It had rained during the day, and now, under a three-quarter moon, the forest was silver with mist. Things always smelled better after the rain, Griffin thought as he sailed through the humid summer air. From the forest floor rose the loamy fragrance of the soil and the rich stink of rotting leaves and animal droppings. The resinous tang of pitch wafted up from the firs and pines as he grazed their topmost boughs.
A new smell suddenly twined its way through all the others -- one that didn't belong to the forest. Griffin felt his fur spike up. Nostrils flared, he sniffed again, but the smell was gone now, evaporated. Maybe just the dying traces of a faraway skunk. It was pungent but...somehow hotter and more dangerous. He stored the smell away in his memory so he could describe it to his mother back at Tree Haven at sunrise. Then he angled his wings and set course for his favorite hunting ground.
The giant sugar maple occupied a small rise on the valley floor, and its canopy spread wider and higher than any tree nearby. After Tree Haven, this was Griffin's favorite place in the forest. He loved the way the moonlight washed the leaves a translucent silver, and when a strong wind blew, the leaves looked and sounded like a thousand bats, all taking flight at once.
Circling low overhead, Griffin cast out sound, and the returning echoes painted the tree's canopy in his head with more detail than his eyes could ever achieve. He saw each branch and twig, each bud, even the veins of the leaves.
And, of course, the caterpillars.
They were everywhere. The maple, like plenty of other trees in the forest, was infested. Gypsy moth caterpillars, that's what they were, and they'd already stripped the tree of half its leaves. Every night for the past week Griffin had come here and fed, but the next night it seemed there were just as many caterpillars as before. Just look at them! There must be hundreds of them! His stomach made a hungry popping sound.
He trimmed his wings and tipped himself into a steep dive, spraying sound ahead of him. The first caterpillar he scooped right off a twig with his tail, flicked it into his wing and then straight into his open mouth. Ducking under a branch, he wheeled and snapped up two more dangling from threads. Curled on a nearby leaf was yet another caterpillar. Griffin streaked in close and, with a swat of his wing tip, bounced it right off the leaf, gobbling it in midair. They were a bit fuzzy going down and had a slightly sour aftertaste, but you got used to them.
"Doesn't it get boring?"
Griffin looked up to see Luna, one of the other Silverwing newborns, swooping down alongside him.
"They're not so bad," he said.
The truth was, it made him feel useful. The caterpillars were voracious eaters, and his mother said they could gobble up half the forest if they weren't controlled. The thought had filled Griffin with panic. He didn't want to see his forest stripped bare, especially not his favorite sugar maple. A horrible vision had played itself before his eyes. Without any trees, the soil would wash away, and without soil, nothing could grow and there'd be nowhere to roost and nothing to eat and all the Silverwings would probably starve to death or have to leave and find a new home!
So Griffin ate caterpillars.
And every time he swallowed, he was helping stave off total catastrophe. That's how he saw it anyway. But he didn't tell Luna this. She already thought he was crazy.
A nice fat tiger moth fluttered past, no more than a few wingbeats from his nose. Griffin let it go.
"You don't want that?" Luna asked in amazement.
"It's all yours," he told her, and she was already gone, plunging down into the trees after her prey.
Griffin watched, admiring the expert way she swerved and tilted through the tight tangle of branches. He'd tried to catch tiger moths once or twice, but he was no good at it. They sprayed out their own sounds and scrambled up your echo vision, so it seemed like there were a whole bunch of moths, all darting in different directions, and you could end up chasing a mirage and getting splatted against a tree. Wasn't worth it. Also, he wasn't the greatest flyer. His wings were too long, and he felt clumsy in the forest, couldn't maneuver fast enough. And there were beasts down on the forest floor: bear and lynx and fox. He preferred to stay up high, where he could see what was what. He didn't mind eating mosquitoes and midges and caterpillars.
The boring bugs, Luna would say. Griffin looked and caught one last glimpse of her before she disappeared into the foliage. He hoped she'd come back afterward.
Below him a maple leaf glittered with dew, and he carefully checked out the nearby branches before roosting. Farther down was a nest of warblers, but they were all asleep, and anyway, birds didn't attack bats anymore, so it seemed safe enough. He braked, spun upside down, and gripped the branch with his rear claws. Thirstily he lapped up the bright beads of water on the leaf.
