Hakenteri had used every curse word he knew in four different languages and was starting over. It took a while – partly because the gryphon was cursing under his breath as he flew, rather than with full dedication, but mostly because one didn’t spend five years in active service with the Highmoor Legions, and more time beyond that in training, without picking up some of the essential skills.

False leads, inaccuracies, late arrivals, missing details – nobody had ever told him that serving as the Legion’s eyes and ears in other lands would be easy, but this was getting downright ridiculous.

The place he’d left behind with the first of those muttered curses was the eighth he’d investigated since starting this particular mission. It was supposed to have been as straightforward as a spy-courier’s duties ever got – get in, meet the contact, hear the report, confirm it, get home. And that would have been that; the five years he’d sworn to serve would be done and he could move on to civilian life. Which, unlike most of his kind, he had serious prospects for; he’d had no intention of re-enlisting.

That had been at the start of spring. It was the height of summer, now.

Hakenteri didn’t begrudge the extra time – truly. It would have been nice to be done months ago as expected, but he’d had no intention of leaving a task unfinished. The real problem was that this particular task seemed tailored for maximum frustration.

It had started simply enough, sure. Courier pickup; that was nothing new for him. He’d done courier duty before Naruvin Jadefire had insisted he get some proper magical training; and that had uncovered a talent for illusions and glamers that had made him particularly suited to being a courier for Highmoor’s agents abroad. But the particular spy he’d been told to contact had indicated that there was a prisoner from Highmoor being moved nearby.

If he’d gone straight home with no more than that, he’d have been dressed down for not at least getting some proper details. So he’d pressed the woman for what detail she had, and that had sent him to the next town south, to another agent; thankfully he’d committed to memory an extensive list of contacts, because that one had sent him northwest with the news that the captive in question had been moved that way.

Except that the third spy hadn’t actually heard of any such thing, but maybe they’d gone by way of this village farther east?

And so on, and so on. With each stop, it had taken him days at least to observe the town, to set up an illusory disguise that would let him get in and find the person he sought, to make the drop that advised of his presence, to actually make contact. Sometimes he’d had to wait for another meeting while the local agent – who, as a familiar human, could move around much more easily than a gryphon in a land where they were next to unknown, in buildings where even a small gryphon could scarcely fit if at all – fished up some more information. Painfully little of it.

The captive was a gryphon, he knew that much now. A very large gryphon, by the description of certain measures needed in the whole process, which meant a female; merlins, even normal-sized ones, were only about three-fourths the size of morgans, and those merlins were half again Hakenteri’s size. Someone well over double his length and breadth was definitely a morgan. Where she’d come from wasn’t entirely clear, though it sounded like she’d been grounded for some reason when some nobleman’s hunting party had come across her and snatched her up. Some of the border towns had gryphon couriers visit now and then, and the people there knew  better than to molest a courier in official colours; but a gryphon on the ground, especially one deeper in who perhaps wasn’t wearing those colours, could  be argued – however spuriously – to be a trespasser.

He’d made his way to that baron’s capital, only to find out that the gryphon had changed hands. Precious time lost trying to catch up on the right trail because of that. That had brought him here, to the capital of the duchy, only to learn that the Duchess wasn’t here; she was going to install her “pet” in a zoo of some kind at her country house, and the location of that was a carefully-guarded secret that the local spies – all four of them – hadn’t been able to unearth. At least one of them had actually seen the poor thing being transported – black and white, the largest gryphon the woman had seen, though she hadn’t been close enough to see more details than that.

That country house couldn’t be too far off, though, or she wouldn’t have been able to conduct business in a timely fashion when she was there; Fierlas was just as reliant on couriers as Highmoor, and unlike Highmoor, didn’t have gryphons to serve as reliable, fast couriers. If they wanted to be reasonably sure a message got to its proper recipient, rather than just the right place, they had to send someone on horseback. With that in mind, they had been able to identify a few places where Hakenteri might be able to look for more information.

Most likely he’d need to do it on his own, though, because none of them already had agents in place. Hakenteri’s training had covered that sort of thing, but no illusion, however well-crafted, could make up for the fact that he was just plain bigger than any human, and in a way that’d give him trouble in buildings even if he could fit in the door. He’d likely learn more by pure stealth than by trickery.

At least there he had some luck; the moon was full, these days. He could fly by night and still see the ground clearly enough to get by. He was no owl, but he could still stay high enough to escape notice of all but the most vigilant sentries – and that was without an illusory veil.

The veil was a tricky sort of illusion. Most illusions were very specific, and even the most delicately-constructed one would be useless if the illusion itself was inappropriately chosen. A veil was the only thing that could conceivably fool two watchers with diametrically opposed attitudes as to what was dangerous, because it was the exact opposite of specific. It didn’t project a particular appearance or mask any one sense; instead, it worked a subtler effect on the watcher’s mind. They could see the thing being veiled – or hear it, smell it, or whatever – but they were likely to dismiss it as unimportant.

It was the watcher’s mind, not the wizard, that fabricated an innocent facade. Two different passersby on a street might glance at a veiled subject, one of them seeing a peasant and another an armed guard – whatever they thought most unremarkable to see – and neither would pay any further attention.

Of course, it wasn’t perfect. The closer the watcher was to the subject, the easier the veil was to pierce, and a vigilant watcher was more likely to do so than someone merely passing by. But even the most vigilant guards in Fierlas rarely looked up – and Hakenteri was quite high up indeed for most of his flight.

The conspicuous white breast of the magpie pattern that had been bleached and dyed into his feathers and fur was mostly covered by the dark leather of his harness. That still left white flashes under his wings, but that was minor; little enough for the veil to cover it. So long as he kept his focus, he was a shadow, an especially-fast cloud driven before the night wind. And even if someone did see through the veil, well, who would expect someone with white plumage to be up to no good at night? Obviously they’d cover it up, darken it, wouldn’t they?

That bit of roundabout thinking was exactly why he’d gone with a magpie’s pattern instead of raven-black. Plausible deniability, the spymasters called it. And magpies were familiar, harmless sights; easier to dismiss as nonthreatening than a black-and-white raptor, even when scaled up to a gryphon’s size.

Maybe the most surprising part about that bit of trickery was that it had actually worked, from time to time, even up close. Magpie colours shouldn’t have done much to distract from a great cat’s clawed hindpaws or a falcon’s beak, but in a few all-too-close escapes, it had been enough to make guards not take him seriously.

Perhaps that should have made up for the headache that trying to think like that gave him, but it wasn’t going to make him rely on that baffling deception. He kept enough focus to maintain his veil, and he stayed high enough to be nothing but a fleeting shadow to those on the ground even without it. Those, while not infallible on their own, combined were far more reliable than a bit of twisty thinking.

At least he didn’t have far to go, this time. Even in the nighttime gloom he could already see his destination, not long into his second round of cursing. It was a great stone pile among the rolling hills, and had gone mossy with age; one of the walls had crumbled from neglect, though it had been patched and shored up since, and by the lit torches, fires in the windows, and patrolling guards it was plainly inhabited now.

It was about as far from “country house” as Hakenteri could picture, but he might be able to learn something here, at least.

The gryphon circled high above, part of him taking in the details below him, another part considering his options and resources. The wall was well-patrolled, and at night he couldn’t see the guards well enough to know how much of their attention was directed outward and how much went in to the courtyard. The inner keep rose quite a bit higher than the wall, though – and though he could see a door leading in from it, indeed, rather a large double door, there wasn’t a guard to be seen up there.

Why such a door? Sentries didn’t need it and this place certainly hadn’t been built for gryphons. The construction of that door fit too well with the rest of the structure to have been recently expanded.

But on a closer look, the top of that wall wasn’t actually crenellated – it was just crumbled. The door was that big because it hadn’t always opened to the winds.

