed after being ripped apart by Kan. Eventually Kieran proclaimed that Krol's immediate needs had been met and he was going back into a healing sleep.
"Tan, is any of our cooked meat ready to eat? I'm so hungry I could almost eat the raw stuff that's been disappearing into Krol's mouth."
"Well I hope you like it crispy, Kieran. It was ready ages ago. I'll see what I can do."
Kron was put back into the healing sleep and, after he'd eaten far more than his share of the well cooked meat, Kieran did the same for himself. His half-hearted complaint two hours later that he’d asked to be woken after one hour was countered by Mr B who said that this actually was after an hour and there was no point in complaining because he obviously needed it. Meanwhile the clearing had been a hive of activity and after devouring two more of the rabbit creatures Kron was continually stockpiling, the business of setting up for an overnight stay went ahead. Kan was crouched quietly beside Krol's sleeping form and watching alertly as the stock of firewood grew. Fern and grass for bed material was gathered, and George and the other two horses settled and shown the way to the creek. Before he’d gone to sleep Kieran had called the horses to meet Kan, and after a short skittish moment the group had been astonished at their seemingly instant and matter-of-fact acceptance of the situation.
Woorawa and Rhys spent a lot of time examining the remains of the dead monster with a mixture of wonder at the dimensions which, by Woorawa's measurement of over five metres from head to tail, were bigger even than the griffins’, and puzzlement at the strangely rapid decay of the wings and some other sections of the body.
"I wish Kieran was awake to have a look at this."
"He won't get much of a chance, Woorawa. If we have another healing session like he’s planned he’ll be so tired we’ll hardly see him till tomorrow morning. Helping Tan really zonked him so we might have to stay here all day tomorrow to make sure he’s okay. I’m going to make him go to sleep as soon he’s eaten his food."
"And we’ll share our night watch without him. Rhys, help me move this leg. I've got Tan’s pocketknife so I can cut some of the tendons off. I want to try joining the animal skins together to make carrying water for the griffin easier."
"Yuck! I don't trust this thing, especially the strange way it’s rotting. Use tendons from the rabbit creatures, Woorawa."
"Try using your Spook rope on it and see if that makes it dissolve like the one in Dead World did."
"Kieran’s asleep and it won't be charged if anything else happens."
"We’ve still got seven others and the griffin for protection. Kieran said Kan’s not going anywhere."
Rhys undid his belt to release the Spook rope he now always carried, rather than leaving it clicked in place on George's saddle, and flicked it to rest against the least grizzly part of the giant cadaver with the sense of command Kieran had taught them. Nothing happened.
"I think they only work on live things."
Their heads whirled to where Kron was landing with a rush of powerfully beating wings.
"Two more rabbit creatures? That’s fourteen of them now. I wonder when he’s going to stop?"
"Not yet, Rhys. We’ll probably use three or four of them just for ourselves and he needs enough for Kan and himself after Krol’s eaten as much as he wants."
And, sure enough, after checking on Krol's sleeping form and communicating with a series of their strange keening calls, Kron launched into the air again.
"Come on! Help me skin two more of these things and we’ll have a try at joining them together."
When Kieran woke and finished complaining about sleeping for too long he was stuffed with helpings of delicious roast meat and taken to a suitable section of the creek to call up half a dozen big fat Rhys fish to add some variety to their main meal, before being allowed to settle with Krol and Rhys for the planned healing session. Half an hour later Rhys forced a stop by informing Kieran that he was going to remove his hands.
"You've done too much, Kieran. I know you want to keep going but I'm not letting you. Krol’s out of danger, and you’re wrecked, so you’ll have to wait till tomorrow morning. Tell him I'm sorry but we have to look after you too."
Kieran drew a breath to start arguing the point but then a weary grin of agreement broke through.
"Yes, boss! I think you’re right. My head nearly flopped on Krol's neck a moment ago and getting an energy boost isn’t working properly. Hang on while I tell him we’re stopping early."
Krol's head lifted then stretched to select from the conveniently placed pile of rabbit creatures. Rhys watched sixteen carcasses disappear into the lunging mouth and called for the two water skins Woorawa had so painstakingly devised by pushing tendons through carefully spaced puncture holes and then knotting them as tightly as possible. Water dripped out but with an estimated three litres arriving with each trip from the creek it was left for Mr B to tend to Krol's water needs while Woorawa, Rhys and Tan took Keiran on a quick trip to call yet another supply of fat Rhys fish.
Back at the campfire everyone helped with the serious but enjoyable business of cooking, first for Kieran, who was weary enough to accept being waited on, and then for their own needs. Mr B joined them when Krol stopped drinking and, after eating a big chunk of the meat Tan had ready, started cooking his own fish fillet.
"He’s only interested in eating the rabbit creatures now, Kieran. I made three water trips so that means it's taken about ten litres to stop him feeling thirsty. Are you going to put him to sleep again?"
Three griffin heads turned and Kieran's eyes widened.
"Yes, but not just yet. They seem to be saying they’re going to shield us from getting wet ... It must be going to rain."
"Rain? Well, I suppose it has to some time or everything wouldn't be so green. When we finish eating we’d better look for some bigger pieces of wood to make sure the fire keeps going. Are you sure they mean rain, Kieran? The sky’s clear in every direction."
"It's not like talking, Woorawa. I have to work out what they are thinking and feeling ... Wow! ... They’re going to completely cover us with their wings. I'm getting it from all of them ... They really think rain’s coming ... Look for the big logs, Woorawa, and while you do that we’ll push all the bedding stuff into one pile."
Half an hour later a bank of cloud, which was progressively blotting the surrounding hills from view, moved overhead and a soft misty rain started falling. As he drifted off to sleep Kieran relaxed and smiled at the wonder in the eyes of his companions huddled close on top of their pile of fern and grass bedding with three outspread and overlapping griffin wings making a completely rain proof shelter.