"Why don't you just drink from the creek?" Luna asked as she flipped down beside him.
"You never know what's under the surface," Griffin replied darkly.
"Sure you do. Fish!"
"Right. But from what I've heard, some of them can get pretty big, and what's to stop them from just leaping -- "
"Leaping, yes, right up out of the water and taking us down with them."
"Well, a big one, why not?"
"Fish don't eat bats, Griffin."
"So they say."
"It must be tiring, being you," Luna said, but she was chuckling. Griffin had noticed this about her. She liked hearing him worry. She seemed to think it was funny. That must be why she hung around with him sometimes. It certainly wasn't because he was brave or adventurous like her. But she still seemed to consider him a friend, and he was intensely grateful. She had a hundred friends, though, and it was rare he had her all to himself. Normally there were half a dozen other newborns flapping all around her.
Luna's tall ears pricked up, and with a nimble forward lunge, she snatched an earwig off the twig above her. Griffin cocked his head, studying the insect as she cracked its shell.
"You know," he said thoughtfully, "when you look at most of what we eat, it's not altogether appetizing. If you really stopped and looked at it, I mean. All those legs going, and the antennae tickling your throat on the way down..."
"Stop it," Luna said, giggling, "you're gonna make me choke."
With a flurry of wings, three other newborns came in to land, calling out hellos. There was Skye and Rowan and Falstaff, who was so stuffed that the branch bowed over and bounced up and down a few times after he roosted. Griffin knew they'd come because of Luna. If it had been just him hanging here alone, forget it. It wasn't that they disliked him -- he doubted they even thought about him enough for that. They just didn't see the point of him.
Boring, Griffin thought. That's what he was to them. And they were right. There was nothing special about him. He wasn't a particularly good flyer or hunter. He hardly ever joined in with their games. And why should he? They only ever seemed to want to do ridiculously dangerous things. Now the little hair balls were shoving their way in and all chittering to Luna at once -- Skye about the moose she'd seen earlier in the night, Rowan about how fast he'd flown with the wind at his tail, and Falstaff about all the bugs he'd eaten, what kind, where he'd found them, and what they each tasted like. Luna seemed to be able to listen to everyone, and talk back, all at the same time.
When he was off by himself, Griffin hardly ever felt lonely. But now, among the other newborns, he did. He wasn't much like them. He didn't even look like them. Sometimes he thought he was barely a Silverwing at all. Their fur was sleek and black, shot through with silver. He had stupid fur. Most of it was black, but all across his back and chest were jagged bands of dazzling bright hair. The bright stuff came from his mother, a Brightwing. His father was a Silverwing, but it seemed he took after his mother more. Like her, his fur grew in longer and thicker than the Silverwings', and his ears were a different shape, round, small, and close to the head. His wings were longer and narrower than the other newborns', but that wasn't really a consolation, because they still felt too big on him, made his flight all loose and jerky in the forest.
"Hey, Luna," Rowan whispered. "Look."
Griffin looked too and saw, roosting several trees away, an owl perched on a thick branch. Even though they were at peace with the owls now, the sight of them still sent a tremor of fear through Griffin. They were just so big, easily four times his size, with sharp talons and a hooked beak that was designed for slashing and crushing its prey. Griffin's mother still said they should avoid the owls. They were at peace, but that didn't automatically make them friends. All the mothers said so. Now the owl's huge head swiveled and fixed them with its moonlike eyes.
"You want to play?" Skye asked Luna.
The owl game was Luna's invention, and it terrified Griffin. The idea was to see who could roost closest to an owl on the same branch and stay there for ten whole seconds before taking flight. Several weeks ago Luna came within two wingspans. No one had done better than that.
"Sure," said Luna. "I'm always ready."
"Me too," said Rowan.
"I'm in," Skye said.
"All right," Falstaff agreed, "but only if it doesn't take too long. I'm starving."
Griffin was hoping they'd just forget he was there, but Luna turned to him. "Griffin?"