There had been at least another level above, once. Against one corner of the remaining wall, a vague horizontal crease might have been a rung of an ancient ladder. And as he circled and his angle of view shifted, he noted that the remaining wall was five feet high at points. A human guard might be able to peek over the edge, but they wouldn’t be able to see much but sky.

It was tidy and a single torch guttered by the door; someone did still use what was now the roof, and that would be something to be wary of. But it just might be his best chance of getting close enough to learn something.

Even a relatively tiny gryphon still wasn’t anyone’s first idea of a spy, himself included – but if things went wrong and he needed to bolt, he did have options, remarkably enough. If it was still night at the time, there was the simple one of going very high and very far, very fast; if it was light enough that he needed cover, or if he got hurt and couldn’t pull off that sort of escape, there was a gryphon-sized safehouse a few miles off, in a little gully that made it awkward to reach on foot and would thus hopefully keep the patrols from finding it. One of his contacts had assured him that the place was in good order as of a month ago, its stores of preserved meat intact. It had been made twenty years ago, when relations between Fierlas and Highmoor were somewhat less tense and there had been hopes yet of introducing a gryphon population to the country. Back before this keep had been reclaimed.

It’d probably be wise to bide his time for at least one night, anyway. That would give him the chance to be sure the safehouse was actually suitable, and more time to observe the patrols without the stress of needing to get in and out by the upcoming dawn.

He shifted his wing-beats. He was built like a peregrine, for quick, nimble flight and swift dives, not as much for gliding as some birds of prey and corresponding gryphons; he certainly wasn’t made for gliding at night, with a scarcity of warm air-currents to ride. But he pitched his wings as much for that as he could, and if he still wasn’t gliding, at least he was flying more easily.

The patrols were almost painfully regular. This was deep inside Fierlas, and the land wasn’t beset by internal strife in recent years; the guards saw no particular reason to exert themselves by being hard to predict. They liked a routine, most probably. That was good for Hakenteri.

What was less good, by way of being less predictable, was that from time to time someone – apparently a servant – would emerge on the roof, lugging a cart full of something that seemed rather noisome, and tip it over the wall at its lowest point, right onto a midden heap that had presumably been put there for that very reason. It happened twice early in the night, and then a third time rather later, just as the eastern horizon was starting to look a tiny bit paler.

Maybe it had to do with meals, though it didn’t seem like the trips had been far enough for any one shift’s meals. Or those of the place’s owners. Either way, he’d have to be wary of it when the time came. For now, it was time to find his bolt hole before the dark feathers that currently helped him hide instead became a liability.

Studying maps and descriptions was one thing; the gully hadn’t looked like much on the charts, to hide a place big enough to shelter even one gryphon. It was actually a deeper cut than he’d expected, more like a ravine in places, and the terrain around its edges was very ragged. A gryphon would have trouble enough negotiating those slopes, and they had four legs for balance; a human would only have two, and there wasn’t much in the way of handholds to compensate. Unless they crawled.

The spit of rock that was his landmark was distinctive enough to spot easily, even from up high on his first visit, but it was just a clump of rock; there was nothing actually remarkable about it. There were plenty other like it along the gully’s edge, they just didn’t happen to have that particular arrangement. A quick look around revealed nobody else nearby, and by the time his dive took him near enough to the ground to worry about his veil, there was a ridge between him and the restored keep.

Good enough. He back-winged and settled onto the relatively-smooth boulder, and hopped down from there to the almost-as-rocky ground.

His directions had told him to look for a path down the side of the gully, but even knowing it was there, it took three turns around the boulder before he found it; indeed, it undercut the lip of the ravine a little, and it was largely obscured by a broad tangle of scrub. It was a wide enough path for a gryphon, and, as he’d thought, he was quite glad to have four feet as he made his way down.

And then he almost missed the entrance itself. Whoever had set this place up had done amazing work taking advantage of the shape of the land, and, he rather suspected, laid a very well-worked veil over the whole thing. Anyone who didn’t know there was something to look for here might go right past it a dozen times and never notice.

Once he’d actually found the door, it looked unremarkable enough. There were no markings that identified it as a Highmoor construction; it was just a large door, whose latch happened to be built large enough that even the biggest, most wicked-clawed gryphon forepaw could have used it. Hakenteri, with his slightly-stubby but quite capable hands, had no trouble at all pushing it open.

And within was just a simple, humble little space, sort of like a cellar with no building over it. The only thing that was in any way noteworthy was the pile of boxes, again built simple enough for a gryphon to use, which held racks of smoked meat. Smoking alone couldn’t have kept this much meat edible for long; that was what the minor enchantments on the boxes were for. There were three rooms: the main room with the food and some other basic supplies, and attached to that, two sleeping rooms. One was small and had a pair of human-sized cots; the other, much larger, had two hollows in the rock floor with some rather faded blankets over them. Even the largest morgans Hakenteri had met could rest there, though with two of them it’d be close quarters.

For him, it was, if far from palatial, at least spacious.

He was wizard enough that he didn’t need to use any of the light-sticks, instead leaving them for later visitors who might not be so fortunate; he fashioned a small witchlight to hover over him, stripped off his harness, and gave it a looking-over. There wasn’t much else to do until nightfall but make sure he and his gear were in good order, and with it being summer, nightfall was quite a ways away from the sunrise that had only just been threatening.

He’d always taken care of his gear; looking over it to be sure it was in good shape didn’t take long, and fiddling with it could only make it worse, so he made himself set it aside. His dye was the next thing he looked at, so much as he could. There wasn’t a mirror here; such luxuries had been thought unnecessary, when most gryphons would need human aid for any grooming they couldn’t do by feel. Hakenteri was the first that could really do more, and he hadn’t been more than a wild notion when this place was made.

He did find a couple small feathers that had escaped attention earlier; white speckled with brown where he “should” have been just white. Bleaching them to pure, snowy white was a matter of fairly straightforward magic, though it took a few minutes to do properly; rushing it would weaken the feathers and leave them brittle.

If there were any feathers that needed black dye, he couldn’t find them, which at least meant no messing about with that. If any of the dye got where it shouldn’t, and it wasn’t where he could notice it and bleach it back away, that’d probably be more conspicuous than one pale feather somewhere.

Besides, when it came right down to it, he didn’t like dyeing his feathers. Oh, sure, in his youth, when he’d been picked on for being smaller – for being differentthen he might have yearned to look more like the other gryphons, though not like some thieving little magpie. But he’d won through that time. He’d proven himself by speed and agility; then the taunting had ebbed and mostly vanished, gradually being replaced by respect.

Gryphons didn’t naturally trust the different and unproven, tending to go with what they knew worked. But if something new did work, and work better in some respect than the usual, most of them were quick to turn around. Hakenteri had gained apologies and accolades from some of the most vicious of his fledgling critics.

Hells, he’d gained more than that from a few of them, he reflected as he sprawled over one of the “nests.”

Chirikal, for instance. A few years his elder, a strong and stocky golden eagle type, she’d always been challenging him – though not outright insulting him, not her. When he’d started winning races, she’d encouraged him. When he’d grown into the narrow wing profile he now sported and started to master his own agility, she’d cheered him on in contests.

“With wings like those, you’d make a hell of a scout for the Legion,” she’d said after one particularly strenuous display, preening him as he caught his breath; it was a common enough gesture, at times a friendly greeting, and the teasing had still been raw enough for him to appreciate that. “Don’t let the others fool you – we need more than brawlers on our side. Between your wings, your eyes, and your brains, you could go up through a few ranks, I’m sure.” Then, her tail brushing his flank, she’d added, “I know I’d enjoy serving under you…”

The innuendo would have escaped him at that point, if she’d let it. But she made her intentions abundantly clear soon enough, and he’d dredged up a bit more energy for another quick flight.

