Altan picked up the heavy pack, carried it to the nest as close as he could get without agitating the babies more than they already were. How could he calm them enough to accept his touch? He'd have to handle them a lot, and it wouldn't be gentle if he were to get them off this narrow mesa. He started singing a song his mother sang when he was little. They watched him; heads cocked at the same angle.
But as soon as he approached the nest they scrambled to the other side, stumbling and climbing over each other. They snapped at him with shrill, agitated cries.
"Ok. I know I’d starve if I had to sing for my soup, but I’m not that bad."
~Keep singing, perhaps it will help calm them. They’ve never seen anything like you,~ spoke Kibrath. ~They are too young to understand when I talk to them, but I'll comfort them as well as I can.~
Altan pulled small pieces of the soaked meat and vegetables—which they weren't too sure about—and toss them into the fledgling's mouths, moving a step closer each time. They squabbled and pushed at each other like "me first, me first." He ran out of the soaked morsels and couldn't cut more fast enough. Are they ever going to be satisfied? I don’t think I brought enough. Each toss a little shorter, he coaxed them closer and closer. There was little left when they approached close enough he could touch them over the sides of the nest. They let him scratch their heads, fingers gentle in the soft feathers. They butted against him, knocking the side of the nest trying to get closer, wanting more food. I wonder if they think I am a crippled Karda with no wings and not enough legs.
Kibrath circled above, crooning the low musical sounds. They watched, agitated when he flew too far away, calming when he wheeled back.
Altan unloaded his pack. He cut narrow strips from the sides of one of the blankets and rolled eight separate rolls. Twisting more pieces into two thick ropes, he used the stout cord to fasten one end of each at opposite corners of a rectangle folded from the other blanket, pulling hard to be sure they’d hold. He cut two more lengths of the cord and wrapped the loose ends of the ropes tight leaving long tails.
Uncoiling first one and then the other of the two ropes from his pack, he looped them back up with close attention. A tangled rope to fight with could mean disaster. He sang softly and had to stop and clear his throat several times when it thickened with uncertainty. If I stop to think about what I'm trying to do, I'll never be able to do it. The fledglings listened and watched. Heads twisting back and forth, their eyes moved from him to Kibrath, flying close circles above them and crooning the odd notes Altan had never heard him make.
Ready as he could be with his preparations, he packed the rolls and the pot with soaking food into his emptied pack, hung it from a stout branch on the nest. He scrambled over the tangled sticks and slowly eased himself toward them, singing nonsense words. They backed away with soft, agitated cries. Kibrath circled close above and called with a clear musical cry. Another sound Altan had never heard from him. The two fledglings looked up at him and settled down, one with his head on Altan's knee, letting him stroke them with gentle hands. He kept humming and talking in a low, soft voice.
He reached for the pot and began feeding them from his hand, holding his palm flat, praying he wouldn't lose a finger or worse. They picked the food delicately from his palm with their wicked sharp little beaks, jostling and pushing each other. When he stopped to cut more, they got impatient and butted him. "If we’re going to get along, you’re going to need to learn better manners." Finally sated, they curled their legs beneath them, put their heads down, and closed their eyes.
"Now if you'll just stand up," he tugged on the little female, "I'll wrap your legs. We don't want scratches and cuts on the way down."
He tried picking up one leg, but she flapped her short barely fledged wings and hopped away, crying out. He moved to corner her, but she got more agitated, and the little male snapped at his arm, tearing his sleeve. Finally, she began to settle. He showed her the wrappings, letting her explore them with her beak, cocking her head back and forth. Moving slow, he knelt by her shoulder and picked up a front foot, placing it on his knee. She was taller than he was knelt down, and he struggled to hold her still, talking the whole time. Moving bit by bit he wrapped and tied the strip around her lower leg from knee to ankle, pushing the curious male’s head out of his way again and again.
"Now, that wasn't too bad, was it?" He was sweating in spite of the cold when he finished, and there were three more legs to go. They went faster, and by the time he got to the male, they were both tired and less curious, and the wrapping wasn't quite such a struggle.
Altan thought about the distance he needed to cover to get them down the cliff and swallowed. But their delicate legs would be protected. There was not much else he could do. He'd just have to trust any damage would be something he could heal. There wouldn't be much energy left in him for that by the time he got both of them down. He wouldn't allow himself to say if. It was when.
He wiped sweat off his face with his sleeve and climbed out of the nest. Fishing the belt with his pitons out of the pack, he tested to be sure they were secure in their pockets, buckled it on, stuffed the hammer through it, and began untangling one side of the nest. It wasn't easy, and he had to do it so he could put it back up again before the male could escape. Blocking him with his body, he pushed the female through the gap, followed her out and wove the sticks back together as best he could. The female butted him from one side, and the male tried to scramble past on the other.