He knew she meant it kindly; she wasn't trying to make fun of him, was just wanting to include him. He shook his head and caught Skye flashing Rowan a smirk that said, So what else is new?
"Well, that old owl looks pretty fat and dopey," said Luna jauntily. "I figure I can do one wingspan. What d'you think, Griff. Can I do it?"
"I'm sure you can," he said, "but -- "
"But what?" she asked. Griffin could hear the other newborns sigh impatiently, but there was definitely a gleeful spark in Luna's eyes. "What's the worst that can happen?" she wanted to know.
Griffin almost smiled. This, he was good at. "The worst? Well, the way I see it, you fly in, you roost, you're only one wingbeat away. And maybe this owl hates bats, or maybe he's in a really bad mood tonight, or maybe he's so hungry, he figures no one'll notice one less Silverwing newborn in the forest. You're so close, he can just snatch you up before you even blink. And in one swallow you're down his throat, and then you get hacked back up as a little packet of bones and teeth."
"That's disgusting! said Skye.
"Yeah, well, that's how they eat," Griffin said with considerable satisfaction. "And until a couple years ago that's what they did to bats."
Luna nodded, grinning. "Yep, that's pretty much the worst that could happen. Wish me luck!"
She flexed her knees and prepared to take flight, but to Griffin's huge relief, the owl beat her to it. Spreading its huge wings, it lifted from the branch and swept silently off into the forest.
Rowan looked accusingly at Griffin. Sourly he said, "You talk too much."
"Griffin's good at talking," Luna told the other newborns. "He's hilarious." Skye, Rowan, and Falstaff all looked at Griffin, puzzled, considering this for a second. Then they turned back to Luna and started talking about what they should do next. Griffin gave her a grateful smile.
Suddenly his nostrils twitched. "Do you smell that?" he asked.
Only Luna heard him. "What?"
"I smelled it earlier...." Sniffing, Griffin swooped off the branch, trying to follow the scent. It wasn't hard. The smell was stronger now, definitely not skunk. He climbed above the tree line and was pleased to see Luna flying after him. Climbing higher still, he turned his face into the wind, breathed again, and then saw it.
Far away to the west a line of dark vapor slithered above the forest canopy, dispersing as the wind blew it toward him. Griffin's eyes traced it back down to the treetops, then into the forest. Through the sifting mist, past a stand of pines, he saw a bright flickering.
"Fire," he whispered to Luna. He'd never seen it before, but he'd heard plenty about it. Fire didn't come out of nowhere. It was made. By Humans. By lightning. But there hadn't been any lightning for weeks.
By this time the other three newborns were flapping toward them, Falstaff lumbering through the air, complaining about how hungry he was. Then they all saw the light dancing deep in the forest.
"Maybe it's one of those secret places where the owls keep their fire," Skye said to Luna.
Long ago, as they all knew, owls had stolen fire from the Humans and kept it burning in hidden nests throughout the northern forests.
"Not very secret if we can all see it," Luna said.
"Must be Humans," said Griffin, and felt a shudder even as he uttered the word.
"Let's go take a look," said Luna.
"Yeah," agreed Skye. "Come on."
"Shouldn't we tell our mothers first?" Griffin asked worriedly. Humans were dangerous. Everyone knew about the things they'd done to bats.
"We'll tell them when we get back," said Luna. "It's just a few hundred wingbeats." Impatiently this time she said, "Come on, Griffin."
"Oh, let him stay if he wants," said Rowan, and the words sounded more dismissive than considerate. As usual, he was ruining their fun. Griffin turned east to pick out the summit of Tree Haven. It already looked a long way away, and they would be going even farther now.
He wished he were more like Luna. Fearless. He tried sometimes to be brave, but it never worked. He just started thinking and then worrying, and all he could ever see was how things might, could, would go terribly wrong. His mother shouldn't have named him Griffin. When he'd asked what it meant, she said it was a creature who was half eagle, half lion -- both brave, powerful creatures. It seemed like a cruel joke now, he thought glumly. Should've been called Weed or Twig or something.
He glanced at Luna. She looked genuinely disappointed. He grit his teeth. He'd already said no once tonight. He couldn't face two humiliations in a row.
"All right," he said. "Just a peek, though, okay?"