Hakenteri stretched atop the blankets, shivering a little at the memory. And at the rub of fabric against flesh which that memory brought into the open. That had been a very nice evening.

He shouldn’t risk leaving a mess behind that he couldn’t promptly clean up, though. He pushed up to his feet and went out into the main room to scarf down some meat – he’d have preferred fresh, of course, but as preserved meat went, this stuff at least wasn’t bad. Then he returned to bed, this time sprawling out on his back. A quick breathing exercise and a spot of meditation, both of which he’d acquired in his brief but intensive magical training a few years back, calmed him down to the point that his thoughts were just ambling slowly by instead of racing along.

It was strange, really, how much he owed to that instructor. Not just his magical knowledge and ability, although that had certainly brought his life in a dramatically different direction and looked to do so still further once he was done with the Legions. Naruvin Jadefire, Master Wizard and the foremost expert today on how gryphons were put together, had shaped him from the first moments of his existence – well before his birth.

Maybe life would have been easier if he’d known from the beginning that he was different by design. Naruvin certainly thought so; his training could have been tailored from the beginning to train his speed and agility, things he had more of than other gryphons, rather than trying to lump him in with all the other fledglings and teach him to fight as they did. But would it have really changed his youth? It hadn’t taken him that long to find his strengths, and it wasn’t as though he’d lacked for support. Graeshandar had always been as a father to him, ever since the fire that had killed Hakenteri’s blood parents shortly after his birth. The older merlin had always been there when the younger one had need, without fail, no matter how late the hour or how awkward the situation. Even before he knew of the need himself.

There was just one of Naruvin’s arguments that Hakenteri couldn’t dismiss: if he’d known from the beginning that he might be suited to peaceful life, perhaps he wouldn’t have been so quick to swear oath to the Legions. He’d never much enjoyed fighting; he’d just not seen another way to make himself useful on his own. Fighting was what gryphons were good at, and the Legions channelled it to productive effect.

He might be a healer by now if not for that – a proper healer, mending bodies and hearts and minds, not just a field-healer who knew enough of the basics to get someone to more expert care. Oh, Naruvin had squeezed in as much instruction on that point as he could, during the gryphon’s year-long training leave. He’d had the best teachers in, cramming as much as Hakenteri could learn about gryphon physiology and mentality into the falcon-gryphon’s head. And that was one reason he was suited to this sort of rescue; if the captive was in a bad way, he’d be able to mend the worst hurts, be they to body or spirit. But it would take years more to be a healer in full.

The first gryphon ever to be a full-fledged healer – that was a dream he could aspire to. An ambition worth having, worth accomplishing. It’d be a life with its own great stresses, meeting so many injured and sick – and he knew, in his heart of hearts, that there would be some too far gone for him to save.

But there would be others that he could help, and was there any better calling than that?

He dozed for some candlemarks’ worth of time, but even the exertion of his circling flight wasn’t enough to keep him asleep through the whole day. A peek through the shuttered peephole in the door showed sun still bright on the canyon walls – well before sunset. He tried to curl up and nap a little longer, but was too full of energy to actually drift off. After a while of fruitless tossing about, he got up and inspected the spell-work around the little den.

It was solid – thank the stars; there was indeed a veil about the place and it was far beyond anything he could do, at least at the moment. The preserving enchantments on the food bins were just as fine. They’d been there for years, maybe even original work, but showed no signs of fraying. Still, inspecting them – studying them, in the end, trying to learn from that unknown enchanter’s work – gave him something to do.

Once he’d done as much of that as he could stand, he glanced out of the peephole again to see that the light was a softer gold; the sun was setting. Not too much longer, now, and he’d be able to go about his work. Exactly what he was to do was yet unclear, but one way or another, he had to learn more. He needed to find out just where this “country house” was.

Hopefully the upper halls were broad enough to admit him. The cart gave him hope, but also suggested that they might be quite populous – why else would it take a cart to dispose of the refuse? And two trips, earlier in the night. That there’d been a third in the early morning suggested that it hadn’t just been a matter of neglect, of the trash building up over days until someone finally got around to dealing with it.

Still, if there were people aplenty, there might also be conversation. Gryphons, like the cats they ultimately owed some of their features to, had quite good hearing. Maybe not as good as some dogs, but much better than humans, to the point that even some Moorfolk underestimated it; Fierlani had even less reason to be familiar with gryphons’ abilities.

And it wasn’t like they had any reason to expect a gryphon to be snooping about anyway. Even if they tried to keep conversations discreet, behind closed doors, most likely they wouldn’t be nearly quiet enough to keep Hakenteri from overhearing, if he could only get close without being noticed.

He couldn’t exactly plan for much of anything where the actual snooping was concerned. Too much depended on the layout of the place, how many people were there, and what they were doing. He did picture the lay of the land and come up with a few escape routes. The last way he wanted to go if he was seen was directly back here. Still, the hilly landscape gave him options; he could fly low enough for hills and brush to give him concealment, and loop around to lie low once he’d lost immediate pursuit.

Or he could just fly onward, in one direction or another. He couldn’t fly faster than an arrow, but he was certainly faster than a horse. And his magic was enough to push arrows aside, turning glancing blows into outright misses, even if he couldn’t stop dead a direct shot while on the wing.

Hakenteri took his time donning his harness. There was time yet until it would be even remotely safe to fly; he might as well be relaxed about his preparations, at least as far as his pace was concerned. There was no reason not to be thorough about making sure all the straps lay flat and all the buckles were snug, but not tight.

He took one last look around the place, to be sure it was in good order for him or whoever else might need it next. He’d left nothing behind; except for the bit of food he’d used, all was as he’d found it. One more look outside told him that it was finally dark.

He probably could have taken off from the landing just outside the door, and it was tempting to do so, but that would mean he was taking off blind; if there was a patrol somewhere nearby, he wouldn’t know about it until too late. Wrapping himself in illusion, he clambered up the slope, made sure the area was clear, and only then did he leap out over the gully and take to the air.

The patrols hadn’t changed that he could tell over the intervening day; still very neat and regular, still having nothing to do with the roof of the keep. He circled up high, watching for activity on the roof, and about a candlemark after his arrival, once again someone emerged with a cart. He waited while the man dumped the cart and went back inside, and, sure enough, soon he emerged for another trip. Only when he was on his way back inside from that one did Hakenteri swing about and start diving.

This wasn’t a full-speed stoop, intending to strike a target in the air; he descended swiftly, yes, but not so swiftly as to lose control. His aim was to cut the time he was in the air and low enough to be visible to an absolute minimum.

As the dew-damp stone loomed beneath him, he flared his wings, catching air, shedding speed in a hurry. His timing and angle were perfect; he stalled a mere body-length over the roof, dropping onto all fours with barely a whisper of air, a faint rasp of claws on stone.

It was as quiet a landing as ever he’d done, and that said something, especially coming in from the height he’d been circling at. So far, so good.

He was just crouching down to examine the door when he heard boots on stone behind it.

There wasn’t much cover to be had; the closest to hand was the roof over the door itself, and Hakenteri swung around and hopped up over it in a heartbeat, flattening himself against the stone. He was a shadow. He was part of the stone. He was…

The biggest limitation of a veil was that he couldnt tune it. What he looked like was wholly up to the mind of whoever was looking his way. Against something without enough imagination to fill in the gaps, it was basically useless; even against a sentient being, all he could do was try to make himself easy to miss in conventional ways, and hope that was enough.

It was just the porter, making another trip with the cart. This time, Hakenteri was close enough to smell the unpleasant mix of dung and offal, close enough to hear the man’s grumbling about some “horrible beast,” to hear the scrape of a shovel over wood as the cart was emptied over the wall and splatted onto the midden heap.