Kibrath swooped down so close Altan could feel the wind from his wings, and called out in that musical voice. He did this several times until both fledglings looked up, heads cocked to listen on a frequency he couldn't hear. They settled down, the female leaning against him, pushing as close as she could. The male circled and circled inside the nest and watched him, making soft distressed sounds Altan heard in his head. The male was trying to talk to him, but it was like trying to make sense of a baby’s nonsense sounds.
"I'll be back for you. I promise," Altan told him, feeling a lump rise in his throat at the fear in those wide rolling eyes. Kibrath flew over low again, calling, and the little male settled down on the soft grass and hid his head under a wing, his whole body trembling.
Altan pulled the blanket sling around his sister's belly, threading the ends of the thick twists of blanket through a loop at the end of one of his long ropes, crossed and fastened them at opposite corners, testing his knots several times. "Let's hope this sling holds, girl. I can't get you down any other way. You're too big awkward to carry with those long, long legs." Holding the hammock like sling snug to her belly with one hand he maneuvered her to the edge of the mesa, looped the rope around a stout tree, and tossed the loose end over the side, watching the coils unfurl. "Here we go, baby girl," he said. She was trembling but calm, as he lifted her over the edge and lowered her down to a narrow ledge about five meters below.
Amazed she hadn't panicked, he fastened her rope with a quick release knot, clenched his fists, then straightened his fingers and lowered himself down the side of the mountain. He searched for each toe and hand hold, using Earth talent to secure a rock for a foot, widen a cleft for his fingers, strengthen the grip of the roots of a small tree he braced against. He talked to her the whole time, his voice calm and low, using nonsense words or "Where is my next hand hold? Will this tree hold? Will this never end?" Kibrath circled, soothing the one left behind, calming the little girl on the ledge in the same low, musical tones.
A rock broke loose, clattering down the mountain, and one of her back feet slipped off the edge. She screamed in panic, and Altan watched, frozen and terrified as she scrambled and clawed, her back end swinging over empty air. Frantic, he closed his eyes and reached his way into the rocks of the ledge, firming and shoring up the crumbling edge. Finally, one clawed foot found a secure hold. She pulled herself back up and stood, feet splayed, body shaking all over, eyes wild and clamped on Altan. "Good girl," Altan called, his foot searching for its next hold. He cursed to himself. He should have checked the ledge before he let her down. It would only have taken a few moments of concentration to stabilize it.
"Good girl. I'm coming. It'll be all right, you'll see. It won't take me long." He talked to her all the way down. The side of the mesa was fissured with crevices, some with small stout trees wedging their roots deep and tight. He tested each one he grabbed, carefully sensing each foot and hand hold with his Earth talent, firming the rocks and trees where they were unstable, never taking his weight off more than one at a time, working his way down toward her, talking, talking. He could hear Kibrath calling to the little male and flying tight circles above them.
When he found himself just a few feet above her, he hammered in a piton. The first he'd had to use. Unwinding a short rope from around his waist, he pushed it through the loop on the end of the spike and tied another quick release knot, tossing the ends down, careful not to startle her. He squeezed himself down beside her on the ledge and scratched under her chin for several moments, catching his breath. He held fast to the short rope, wedging her between himself and the cliff face, stroking her until her trembling eased.
He reached for the bag hanging from his belt he'd sacrificed a shirt sleeve to make, pulled out a few small pieces of dried meat, and offered them on his palm. She hesitated, then plucked them up and swallowed, turning her head to look at him. "You're a fine brave girl, you know. We'll make it." He rubbed her head again, and she twisted against his hand, butted his arm, then very deliberately looked over the edge to the valley far below and back at him. Altan swallowed against a hard bubble in his throat at the trust in her eyes.
He fastened one end of the short rope from the piton around his chest and leaned in, making sure she was secure between himself and the cliff face. He reached for the loose end of the long rope tied five meters above them and jerked. It fell loose, slithered down the cliff, threatened to catch on a small tree, then slid free and pooled at his feet. He hammered a second piton into a narrow crevice just above them and tested it with his hand and with his talent.
He figured it was six or seven meters down to the next ledge and thanked Adalta for the Karda's light honeycomb bones. She weighed little more than half what a foal her size would. Drawing the rope up, he coiled it on the ledge. Looping it through the end of the piton and wrapping it once around his waist, he nudged her off the edge. She panicked again, scrabbling against the side of the mountain, and he lowered her as fast as he could.
Seven times he repeated this. Several times he had to swing her back and forth to reach the next ledge. They weren't all lined up conveniently one beneath the other.
His hands bled, and his arms and legs shook with the effort of each small movement to the next crevice, the next rock, the next small, twisted tree. The rope scored his hands deeper each time he lowered her, and he couldn’t afford the energy to keep healing them. But she fought him less and less. He hoped it wasn't from shock and terror.