Below in the clearing a small fire burned within a ring of stones. Beside it sat two enormous creatures Griffin knew must be Humans. His mother had described them to him, but he'd never seen them himself before now. Luna made for a high branch overlooking the clearing, and Griffin followed, roosting with the others.
"So that's what they look like," said Luna.
Griffin knew they shouldn't be here. His mother had always told him that if he ever saw Humans in the forest, he should tell someone right away. He fought the trembling in his knees as he watched the Humans move things in and out of the fire. Strangely it was the fire he found most fascinating, and his eyes kept getting drawn back to it, watching its hypnotic upward lapping, little bits of itself shooting off like comets.
"They don't look so scary," said Rowan.
"We should tell them back at Tree Haven," Griffin said.
"There's just two of them," said Skye disdainfully.
"Yeah, well, it only took two to catch my mother," Griffin retorted. "They spread a web across a stream and caught her and banded her."
He noticed they were all listening to him. About the only time they ever did was when he talked about his parents.
"But they didn't hurt her, right?" Luna said.
"Not those ones, no."
"Yeah," said Rowan excitedly, turning back to Skye and Falstaff. "But remember those other ones who trapped all the bats in the indoor forest and put explosive discs on their bellies and dumped them over the jungle!"
And then all three were talking at once, retelling Shade's amazing adventures -- as if they'd forgotten Griffin was Shade's son, and he knew all about this anyway, and better than them. Griffin scowled, feeling they were somehow stealing his stories, treating them like something that belonged to everyone equally. But he supposed they did, in a way. Within the colony's echo chamber, his father's stories reverberated within the spherical walls forever, as part of the history of the Silverwings. Maybe he didn't have any special claim to those stories.
Especially since he was nothing like his father anyway. He'd known that almost from the moment he was born. His mother was a hero, but his father was practically a legend. Defeating Goth and the other cannibal bats, making peace with the owls, getting the sun back for the Silverwings. If his father did any more amazing things, the whole echo chamber would explode. When he'd first heard all these stories, from his mother, from the elders, from other newborns sometimes, he'd pictured his father as a giant, wings that would blot out the moon. Then he'd learned his father was born a runt.
That made everything much, much worse.
A runt, and still brave and daring. When he was not much older then Griffin, his father had peeked at the sun, outflown owls, visited the echo chamber, tried to save Tree Haven from burning down, been blasted out to sea in a storm and survived. Griffin had had no adventures, performed no valiant acts. About the most exciting thing he'd experienced was having a squirrel throw a nut at him, and miss.
In just four more weeks they'd start their migration south to Hibernaculum and rendezvous with the males at Stone Hold. He would meet his father for the first time. And what would his father see? A little bat with weird fur. A little bat who wasn't special in any way, wasn't brave or daring or anything.
"Rotten Humans," Falstaff was saying. "We should fly down and scare them."
"We should tangle up their hair," said Rowan.
"We should pee on them," said Skye.
When everyone finished laughing, there was a short silence, and then:
"We should steal some fire."
No one was more surprised by this than Griffin, for it was he himself who'd spoken the words. He'd never said anything so outrageous in his life, and now everyone was staring at him, Luna with a smile pulling at the corners of her mouth -- almost in a look of admiration.
"Steal fire," she said, as if mulling over an interesting possibility.
"What for?" Falstaff wanted to know.
Griffin's eyes darted back to the lapping flames, mind churning. Why had he gone and said that?
"Well," he began uncertainly, "the owls have it; why shouldn't we?"
A couple years ago the owls had used their fire to burn down Tree Haven. That was his father's fault. Shade had peeked at the sun, back when it was against the law, and had been spotted by sentry owls.
"But what would we do with it?" Skye wanted to know.
"All I'm saying," Griffin repeated, "is that we should have what they have. It's only fair."
"But we're at peace with the birds now."
"Doesn't mean we'll always be at peace," Griffin pointed out. "And what about the beasts? Or the Humans? What if they want to make war on us? Isn't it better we have fire, just in case?"
They all had their eyes on him, and he thought: I love this. They're listening to me. And the words just kept coming. From where, he didn't know. Then again, this is what he did in his mind anyway. Imagine things. Sure, they were usually colossal doomsday scenarios, but wasn't it all really the same? Seeing something, and imagining what might, just might happen with it.