The gryphon held his breath as the man turned back to the entrance, still grumbling. But the human didn’t pause in the slightest, just went back inside and pulled the doors shut behind him.

That had been too close.

Now, what nature of “horrible beast” might be here? The scraps had at first suggested something like a number of hounds, but why would those be up so high? They’d be kept on the ground floor, probably not even in the main building. No, this was something different.

Had this place been made as a menagerie of some kind?

Now the gryphon was getting excited. This still wasn’t his idea of a “country house,” but maybe, just maybe… He swallowed, forced the eager thoughts to the back of his mind, and slipped back down to the main part of the roof. Maybe it was, maybe it wasn’t, but either way this was no time to get sloppy.

He laid a forepaw against the oaken door, opening his mind, “listening” with more than his ears. He didn’t have much in terms of such senses, but his instruction in healing had uncovered some empathic ability, enough to feel if a mind was close by. This time, there wasn’t. The door was barred from within, but a quick effort of will eased the bar far enough to the side for him to get one leaf open, and from there he could get his forepaws in to do the rest, slip through, and bar it again behind him.

Down he went, step by careful step, along a rough-hewn but serviceable ramp. It went down two levels, and the cart had left tracks all the way down, both ways, so he passed the first level by and went down to the second. There were people around now, somewhere – he wasn’t so precise in that regard as to sense where they were until his normal senses could do so – but not close by. Torches were set here and there in sconces, sparsely enough, and with enough clutter, that he was still pretty likely to get away with ducking into the shadows even if someone did show up.

These were broader halls than he’d seen in most buildings in Highmoor, where some places were built with gryphons in mind. Between that and the absence of guards, he had to remind himself to be careful.

As well that he did, though; as he came up to a corner the cart had gone around, he sensed a mind drawing closer to his. Bored, tired, and a little bit irritated; probably a guard who didn’t like pulling watch up here. A careful peek around the corner showed the man in profile, standing next to a large doorway, on the nearer side of the door to the gryphon.

Whatever was beyond that door was probably the most interesting thing he could hope to learn about here, one way or another. He just needed to get past one weary guard.

Well, he wasn’t entirely unprepared for that. He ducked back around the corner, made sure nobody was coming the other way, and dug in one of the pouches attached to his harness.

What he produced was a small cloth satchel. It didn’t look like much to the eye; under the cloth, though, was a collection of weights packed against a specially-treated vial. One quick throw, and the vial would break, its contents passing right through the coarse cloth and filling the air. Odourless but very potent, the gas would knock out anyone in the immediate area who breathed it, and then it would spread out, dissipating to levels too faint to do anything.

It wouldn’t work on someone who was expecting it and held their breath, but if he timed it right – listened to the man’s breathing, gave just enough time for the gas to spread before his next inward breath…

The satchel made a soft piff noise as it hit stone; even the gryphon’s sensitive ears could barely hear the crack of breaking glass under it. He’d ducked around the moment he threw, so he couldn’t see the reaction, but he heard the soft, surprised noise in the guard’s throat, heard leather creak as he turned… heard him slump against the wall.

Then he dashed forward, holding his breath, in time to catch the man and ease him down rather than just letting him fall and make a great deal of noise.

Thank the stars he’d been wearing leather; if he’d been clad in metal, even mail, this would have been much less discreet. As it was, the man would be fine in a few hours. Plenty of time for Hakenteri to do his work – so long as nobody else came by.

He snatched up the satchel and stuffed it into a different pouch, and also purloined the guard’s key ring. There weren’t many keys on it, and only one of them looked likely to fit this door.

Again he “felt” through the door. There were minds not far off, but the only one that was at all close was fogged with lust and arousal. Just one, but alone or in twos, that didn’t matter – that mind was not in a state to be watching for intruders, and probably not in his way.

This door didn’t look quite so maintained as the one leading outside. Hakenteri took the time to oil the hinges and the lock with a flask he kept for that purpose, and only then did he try the lock. It clicked open; he tugged the sturdy door towards him and slid through.

Definitely a menagerie of some kind; this hall was lined with cages. The cart he’d seen earlier was now tucked into a corner and vacant; the first two pairs of cages were similarly bare.

The third one on his right, however, was not.

The occupant was, indeed, the largest gryphon Hakenteri had ever seen, with the slate-grey body and the white shoulders, hindquarters, and upper forelegs of a sea-eagle – but not a morgan. From the caged gryphon’s lashing tail forwards, Hakenteri could quite clearly see a snug pouch between the hindlegs, a spire of ruddy flesh, and a number of white streaks over the panting captive’s hooked yellow beak and dark face-feathers, making that error of thought abundantly plain.

He was a handsome specimen; the coal-and-white wasn’t so stark and glaring as Hakenteri’s dyed magpie pattern, and he was as solidly built as any morgan, maybe more so. The way he was lying, curled up on his back with his wings slack to either side, gave him a playful air that would have been rather nice to behold if it hadn’t been in the middle of a foreign prison; so too did the way he licked over his own freshly-spent taper.

In spite of everything, Hakenteri shivered. On so many levels, this was not a sight he’d been expecting to be presented with…

He took a breath, reaching out with his mind, forming a soft call – the mental equivalent of a wave, just enough to let the other gryphon know he was there.

The big merlin squawked, tumbling over and scrabbling to stand upright, and Hakenteri hurried up to the bars. “Quietly!” he hissed, sorting through keys; moving a simple bolt was one thing, but trying to force a lock by magic was rather more complex than he was confident of pulling off, at least anytime soon. “I’m a friend – I’m here to get you out of here. I’m veiled,” though specifically getting someone’s attention broke it where that someone was concerned, “but they’ll hear you if you let them!”

“Sorry,” the eagle-gryphon hissed back, shifting on his feet. “I’d about given up on getting out of here before someone negotiated for it. Got any plans for getting out of here?”

“That depends,” Hakenteri replied. “Can you fly?” The other merlin didn’t seem to be hurt, and Hakenteri had seen enough primary feathers a few moments before to suggest they hadn’t been clipped…

“I think so,” the other replied. “But I never was very fast, and I haven’t been able to fly at all for… months.”

So he probably wasn’t in good tone. “There’s a place to hide, not far,” Hakenteri assured him. “If we can just get to the roof and away…” The third key he tried fit the wards; it spun through its channel, and the bolt clanked aside, one section of bars swinging outward with a squeak.

“Lead on, hero,” said the erstwhile zoo-gryphon, tail twitching. There was no trace of languor or distraction; now that there was something to be done, he was all business.

Hero. Hakenteri hadn’t expected that label to be applied to him when he was flying as a courier; even less since becoming, in essence, a spy. This was a strange night.

“Stay close,” he instructed, peering back up the hallway. Trying to veil two people was hard – two gryphons, even more so – but physical closeness made it at least slightly less so.

“Oh, that suits me quite well,” the bigger male purred, standing by Hakenteri’s shoulder. Even without “listening,” there was palpable desire about him.

Okay, mostly business.

Even as he inspected the hall beyond, Hakenteri was a bit nonplussed. He’d had a few merlins flirt with him before – that wasn’t entirely new. But they hadn’t been that blatant about it, nor had the circumstances been in any way pressing!

But that thought triggered a memory of his lessons. Gryphons tended to be an upbeat lot, even – or perhaps especially – in times of adversity. It was their armour against the world’s woes. However, it was also, he remembered, an image they clung to even when they weren’t feeling so confident. Some mix of not wanting to be seen to falter and of trying to convince themselves, perhaps.