At last, he lowered her down the final stretch to the floor of the valley. He rappelled down on her rope and fell exhausted to the grass beside where she lay. She rested her head on his outstretched arm and closed her eyes. He didn't know how long they slept that way, but the sun was well past its high point when he woke. He groaned and sat up. He was going to have to do this all over again.
Touching the pulse point in her neck, he felt the beat steady and strong; her breathing was even. He didn’t see any blood so checking her for cuts and bruises could wait. He had to go back up.
He groaned and rolled onto his knees. His body screamed its protest. Both hands flat on the grass in front of him, he reached down through the ground, searching for one of the streams or pools of water that ran deep through the bedrock of Adalta. The energy of Adalta surged up into him. He directed it to sooth his strained muscles and ease the pain and raw scraped flesh on his hands. It didn't completely erase his exhaustion, and he couldn't afford the energy it would take to heal his hands completely—healing took as much out of the healed as it did the healer, and he was both—but when he finally sat up again he'd found enough strength to go again.
He sat for a while, watching Kibrath circle, trying to comfort the little male up there alone with his dead mother. Then his little girl began to stir, and he untied her sling. He stood, and she stood, too, never taking her eyes off him. She started making hungry noises. He found his other pack and pulled out more dried meat and vegetables. Her eyes flicked back and forth between him and the food. He headed for his small cabin, and she followed, tromping on his heels all the way. Pushing her inside, he tossed the food to the center of the packed dirt floor and closed the door. Her distressed cries followed him back to his packs. He stuffed more food into the makeshift pouch hung from his belt and headed to the landing strip. Kibrath was already touching down when Altan looked up to call him.
It was late and closing in on dusk when he got down with the little male. There wasn't time for rest, exhausted though he was. The fledglings huddled together, trembling with exhaustion themselves, heads up, frightened eyes darting everywhere. He was afraid they would bolt and hurt themselves. Kibrath settled them down, and they curled against him as close as they could get under his broad outstretched wing.
Altan started gathering sticks, carting them to where the fledglings lay. Two hours later he had a crude nest. Not as sturdy and well-made as the one their parents had constructed, he thought as he stood back and surveyed it. But it would do. He threw himself down on the ground beside it, groaning as he heard them start to click their beaks and make hungry sounds. Yes, they were truly voracious. All the time.
He lay there with his head pillowed on his hands for several more minutes then dragged himself up to find the pack of dried meat and vegetables to soak. He would have to gather a mountain of dried grass to line the nest, but that could wait until he fed them—again, he and Kibrath ate, and he got some rest.
His torn hands smarted, his arms and legs ached, his shoulders were wrenched, and his head pounded by the time he got them fed, but Altan couldn't help but smile as the fledglings, beautiful even with their stunted, immature wings, settled, making soft, sleepy sounds, easing toward contentment.
He stumbled his way to his packs, picked them up and headed for his small rough cot. Dropping them inside the door, he hobbled to the narrow bed on one wall. He managed to draw enough power, moving his hand in a circle around him, to chase out any vermin who might have taken up residence in the cabin, fell onto the bed, and sleep hit him in the head.
Three hours later loud insistent cries from the nest woke him. He sat up too fast and had to put his head back down until the world stopped swimming. He scrubbed at his face and winced. His mangled hands were bleeding. He blinked his eyes and stretched. I better take care of these, or they’ll get infected. I should have done that before I slept. But I don't think I could have. He spread them palms up and reached his mind down into the ground at his feet, feeling the force of the planet move into his body. He concentrated on his hands, smoothing the energy across and into them and watched as the bleeding stopped, a little pus squeezed out, the deep rope burn gouges pulled together, pink scar tissue formed and the skin firmed.
He was still too tired. Even this little effort made his head ache. He got up, groaning. There wasn't enough energy in him to do anything about his aching muscles. His leg threatened to collapse under him. Somehow he needed to find the talent force to do something about the gash on his calf, he decided, and sat, concentrating on his leg. He drew power from Adalta again. He had used all his reserves on his two descents with the fledglings. He needed to build himself up.
That would have to wait. The cries from outside were growing more insistent. He finished, stood, waited to see if he got dizzy again, lit the small lantern on the rough mantle—using a match, not the twist of Earth and Air talent that created firet—cut up more dried meat to soak for next time and headed back out to feed them.
He smiled. If I weren't so exhausted, I’d enjoy feeding them. They are so beautiful.
~Please hurry with their food. While you're feeding them, I'll go hunt. I'm hungry, too, and all of us could use fresh meat. They won't get enough moisture even with the soaked meat.~
It took another day and night to line the nest with grass, rest enough between feedings to stand without passing out, and convince himself that if he left extra meat in the nest with them, they wouldn't overeat, but could ration themselves. They always fell asleep as soon as their bellies were full, so he didn’t think he needed to worry about that. In the dim light of approaching dawn, he cut up what was left of his supplies in small pieces and piled it in a corner of the nest on fresh grass with the three summer-fat long-eared birbirs Kibrath had caught.