"There's something else too," he said, and allowed himself a dramatic pause.
"What?" Rowan asked, almost in a whisper.
"We could use it to keep warm."
They all looked at one another, not sure about this.
"Oh, sure, the weather's warm now," Griffin hurried on. "But before long it'll get cold, so cold that we have to leave here or freeze to death!"
pardThe other newborns jerked in surprise.
"But that's why we migrate," Luna reminded him.
"Exactly. But that's the whole problem. I've been thinking about the migration, and I think it's really a bad idea."
"We've been doing it for millions of years!" exclaimed Skye.
"I know. It's ridiculous," said Griffin with a sad shake of his head. "We've got Tree Haven right here, this amazing roost, and every fall we have to leave and fly over a million wingbeats to Hibernaculum, sleep away the winter, and then, fly all the way back here the next spring. Doesn't it seem like just a bit of a waste of time? But, we get some fire, keep it burning in the base of Tree Haven all winter, and we don't need to bother migrating anymore!"
"But I want to migrate," said Luna, smiling. "It's going to be fun."
"Yeah," Rowan, Skye, and Falstaff agreed simultaneously but without, Griffin noticed, wholehearted enthusiasm.
"Fun?" Griffin said, puffing out his breath thoughtfully. "I don't know if I'd call it fun. It's an awfully long journey. You've got storms, high winds, lightning, hail, freezing cold. Every year there's some who don't make it. I mean, look at some of those older females in the colony. They're pretty weak; they can hardly hunt for themselves anymore! And what about us? We've never done it before. Who says we're strong enough to make it?"
"We'll make it," said Skye, looking at the others for reassurance.
"Look what happened to my father," Griffin reminded them. "Caught in a storm, swept out to sea."
This stopped them for a moment.
"But he made it," Luna said.
"He was lucky. Just imagine yourself flying along the coast and a storm kicks up and you get blasted out over the ocean, the waves churning, the rain and hail smashing down so you can't see or hear. And then -- wham! -- right into the water. It's up your nose and soaking your wings and making you so heavy and freezing that you can only sink down and down and down to the ocean's depths!"
Falstaff swallowed. Rowan's wings gave a creak as he shifted anxiously from claw to claw. They were all staring, riveted, at Griffin, and he almost smiled.
"I'm not saying that's going to happen to any of us," he went on. "But don't you think we should at least get to choose whether we migrate or stay at Tree Haven? We steal some fire, we have a choice." He took a deep breath, revving himself up. "A choice! So the weak need not fear, or the elderly and infirm! So we need not be victims of the elements, but control them and so become masters of our destiny!"
He was out of words and breath. He looked at the newborns, who stared back at him, mouths ajar. Probably he'd overdone it a bit with that destiny stuff.
"I think it's a good idea," said Luna, and all heads swiveled to her.
"You do?" Griffin asked, startled.
"Absolutely. Me personally, I'm going to migrate, but I think you're right. Why shouldn't we be able to stay here all winter. Why not? Let's get ourselves some fire!"
Griffin nodded weakly, glancing back at the fire. Somehow he hadn't expected it to go this far. He'd just talked and talked, and the words had spun out of him like some dazzling, chaotic spiderweb.
"Maybe we should ask the elders first," Griffin said, feeling queasy.ar
Luna shook her head, eyes flashing with mischievous delight. "No, I think we should just go ahead and surprise them. So how're we going to do this, Griff?"
Normally Griffin liked it when she called him Griff. She was the only one who did it, and it made him feel special. Not only was he her friend, but he was a friend deserving of a nickname. He didn't want to let her down now.
"Well," he said, thinking fast, "a tall stalk of grass, maybe. We could shove it into the flames until it catches fire, and then...fly it back to the roost and put it in a little nest like theirs, with some dry twigs and leaves at the bottom. Somewhere near Tree Haven, close to the stream, maybe. Someone'll have to go on ahead and get that ready."
"I like it!" Luna said, turning to the other newborns. "So who's going to steal the fire?"