As he checked that the unconscious guard was in danger of neither waking nor deteriorating, most of Hakenteri’s attention was actually on his new companion, feeling for his deeper currents of thought. He enjoyed the sight of his rescuer – that seemed quite honest indeed, and was an unexpected but welcome bit of flattery. That, too, could be a distraction from deeper troubles, though; Hakenteri tried to sense past it.

It was hard to be sure of anything without stopping to examine the bigger gryphon in detail, and that they dared not stop to do quite yet. But while he’d probably just been amusing himself in what he thought was a private moment, he was hanging onto that lust far longer than would normally be expected after reaching a climax. Sure, gryphons had enough feline in them to recover quickly and keep going if there was suitable stimulus, but the pressing need to escape didn’t seem likely to provide that.

He’d been cooped up for a whole season, maybe longer. For gryphons, the urge to fly was perhaps the strongest one they had outside of the most immediate demands of nature – breathing, eating, mating – and not only because it was connected to the latter two. Even beyond the considerable stress of extended captivity, that would have taken a toll on him. And to top it off, his captors didn’t even seem to quite realize how intelligent he was – there hadn’t been anything in that cage to keep his mind engaged, certainly.

Scant surprise if he was ready to break. Hakenteri thought a quick prayer that, if it was to happen, it wouldn’t be until they were relatively safe in hiding.

“You have a name, my little rescuer?” the bigger merlin hissed as they crept up the ramp. “I’ve plenty of flattering words I could use, but…” He had better self-control than to laugh while they were sneaking about, but the way he trailed off implied the laughter just fine.

He was really hanging onto that, Hakenteri reflected, introducing himself as he drew back the bar on the upper door.

“Hrr. You don’t seem like a Hawk to me,” the other purred. “Not with those feathers…”

Stars, the sooner he could let his proper colouration grow back…!

“…and between your face and what I can see of your wings, I’d say, well, you’re more a merlin than I could ever be!”

Intent as he was on the guards below, it took Hakenteri a moment to catch the pun. He managed not to groan out loud, however much it might be deserved. Instead, he poked back: “First flirting, now wordplay? One might almost think you don’t know how much trouble we’re in,” he hissed. “What should I have carved on the memorial stone, hrr?”

“Iskalderath,” came the reply, the big merlin stretching out his wings, shifting them this way and that. “Of the Twenty-Third. Friends just call me Rath.”

“Well, Rath,” there was no real reason not to be friendly in the ways time permitted, after all, “there’s a safehouse tucked in a canyon about a league south by southeast. It’s tucked under a clump of bare rock that looks something like a wolf’s head – there’s a trail down to it, then the door’s tucked back in a little cleft in the rock, easy to miss. Made for gryphons, it’s in good order. Hopefully I’ll just be able to bring you to it.”

“Cooped up again,” Iskalderath muttered. “So how will we…”

Whatever he was about to ask was interrupted by a bell being rung with great vigour. Some guards started shouting; others drifted towards the keep to hear it better.

They must have found the unconscious guard. “Go now!” Hakenteri hissed, and focused on the veil as much as he could while Rath hunkered down. If he could just shape a second veil for a few moments, enough for the bigger merlin to get clear…

In the end, their escape was almost absurdly simple. The guards were distracted, looking away from the very place they should have been watching; as Hakenteri abandoned magic and leaped after Iskalderath, not one shout gained the telltale urgency of a threat spotted. They were still milling about when he caught up to the big eagle-gryphon, still confused when he reshaped the veil, and didn’t seem about to change that when the pair winged over the ridge and dropped out of sight.

From there, it was easy. As he’d said, Iskalderath was not a fast flier, and he was wheezing a bit by the time the landmark rock came into view; as well they didn’t have to go farther. But they faced no threats from the ground.

Hakenteri whistled – not a raptor’s full-voiced screech, just a quick peep to get the other merlin’s attention – and pointed down at the rock; Rath shifted his wings and tilted downwards, winging to a halt and throwing up great swirls of dust in the process. He hopped down off the rock to make room, pausing while Hakenteri landed in turn.

Or maybe there was more to his hesitation than that. When Hakenteri came close enough to see the details, the other gryphon was stiff, wide-eyed in a way that the night alone didn’t merit, and shaking a little. “Stars,” he croaked, “I…” And then he faltered.

Instantly Hakenteri moved in, stretching a wing up to drape over a gryphon twice his size. “It’s all right,” he murmured. “You’re free, sky-dancer. I’ll get you home.”

The big merlin sagged against him, head tucking against Hakenteri’s neck, and there was no longer any “a little” about his shaking. “I thought I was going to rot there,” he choked out. “Never flying again, just… wasting away like caged, wing-clipped songbird…” He shuddered, breath catching.

“Shh.” Hakenteri lifted a forepaw, scratching behind the other merlin’s ear. “It’s all right. That’s all behind you, now. You got through it.”

Iskalderath drew a ragged, unsteady breath – relatively subtle for one used to human company, but the gryphon equivalent of a choked sob. “Moon and stars. One of my keepers spoke Moorish, I think she was former Moorfolk, she’d talk to me a little; but the rest – none of them ever said a word I understood. The Baron certainly didn’t. Pretty sure he saw me like a particularly exotic macaw.”

“What, with your plumage?” Hakenteri preened at Rath’s shoulder a little; the friendly gesture seemed to help calm him down some. More delicately, he asked, “Feeling a bit better?”

“…Yeah. Thanks, Hawk. For… everything.”

In all these years, Hakenteri had never had someone address him by nickname. It… felt pretty good, actually.

“Glad to help,” he assured the big merlin. All those weeks, those fruitless visits, the flying back and forth – it was all worth it, now. “Let’s get inside, huh? Sorry to be pushing you towards a small, windowless space, but at least you won’t be locked in.” The door could be barred, but only from the inside.

“Right… right. Lead on. I just… stars, fresh, open air after so long…

Big as he was, Iskalderath had to be much more careful on the path down than Hakenteri did, though he at least had tougher forepaws. Not a bird’s talons, as such, in spite of the cursory resemblance – they could grip similarly, yes, but not quite; there was something of a cat’s forepaws in the shape of them, better suited to walking than a true eagle’s feet. As they neared the bottom of the path, a glance back revealed that the bigger gryphon was looking everywhere but the door, in that curious way veils tended to work.

He looked rather sheepish when Hakenteri – actually, why not get used to thinking of himself as Hawk? Irony aside, it was less of a mouthful for familiar use – when Hawk pointed it out. “You told me about it,” he muttered to himself, “and here I am, going right past it…”

“It’s wrapped in illusion,” Hawk said gently. “Don’t fret. It took me a fair bit of time to find it, and I’m very familiar with that sort of glamer.”

Rath gave his head a shake. “Huh. Right, right. Sorry, I’m just… more rattled than I thought.”

“You’ve earned that,” Hawk sighed, pulling the door open.

He’d expected the tight quarters to make the big merlin that much more anxious, but after a quick look around, Rath let out a sigh of palpable relief. “It’s amazing, how much difference the builder’s intent can make,” he reflected, helping himself to some of the meat. “I had more room where I was, and was fed fresh meat… and yet this feels more like a home.” His beak tore off a chunk. “And smoked preserves never tasted so good,” he concluded, slightly muffled.

He’d been pushed pretty far, but he wasn’t broken. He was resilient, like most of their kind; he’d mend, now that he had the chance to do so. “We’ll have plenty of opportunities to hunt down something fresh once we’re out of here,” was what Hawk said out loud.

“Now that sounds enticing.” Rath scissored off another bite. A beak didn’t leave much mobility of expression, especially not while its owner was eating, but the set of his eyes an ears might as well have been a broad grin. “Have that planned out already?”