He finished the unpleasant job of cleaning up after them, piled in more fresh grass, and called Kibrath down from where he was circling low, scouting for predators. Altan carried the saddle and one pack out of the cabin after pulling the heat from the magma stones on the hearth in the little stone stove.
He watched the big Karda land and head to the nest. Kibrath lowered his head to the fledglings and began the clicking and crooning that he used to communicate with them. He held their eyes for several long minutes, turned and headed toward Altan and the saddle and pack at his feet. ~Were you telling them we're leaving for a while?~ Altan asked.
~They understand. At least I think they understand. But we'll need to get back as fast as we can.~ Kibrath's voice radiated concern.
The agitated fledglings watched Altan’s every move heads poking up over the sides of the nest. Altan strapped the saddle on Kibrath's back and headed for the landing meadow. Kibrath cantered across the field and took off toward Toldar Prime and help. They circled once, Kibrath calling, and the anguished cries of the fledglings echoed in Altan's ears long after they were out of range.
It was late. The sun had long set; the large half-moon was a quarter of the way up the sky, and a thin sliver of the small moon was just cresting the horizon. Altan leaned over the pommel handle and patted Kibrath's neck, ignoring the strands of mane that whipped against his face. ~Not much further, old friend. We're almost there.~
Kibrath's wing beats were slowing. He struggled to gain height. His glides were shorter. The cold night air offered no thermals. Altan knew Kibrath didn't like to fly at night. Finally, a faint light appeared in the distance, and he heard loud cries from the skies around them. Two Karda swooped down and took position in front of them, breaking the wind for Kibrath. His wing beats strengthened, and they gained a little more altitude. Altan spotted four more Karda headed toward them, silhouetted against a dim glow ahead. The Karda circled them. As they flew closer, the light grew into flaming torches marking the long runway outside the mews.
Kibrath dropped, and they lined up with the lights. Soon they were on the ground, cantering to a stop just outside the mews, more Karda coming in behind them. Every Mi'hiru in the place was there. And every Karda was calling out to them. It was pandemonium. Guild Mother Solaira was there almost before he dismounted, her tiny figure vibrated with even more energy than usual, her blue Healer's cape thrown over a worn dress, red hair falling out of the bun at the nape of her neck. Mi'hiru's Rayna and Jordana began unsaddling Kibrath almost as soon as Altan dismounted. Marta grabbed his pack, glancing at his face, concern showing on her own.
"What is happening, Altan?" asked Solaira. "Every Karda here has been in and out all night, agitated, circling above even in the dark. That's why we had the lights on the runway. What are you doing flying in after dark? You're both exhausted. Why would you push Kibrath that hard? What's wrong?"
The Guild Mother had a habit of peppering questions without waiting for answers. She put her hand on his arm and sent healing energy through him. Altan gave her a weary smile. He glanced at Marta whose eyes flicked back and forth between him and Kibrath, her face white as she checked the Karda for damage.
"I've found two Karda fledglings in the mountains. Someone killed their parents, and I need help getting them back here." He watched Marta, her incredible blue eyes wide with shock. He was so tired he wasn't even aware that he was talking to her, only to her, his hands on her shoulders, as much to hold himself up as to hold her attention. "We haven't much time. I left them food enough for two days, I think, but they're babies. I don't know how long they can last without care or how safe they are from predators." He stumbled from exhaustion. "We have to leave at dawn. I expect you to be ready." He kept on, issuing orders for what she needed to pack, leaning on her as they headed out of the mews.
Solaira tucked herself under his other arm and frowned. She asked permission and sent her healer talent questing through him, shaking her head. "Now, let's get you to a room and cleaned up. You'll need to sleep here. You're too tired, and you have to leave too early for you to go all the way up to the Keep tonight, and you need healing. You’re too exhausted to do it yourself. We have a guest room for the occasional male. I'll send word to your parents. Your mother and Guardian Stefan will want to hear about this as soon as possible. I'm sure they'll be down at dawn to see you off."
"But…," Altan faltered.
~I'm fine Altan. Get some rest. I'll be ready in the morning.~ Kibrath eyes were already drooping shut, even as he ate what the Mi’hiru piled in his manger.
Before Altan could say more, Solaira bustled him off to the baths. Fortunately, they were empty. He had little doubt Solaira would have pushed him in even if they were full of women. She left him there and went to make sure the room was ready and send off her messengers. By then all he could think of was that hot bath and a bed with actual sheets. The stubborn set of Marta’s jaw at his peremptory tone when he was issuing orders finally registered. He smiled.