Skye, Rowan, and Falstaff shifted uncomfortably on the branch, then looked at one another expectantly, all talking at once.
"Probably best if you -- "
"You're stronger -- "
"Need someone really fast -- "
Griffin noticed they didn't even glance his way.
"Me," Griffin blurted out. "I'll do it."
They all turned to him, incredulous.
"You?" Skye said.
Griffin nodded slowly, as if trying to balance a heavy stone on his head. "Sure. Why not?"
Maybe this was the way you did it, he thought. He wasn't brave. But maybe if he faked it, pretended to be brave enough times, it would get easier. And then it would come naturally. And he'd be truly brave.
"I don't know," Rowan said uncertainly. "Maybe Luna should do it."
"Not me," said Luna. "It was Griffin's idea. He's the one we need." She looked straight at Griffin as she said this, smiling, as if to say that she knew all along he'd volunteer and that he could do it. Then she turned to the others. "You three go on and make the nest."
"Come on," said Falstaff with a laugh. "He's not really going to do it."
"Just make sure that nest is ready," Griffin said, and before he could give himself time to start thinking, he dropped from the branch, unfurled his wings, and dove.
In the deep shadows at the edge of the clearing, he sighted a clump of tall grass. He came in low, spraying out sound to check for predators, then touched down. It was not a graceful landing. He skidded on his rear claws, then pitched forward, his face in the mud. Scrambling up, he twitched dirt from his fur. He hated being on the ground. Hated it. Bats were made for flight, not for scuttling around. Laboriously he moved toward the grass, dragging himself forward with his thumb claws and elbows. He pushed with his legs, but they were too weak to be of much use. Anything could be lurking in that grass. Rats, snakes, a crazed skunk.
The first stalks he examined were too wet to catch fire easily. Farther in, beneath the shade of a large oak, he found some drier grass and peered up to pick out the tallest stalk. For a moment he felt like he was circling overhead from some safe distance, watching himself. He was crazy! What was he doing down there? His heart began to race, and his teeth started chattering, even though he didn't feel cold. He forced himself to pay attention to what he was doing.
He started chewing at the base of the stalk of grass, spitting out its sour tang. He bit through, and the stalk fell flat. Awkwardly he took it in his rear claws, lengthwise beneath his body. Then, flapping furiously, he managed to get airborne.
Hidden in shadow, he made a full circle of the clearing, then came in low so he wouldn't be seen. He made sure to approach the fire on the far side of the two Humans, and when he was about twenty wingbeats away, he made another clumsy landing on his chin. He dragged himself forward, the stalk of grass still clutched in his rear claws. He looked up at the Humans, their torsos and heads towering above the flames. They were still sitting, and they hadn't noticed him. He wondered if he'd be able to take flight fast enough if they tried to catch him.
Griffin hesitated, glancing up at the pines, hoping Luna was seeing all this. He wanted her to be able to tell the colony all about this amazing thing he'd done. This amazing, dangerous thing. He grimaced. My father better be impressed by this, he thought.
He dragged himself closer, until the fire's heat lapped angrily against his face.
He watched the flames doing their hot jittery dance down among the glowing sticks and rocks, and he felt like they were urging him onward, closer, closer. Deep in the fire something popped, and Griffin flinched, nearly taking flight. Luna should've done this. He'd tried to fake it, but he wasn't fearless. He was all fear, heart blasting, mouth dry, a terrible weakness seeping through his limbs. His wings felt mushy. But he thought of Luna watching -- thought of his father -- and knew he couldn't quit now.
Crouched right up against one of the big rocks, Griffin got a bit of relief from the heat. He took the end of the stalk in his teeth. He knew he'd have to be quick -- the longer he took, the more chance there was of being seen. With his thumb claws, he pulled himself up onto the stone. Scalding heat poured over him, wilting his fur, bringing water streaming from his eyes. Squinting, he tried to swing the stalk into the flames, but it deflected off a big block of wood at the fire's edge. The stalk of grass was unwieldy, and he managed to pull it back a bit with his claw, so less was protruding from his jaws.
With a forward thrust of his shoulders, he drove the stalk deep into the embers, saw the tip flare, and pulled back. At first he thought he'd lost the fire, but then he saw a glint from the tip and a ghost of smoke curl up from it.