“I didn’t even think that was where I’d find you,” Hawk confessed. “Some ‘country house.’ As for going forward…” He gave it a moment’s thought. “This is the best shelter we can expect to find between here and the border. I’d say it’s about three full days of flying off for me…”

“But even if I was at my best, it’d probably take twice that,” Rath replied with a warbling “chuckle.”

Hawk let it pass; though he wasn’t thinking of anything close to his top speed, he also wouldn’t want the bigger gryphon to be straining the whole way in any case. “Speaking of ‘at your best,’ it may be better to camp here for a time while you get some strength back in your wings,” he suggested. “It’s hidden, sheltered, magically concealed, there’s food…”

“And there’s decent company,” Rath put in, whistling a bit around the sibilants.

Anxious? He probably wasn’t just referring to the way he’d been treated as a beast, if he was suddenly more anxious.

So those overtures earlier probably hadn’t just been getting caught up in the moment.

“Seems that way so far,” Hawk put in as he thought, hoping the other merlin would take it in a positive and reassuring light. Sure enough, Rath stood a bit straighter, pausing between bites with his head lifting and tilting slightly. Hopeful.

As far as Hawk could tell, his rescuee had a specific and very strong interest in him. And that wasn’t something he was used to. He’d not entirely lacked for partners, but those had generally been acquaintances of some standing. People who’d come to know him. The most visceral responses he’d received had been from those like Chirikal who’d seen him in the air, seen what he could do – and Rath hadn’t seen anything that fancy so far. Besides, he’d been making passes at Hawk since the moment they met.

He wasn’t the first merlin to do so – there had been a few over the years – but he was the only one to be so dedicated about it.

Holding onto a witchlight was getting tiring; the magical exertions of the night must have taken more out of him than he’d thought. He dug up a light-stick, gave it a sharp rap against the wall to ignite it, and laid it into a sconce on the wall; the stone at its tip, previously quite unremarkable, now cast a clear, cool light over the room. Hawk gratefully let the witchlight dissipate and dug up some food for himself, going back to his prior thoughts.

Well… why not? Hawk didn’t quite know what to do with another merlin, but he knew what he enjoyed. That’d be a good start. And if they needed to be here for some days, all the better if they could enjoy one another’s company, no? It certainly beat trying to pretend the attraction wasn’t there. That would just get awkward for both of them.

Besides, Rath was a nice specimen. The main question left was, what kind of person was he?

“For company’s sake, why not tell me about yourself?” Hawk invited, waving a forepaw towards the sleeping room. “After so long around people who didn’t believe you could meaningfully talk, part of me is surprised you haven’t been saying more.”

“Out of practise,” Rath shot back, eyes alight; then he ducked into the next room. He settled comfortably enough on one of the beds; not wanting to be standoffish, Hawk preened experimentally at the base of a wing, and with a pleased rumble the bigger merlin shifted slightly, leaving him space to stay close and continue.

So they at least had some contact while Hawk, alternating between his beak and his hands to groom the bigger male’s feathers and fur, coaxed some tales out of him.

He turned out to be a fairly humble kind of person. Where Hawk had proven himself fairly early on with fancy flying, Rath didn’t have fancy flying to his credit, at least not nearly as readily. He could soar with the best of them, that had been obvious early on, but agility had never been an asset of his. Power and endurance were, and once he’d grown into them, those had, of course, made him naturally suited to the Legions; in a scrap, he was a big target, but one that was very hard to actually subdue.

Highmoor wasn’t at war, though, certainly not with any nation that employed fliers.

He was also a strong flier, though. When he’d been in proper shape, he could soar for much of the day, wind permitting – the very thought made Hawk’s wings ache, but for Rath it seemed the normal state of things. He’d brought supplies to scouts and remote guard-posts that would have previously taken a team of three gryphons to deliver – or needed to go by land. At least as strong on the ground, he’d pulled mired wagons free in a tiny portion of the time it’d take to rig harness for a mule team, and he was far braver than any burden-beast, more willing to put up with noisy or unusual situations, better able to get past unsure footing.

His proudest moment had come during a training manoeuvre. A sudden mudslide had slid a riverbank out from under the platoon in training, and one of them had been cut off by rising, churning flood water. It would have been a difficult swim to safety from that little islet even in summer; with an early-spring chill in the river, almost foolhardy. The man had just discarded his mail shirt and was nerving himself to try it when Rath had gingerly plucked him up and brought him to safety.

It wasn’t a long flight to get there – but a full-grown human was heavy. Hawk wouldn’t be able to fly with that weight on him, not even close; most gryphons wouldn’t be able to lift for more than a few body-lengths under the strain, and would be inexorably brought to ground if that much weight got dumped on them. But Rath had swooped past, lifted the man into the air, and borne him to higher, drier ground. The soldier had needed a few punctures bandaged – to be sure not to drop him, Rath had needed to grip tight, and the shape of a human body hadn’t left much other space for his claws to go – but they were clean and not very deep, and much easier to mend than the chill would have been even if he hadn’t been swept away and drowned.

Hawk wondered if the same sort of magical intervention that had shaped him was also responsible for Rath’s stature. Though the bigger merlin was otherwise quite normal, without the altered hands that Hawk possessed and with wings slightly broader than normal but still quite conventional in profile, that he was that much bigger and stronger and happened to sport the distinctive pattern of one of the biggest birds of prey in the world made for a little more than Hawk was quite willing to ascribe to coincidence.

If it was so, he didn’t know about it – he said as much when Rath had explained that element of his own history. That led into some comparisons of their childhoods – and Rath seemed downright perplexed by what the smaller merlin confided. “I got some teasing because fledglings half a year younger than me were flying sooner,” Rath confessed, shaking his head. “And even that was never vicious. It sounds as though they just tore into you – for what? Being a bit smaller, looking a little different?”

“I won respect once I started flying,” Hawk noted.

“My nest-minders would’ve given them a good swat,” the other gryphon insisted, a growl lurking in his voice, slurring his words somewhat. “Curiosity, challenge – fine. But if you hadn’t been failing at anything a nestling could be expected to do, no worse.”

It was a little embarrassing, really, that he felt so strongly about this; feeling his ears flush, Hawk wondered if maybe he shouldn’t have brought it up. “It’s the past,” he declared. “I grew out of it. My accomplishments are enough for me – and even if a courier’s duties aren’t the stuff of songs, I do my tasks well and that’s enough for those I meet.”

“Rescuing a months-lost captive from deep within a foreign country, on the other side – alone and without a drop of blood shed…” Rath nuzzled at his ears. “Maybe it’s easy for me to think so, considering, but that sounds worthy of a few tales.”

Hawk came to the conclusion that Rath was just plain nice. Almost motherly, in the way of gryphons – and while gryphons wouldn’t shove a fledgling off a high place to get them to fly like some birds might, there was definitely some satisfaction in seeing one’s charges gain independence.

Such niceness seemed a bit out of place in the Legions, but, again, what else was a gryphon going to do?

“We’re not home safe just yet,” Hawk pointed out. Honesty compelled him to add, “Though I imagine we’re past the worst of the danger.”

“It’s theirs I meant as much as ours,” Rath replied. “One guard subdued with a bit of alchemy, and that’s the closest tonight came to violence?”

“These aren’t exactly enemy lines we’re behind,” Hawk laughed. But it felt nice to have the bigger gryphon nuzzling over his ears, and nice to tilt his head back into it.

“Well, I appreciate it,” Rath murmured into his ear-tufts.

Oh, what in the world was he waiting for? Good spirits to manifest and tell him what to do? They’d both been largely alone for too long, and this felt right. “You can appreciate me all you like,” Hawk murmured, tilting his head to cast as much of a grin upwards as gryphons could ever manage.

“Hrr? When you didn’t respond to it earlier, I thought…” Rath trailed off without saying what it was he’d thought.

But that was plain enough. “First we were busy, then I was still sorting out my own thoughts,” Hawk replied. “But you seem like a good sort of company to me. No other merlin who’s shown interest has actually stuck with it, though, so… if you’ve got some experience in what works,” he nuzzled into the big merlin’s shoulder, “I think it’ll be your turn to lead.”

“What, none of them?” Rath let out a soft pfft noise, ruffling Hawk’s crest. “Fools, the lot of them, then. I haven’t even known you a full day and I’ve already got plenty of appreciation to give.”

That he did, and not just as a euphemism; a complex but overwhelmingly positive mix of gratitude, curiosity, fondness, and lust was simmering in the eagle’s mind, steadily pressing in on Hawk’s in turn. Sure, some of it was lust born of long abstinence, but only a little of it; most of it was far more personal, far more intimate. And as Rath gave the feelings full rein, they surged all the higher.

Small wonder that the scent of arousal was drifting over to Hawk’s head.

One broad wing draped over Hawk’s back as the bigger gryphon nuzzled at his cheek. “How about you turn over, hrr? Just sprawl for a bit and enjoy as I get a taste of you…”

“Give you a bit less of a backache than tasting yourself, I’d think,” the falcon laughed, tucking a wing right in close so he could squirm onto his back, and as he settled, reaching up to stroke the big merlin’s cheek. He wasn’t quite sure when those very distinctive marks had been cleaned off, but there was no trace of them now – nothing dried on the yellow beak nor marring the slate feathers.

Rath leaned into his forepaw for a few moments, eyes half-lidding, then nibbled at his wrist and started to duck down. “More enjoyable for all parties involved, too,” the big merlin purred into Hawk’s chest.

The naked want in Rath’s mind was both thrilling and infectious; Hawk found himself squirming as the eagle’s forepaws slid over him, talons ruffling feathers, combing through fur, breath quick and hot on Hawk’s belly. It wasn’t a surprise in the least that he was very much aroused by the time Rath’s scaly forepaws reached his haunches.

“Not just putting on a brave show, hrr?” The outer curve of one scaled digit slid along the underside of Hawk’s taper. “Very, very nice. I’ve met some who’ll take attention and affection where they find ’em, but they still needed work on my part to get this far.”

“One benefit of romancing an empath,” Hawk crooned. “Even if I’m not that much of one. So long as my partner wants me, I’ll know it, feel it, and probably return it.”

“And here I was thinking it was just my natural charm,” the big merlin purred.

Any reply Hawk might have made was sent clean out of his head when Rath dipped his head, tongue dancing over Hawk’s flesh.

It was such a delightful tease, a spot of moist warmth sliding over his skin, leaving it that much more vulnerable to the other gryphon’s quick breath; warm as it felt otherwise, it brought a sudden, galvanizing chill to freshly-moistened flesh. Hawk let out a thoroughly undignified squawk and arched off the blankets, shivering from one end to the other.

Nor did Rath confine his attentions to that flesh alone. His head dipped down a bit lower still, the firmness of his beak nudging between Hawk’s balls as he nuzzled at them, nudging them forward a little, quick breath stirring the short, soft fur. He licked at them, too, damping that fur down, then let his tongue trail over Hawk’s pouch and up from there, up to his maleness and all the way along seven inches or so of bare, rigid flesh.

Then he shifted, planting one forepaw next to Hawk’s tail, the other rubbing over the smaller merlin’s tail while his tongue kept flicking and darting farther up. Right where the nubs that dotted Hawk’s ruddy taper were most sensitive.

Gryphons weren’t built for long sessions to begin with, owing that much to their feline forebears, and Hawk hadn’t even tended to himself for months; it didn’t even take a minute of those focused attentions to get him yowling and squirming, seed rushing out of him, pulsing over his stomach, some of it streaking Rath’s beak or slipping right into it, even as that maddening tongue kept him going.

A half-dozen squirts later, he subsided, panting hard and trembling. Rath’s attentions eased off, and the eagle-gryphon nuzzled at his haunch, then grinned up at him. “Whatever it is you eat or do, you taste nice,little magpie.”

Hawk couldn’t help but laugh. “I’m never going to live down this dye, am I?”

“Well, it’s all I have to go by right now. At least for colours.” Rath padded around him, ducking his head to nuzzle at one outflung wing. “Falcon of some kind, sure, but beyond that?”

“I’m normally more like a paler-bellied peregrine,” Hawk explained, then asked, “Is this what you always do with merlins you’ve just drunk down?”

“You’re so serious! A bit of levity is good for you,” Rath countered, mouthing at Hawk’s collarbone. “Or if you’re not always this serious, you might as well take a break from it while we’ve got to wait here anyway.”

“And while we’ve got nice, thick earth and stone all around us,” Hawk noted, suddenly feeling sheepish. He hadn’t meant to be that loud. “I’ll give you that.”

“Maybe, in a few minutes, you’ll give me something else, too?” Rath nuzzled at Hawk’s cheek, tail curling around, its tufted tip brushing the smaller merlin’s side. It couldn’t quite reach his groin from where Rath was standing, but it certainly made a valiant attempt.

And seeing that it was trying for it made Hawk blink. “Me? I don’t have the faintest notion how to go about it!” he half-protested. “I thought, if anything, since you know more about this sort of thing than I do…”

“That’s as may be.” Rath shrugged. “Right now, what I know is that that would feel  very, very nice warming me up from inside.”

Well, when he put it that way… “Then lead on, lover,” Hawk breathed.

By the twinkle in Rath’s eye, he both grasped and enjoyed the echo of his own words back at the cell. He didn’t otherwise comment on that, though. “Think you’ll need more time to be ready for more?”

“With you – and that – right next to me?” Hawk nodded toward Rath’s own piece; big gryphon as he was, he had a big gryphon’s equipment – something around a foot long, maybe, though so far as Hawk could tell the difference in their sizes wasn’t quite as marked there as in body. “Oh, I’m quite eager for more already.”

“Good,” Rath hissed, padding the rest of the way around him, then swinging around to face along his body again. One quick nuzzle and lick to Hawk’s shaft, and then Rath stepped forward. Long though his stride was, it wasn’t enough to go clean past Hawk’s wings without overextending precariously and uncomfortably. He gently nudged a few primary feathers aside to step between them, then beyond; Hawk would have got a beak full of charcoal-grey feathers if he didn’t let his head sink back.

He couldn’t make out the bigger merlin’s expression, not when Rath’s head was so much farther forward and held high; but an indrawn breath, shoulders squaring, tail flicking upwards… anticipation was plain.

Then he hunkered down, and the heat of his own rigid arousal pressed against Hawk’s belly.

Now there was a fine thing – a very real testament to the pleasure the other merlin was getting from this, nestled there against his black-dyed fur. And there couldn’t be much doubt that his heart, not just his body, wanted it; if it were otherwise, he’d only need to walk three steps. He was in control, now, and it was his will that slid his hot spire back and forth against Hawk’s stomach.

Hawk was just working up the focus to get a forepaw in between them and help it along when Rath shifted slightly but significantly backwards.

He made it seem so easy, so natural; just one quick nudge of Hawk’s tip against his balls, making both of them hiss and shiver, and with a slight shift, the next stroke brought Hawk’s taper right in under his tail, warm and snug.

Nice, Rath hissed, then trilled rather a lot as he emphasized, Verrrrrrry nice. You fit there like I was made for you, herrro.”

Hawk wasn’t actually used to this much talk during sex. Banter before and after, sure, but during? What in the world could he say? As it was, he just laughed and nuzzled into the broad, sooty expanse of Rath’s chest, mouthing at some of the feathers, and tried to rock in place a little. He wasn’t really well-positioned for it, but by the surge of tension in the big merlin’s body, the catch in his breath, the shiver and moan that followed, what he managed to do was quite adequate.