Carefully he transferred the stalk to his rear claws. Wings churning, he took flight, climbing away from the ground, the Humans, and their fire, up toward the pine where he knew Luna was waiting. He took a quick backward glance. If the Humans even noticed, they weren't doing anything about it. They were still sitting there like big, mountainous blobs, staring at the fire and grunting their slow, low words to each other.
"You did it!" Luna cried out, swirling around him in amazement.
"Is it still lit?" he asked. It was awkward holding the fire stick, and he had to fly carefully, afraid his downstrokes might accidentally blow out the flame, or even knock the stalk right out of his claws.
"Yeah, it's fine!" said Luna. "Griffin, I can't believe you did it!"
"I did it," he said, feeling her excitement fuel his own. "Yeah, I did it!"
"Fire!" she said. "You've got fire! Come on, let's get it to the nest!"
They talked giddily as they flew, Luna swirling around him and underneath him to check on the flame and make sure it was still burning. She was giggling. Griffin was giggling. It was contagious, and almost impossible to stop. This was amazing! He wanted his father to see him, right now, bearing stolen fire from witless Humans. Sitting right there at the campfire, and they didn't even know it was gone. And he'd done it. Him. He'd had this great idea, and he'd seen it through!
Through the forest they flew, back toward Tree Haven and the stone nest the others were building. Griffin ducked his head down to look and was surprised at how quickly the flame was eating up the stalk, the intense bead of liquid light sliding toward his claws.
"Almost there," said Luna, seeing his worried frown. "You'll make it, Griff."
He flapped harder but saw the flame gutter with too much wind against it. He slowed down. Still the flame continued its hungry advance. He could feel its heat now, along his left flank, in his foot. His mind began to dance with worry. He couldn't help it. He wished he hadn't done this. He wanted to get rid of it, but he couldn't just drop it. What if it started a fire, and the fire spread and got out of control and burned down Tree Haven all over again? What a stupid idea this was.
"Luna," he said, "it's burning too fast!"
"No, we're almost there. Don't worry, you'll make it."
No, she was wrong. There was still a long way to go. He looked and couldn't even see the tip of the stalk anymore, it had burned down so close to his body. Heat lashed his fur and claws. He remembered the scalding force of the fire, imagined himself alight, spiraling to the ground in flames.
"Luna! I'm not gonna make it!"
"Wait, wait, I'll check. Hang on."
Luna swooped below him again, and almost at the same moment Griffin felt a searing pain in his left claw. He cried out, and before he could check himself, he let go of the fire stick.
"Look out!" he yelled but --
He heard her grunt of surprise, tilted sharply, and looked down.
Luna was on fire, her back dancing with flame. The stick had bounced off her, leaving its burning tip embedded in her fur.
"Griffin!" she cried, swirling round and round, flapping desperately but only fanning the flames.
"Land!" Griffin shouted to her, but she was panicking now as the flames leaped nimbly toward her shoulders, licking out across her wings. Griffin whirled round her, slapping at the fire, but it was no good. Luna was moving too much, and the flames seemed to have burrowed deep into her fur. She was crying, a high, piercing wail.
"Land!" he shouted at her again in despair. "Land and I can put it out!"
Luna was tilting earthward, though it didn't seem of her own doing. She slewed through the air at a reckless angle, gathering speed, too much, and slammed into a mound of hardened mud and leaves. She didn't move.
Griffin crashed down beside her, scrambled up, and started sweeping mud and earth onto her with his claws and wings, trying to smother the flames. Suddenly he was shoved back out of the way, and there was his mother, Marina, and Luna's mother, and a dozen other mothers, landing around the smoking newborn, throwing themselves on her to extinguish the fire. It took them only a few seconds, but still Luna didn't move. Her fur, Griffin saw, was terribly burned, patches of inflamed skin showing through. Her wings were seared and melted in places.
Griffin couldn't tear his eyes from her, and he realized he was moaning, a low, toneless cry that he couldn't stop.
"She's alive," he heard one of the mothers say. "Let's take her back to Tree Haven."
Text copyright © 2003 by Kenneth Oppel.