That was given no little emphasis a bit later, when Rath shuddered atop him, head jerking up, breath catching; the big gryphon’s body spasmed around Hawk’s maleness, squeezing it again and again, as wet warmth splattered over his black-dyed fur.

But rather than slackening, Rath just quickened his pace in the wake of it, working the smaller gryphon’s piece inside him, churning in place. There were no words from him, either, now; all there was was need. Not for his own release – there’d be plenty of time for more of that later. In that moment, he needed Hawk’s pleasure like water in the desert.

The physical sensations were delightful on their own, and another climax wouldn’t have been long in coming, but with that urgency singing in his mind, he hardly lasted longer this time than he had the first. And his pleasure kept cresting for a lot longer.

Rath slid off of him with a wistful sigh, shifting carefully back. “Tuck in, here,” he murmured, pawing at Hawk’s left wing; when Hawk pulled it in close, Rath settled into the space thus left, on his side, to nuzzle at Hawk’s cheek, and the smaller gryphon, rolled to face him. It got a fair sticky mess on Rath’s chest-feathers, but where was the harm in that?

“I could get used to this,” Rath murmured over his ears. “Maybe it’s empathy, maybe it’s just you, but when you enjoy something, there’s no mistaking it. No wondering. ‘s refreshing.”

“You’re rather wonderfully open, yourself,” Hawk replied. Nor was that the big merlin’s sole or even principle virtue as a lover. It was so much easier to be relaxed with Rath than it had been with any morgan he’d been close to; then, he’d always needed to be much more active.

After preening Hawk’s neck for a few minutes, Rath asked, “So is there more you’d like to do tonight, or…?”

Hawk considered that, head tilting. “Feels good to be receiving, does it?” He’d long been aware that the body’s signals could mix in sometimes unexpected ways, that pain and, especially, pleasure could come from sources that didn’t seem likely at first glance…

“It can,” the bigger gryphon said carefully. “Not always, and not for everyone, but it certainly did for me just now.”

Hawk nuzzled at Rath’s tufted ears. “Show me?” he invited.

Rath clicked his beak, considering – though not before a surge of eagerness swelled up in him, eyes widening, ears canting forward. “You sure?” he said carefully. “Our sizes worked to our advantage just now, but going the other way…”

Mild words, and maybe Hawk had every reason to be cautious; but between his own curiosity and the burning want in Rath’s mind, caution was so very hard. Aloud, what he said was, “So you know to be careful, yes? I should think that makes you better to learn with than not.”

Rath crooned over Hawk’s cheek, starting to get up to his feet. “Just remember, you’ve already been enough of a hero tonight for me, hrr? Don’t try to tough it out if it’s not going well. Tell me.”

“You’ve brought me nothing but pleasure this far,” Hawk assured him. “How should we do this?”

“Get your paws under you, this time,” Rath suggested. “Easier to be relaxed that way than when you’re belly-up, I think.”

It wasn’t as though Hawk was able to see the other merlin’s face anyway. He complied, staying low to the ground so Rath could straddle him – in that, the difference between them did seem to help. As he got himself positioned, he worked a quick exertion of magic – of a kind with healing if not quite to the same purpose; preparing his body, leaving him supple and at ease.

Hawk knew enough to relax; he let his eyes slip shut and his body slacken, sinking right down against the coarse wool. Rath’s rumble overhead, soft and soothing and as appreciative as ever, made it that much easier.

Then firm warmth nudged under Hawk’s tail.

There was no need to reposition as there had been when Rath was receiving; the big gryphon was in full control, now, and very plainly knew what he was about. He nudged right where he needed to be, and though Hawk shivered from the thrill that raced through him, mewling with unabashed want, he managed not to tense up.

The nubs that coated a merlin’s shaft, echoes of their feline heritage, Hawk already knew quite well to be sensitive; they turned even a simple stroke into a sensation of dizzying complexity. Unlike in cats, though, they weren’t aggressive. They tickled him on the way in, and he couldn’t help but tighten around that intruding taper, but it wasn’t in any way uncomfortable.

Rath paused, but after a moment apparently divined the true cause of that tension, and eased further forward. So it was again, and again, whenever Hawk squirmed under him. Stars, he was feeling so full already, more with each passing moment, and it was incredible…

Just when it seemed the fullness was getting too much, with the tiniest spike of physical distress making him wonder if he was getting in over his head, Rath drew back – and if his spines had tickled on the way in, that was nothing to what they did with that motion.

The big merlin churned steadily atop him, now, never again pushing in quite so deep; he had a measure for his smaller lover, it seemed, knew what Hawk could take. At least in terms of Rath’s length; the sensations that motion was driving through him, on the other side, felt like they were going to drive him mad. It couldn’t have been a dozen breaths in that an electric surge of pleasure shot through him, seed streaking over the blankets – and still Rath was rocking atop him.

He was awash in pleasure, now; his own, cresting, then ebbing only slightly, and his lover’s, steadily building. And even in Rath he could feel an echo of his own – the shifts in the big merlin’s breaths and motions, the soft sounds he uttered, made abundantly plain that he was sharing in Hawk’s delight. Maybe it was supernatural empathy, maybe it was just a wholly natural harmony with a lover, but whatever the cause, it was distilled bliss for every stroke, every heartbeat.

Even when Rath shuddered and groaned atop him, shaft bucking, filling him with a very distinctive sensation of wetness and warmth, the big merlin kept churning, driving him onward.

Pleasure mixed with pleasure, everything running together. It was hard to be sure where one peak ended and the next began; he must have hit three more climaxes at least, and another one or two on Rath’s part, without stopping – then they cried out as one, high and sharp in Hawk’s case, melding in somewhat dissonant, yet in context, utterly perfect harmony with Rath’s deeper bellow. They shuddered together in such synchrony, it was though the very seed that was flowing from Rath’s member went right through the smaller gryphon to spatter the blankets.

There was no way to keep going after that. They slumped together, one still atop the other, panting hard.

“Sun, moon, and stars,” Rath gasped after a few minutes. “That was… unbelievable.” The pressure of his member was rather less even before he started pulling back; when that warmth slipped free, it drooped, tip brushing over Hawk’s balls and coaxing a fresh shiver out of the smaller merlin before the bigger one stepped back and out of the way. “You’re something else, Hakenteri.”

It was the first time Rath had actually said his full name; Hawk blinked, peering over his shoulder, but there was nothing worrying in the big merlin’s expression when it came into view – just fondness and warmth. “I was kind of liking ‘Hawk,’ actually,” he half-protested.

“Thought I should get it right at least once,” Rath laughed, stepping clear and stretching. “Hrr. You must have made quite the mess down there, huh? Can’t smell anything but.”

“I rather think I did,” Hawk admitted, suddenly feeling guilty. They should leave this place pristine for whoever else might need it next, after all; he’d need to resort to magic to do that now, maybe so far as bleaching the blankets, and he wasn’t sure he had the energy to do anything before that wasn’t a maybe.

“I don’t think I could stand something this intense very often,” was Rath’s chuckling admission in return. “But once in a while, I’d be up for it if you are. And other things not so strong, much more often.”

“Let’s get you rested up and home, first,” Hawk laughed, nuzzling the other merlin as he settled in close by.

But the honest truth was, it felt really good to be so wanted. That it was someone like this who wanted him – big, strong, kind, open, and just fun – made it all the better.

“You know,” he murmured, “my five years are up after this assignment. I was rather looking to train as a healer, properly… and after that, I could settle where I choose…”

“Really?” Rath purred. “Unless I’ve missed months going by, I’ve about a season to go, but after that… maybe I should look into other options than just enlisting again, hrr?”

Options. It was good to have options. And civilian life was starting to look very interesting.