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The Black Egg
It all began with the hatching of the dark griffin. A restless day. A grey day. Clouds the colour of lead lay low over the land like a blanket, and the wind that blew over the mountains had the tang of ice in it. Winter was over, but the memory of it lingered.
The valley, overlooked by a trio of craggy peaks, was green and wild, untouched by humans. This was the domain of something else.
From her perch high above the treetops, the great beast who owned the valley had an excellent view of her territory. She lifted her head, the wind ruffling her feathers, orange eyes scanning the area for any sign of movement. All was peaceful, and she sighed and resettled herself in the massive nest she had made for herself. It was supported by the tops of five large trees and woven from the branches she had broken away to make room for it. Normally a griffin was content to sleep on a bare bough or a ledge, but this one had a clutch of eggs to guard.
She would not leave her nest once during the three months it would take for them to hatch.
She sighed again and rustled her wings. It had been two and a half months since the laying, and she had not eaten for two of them. Her stores of fat were running out, and if the eggs did not hatch soon she would be forced to abandon themor even eat them to save her own life. She lifted her wing and rolled slightly on her side to check on them. There were three eggs, each one about the size of a melon. Two of them had light brown shells, flecked with white. The third was black. Not just dark brown, but pure jet-black, without a speck of any other colour. She had never seen an egg like it before.
She nudged the black egg a little further into the soft curve of her underbelly and crooned deep in her throat, then listened intently. Nothing, and she rolled back onto her chest and refolded her wings. When the eggs were ready to hatch they would start calling back. Until then all she could do was keep them warm and safe.
At thirty years old and as tall at her shoulder as a man, the mother griffin was a well-grown adult. Her front half was covered in glossy grey feathers, and her wings were mottled with black and white. Her hindquarters had tawny brown fur, clawed, padded paws and a long tail whose tip bore a wide fan of rigid black feathers. Her forelegs were bony and covered in grey scales, and her forefeet had long, many-jointed toes tipped with sharp, curved talons. Perfect for grasping and holding. She rested these formidable weapons on the edge of her nest and murmured to her eggs. 'Hatch soon. Soon. Do not make me wait longer. Awaken soon and break the shell.' It was less real talk than a kind of mantra, and she repeated it several times, letting the sound of her own voice keep her company and stave off her boredom.
After that she slept, woke and slept again, stuck in a kind of half-dreaming twilight as the time dragged by. She wanted to go, wanted to be free and fly away over the valley, but her instincts forced her to stay. She continued to check on her eggs, day after day, waiting for the chicks to begin their piping.
But they didn't. The weeks dragged by and she slowly weakened. Her ribs started to jut through her skin, and her feathers lost their shine. She was starving to death. Yet still she did not leave. Every day she thought of finally giving up and leaving the eggs, but every day she decided to wait another night. Just one more night. Just one more.
And then, at last, nearly half a month late, the chicks began to awaken. She crooned to them, just as she had done so many times before, and finally heard a faint chirping in reply. She nudged the eggs with her beak and called again, and once more the piping voices of the chicks came from inside the shells that imprisoned them.
The mother griffin pushed them forward to rest between her forelegs, and prepared for the final stage of her vigil.
The black egg was the first to begin moving. Tapping came from inside it, and the chick ceased chirping as it began to struggle to hatch. Shortly afterward, the other two eggs began to rock gently from side to side. The chicks were bracing their legs against the inside and trying to push their way out. The hatching began.
It was a slow process. The eggs moved and were still, moved and then stilled again. The chicks had to stop and rest frequently, but they always resumed their struggle, and the tapping grew louder until the black egg started to crack. A hole appeared in the side, and the mother had a brief glimpse of a tiny beak before it withdrew.
At this point, she abruptly stood up. Her chicks would be out of the shell very soon, and they would need to eat almost at once. It was time to hunt again. She stood tall, resting her foreclaws on the edge of the nest, and stretched her wings. They were stiff and sore from disuse, but she flapped them vigorously, forcing the muscles to work. They limbered again after a little while, and without any further hesitation she gathered her hind legs under her and leapt into the air. Her wings struck downward, lifting her, and she flew up and away from the nest and into the sky.
She flew a little clumsily at first, but quickly found her balance and flew in a wide circle over the valley, steering with the feathered rudder on her tail. Wanting to see her territory in its entirety, she circled higher. The valley was thickly wooded and lush, full of vines and lichen and moss. There was a patch of marsh right in the middle, where the trees thinned out, fed by a stream that flowed in from between two of the mountains. There were more mountains and valleys beyond in three directions, but to the north, behind the smallest of the three peaks, the land changed. The trees went only so far beyond it, and after that massive plains stretched toward the horizon. It was strange country, dotted with rocky outcrops here and there but almost completely bare of trees. She had heard that there had been trees there once, but they had all gone now. Taken down by humans. Humans hated trees. They were ground dwellers and preferred flat, clear land for their homes. It was not land for griffins. There was nowhere to perch, nowhere to shelter.
The sight of it irritated the griffin. She circled nearer to the smallest mountain and opened her beak wide to screech. The noise echoed over the valley, and she followed it up with another. She was calling her own name, as every griffin did, announcing her presence and her strength to the world and to any other griffin that could be in the area.
She listened. No reply came. There were no other griffins here to call back.
Saekrae's stomach twinged again, and she flew lower, remembering her original purpose.
She turned back toward her valley and flew low over it, searching for prey. A fully grown griffin needed a lot of food to survive, and she had to feed her chicks as well.
At this time of day there should be a herd of wild goats down by the stream. She had fed on them before, and one would make a good meal now.
But she found nothing. She circled still lower, searching among the trees, but she saw no sign of prey. Nothing she could catch.
Saekrae began to despair. If she did not eat, within a day or so she would be too weak to fly. And if she died, so would her chicks.
That left only one alternative. With a weary flick of her wings, she circled upward again, flew over the mountain and struck out across the plains.
She had never flown over them before, though she had seen them plenty of times from a distance. The valley had become her territory only recently, when the scarcity of food further into the mountains had forced her to migrate. She had come to the valley pregnant and had laid her eggs a few months later, and she was only now finding out how inadequate her new territory was. Perhaps the plains had something better to offer.
She noticed how different they were fairly quickly. The air was warmer and drier, and smelt of bare earth and grass. The lack of trees disturbed her, but she flew on regardless, alert for any sign of prey.
And, after a time, she found it. There were animals wandering over the plains. Not goats. These were much bigger. Four-legged like goats, and standing together in a herd like them as well. They were grazing, completely oblivious to her presence.
Saekrae did not pause to wonder what they were. She singled out one that was on the edge of the group, hovered above it for a while to pinpoint her target, and then dropped out of the sky like a stone. She hit the animal directly in the back, her talons shattering its spine before they hooked themselves into its flesh, and then she swooped straight up again, carrying it with her. The weight of it dragged her down and she lurched in the air, struggling to keep hold of it. It was heavier than she had expected. She held on grimly to the dying animal and turned back toward the valley.
She made it after an exhausting and unpleasant journey, and shot back over the mountaintop very gratefully. She reached the nest and dumped the now dead animal in the bottom, and then settled down on a branch beside it and folded her wings.
The chicks had hatched by now, all three of them, and were already on their paws and alert. Two of them were grey and brown like herselfone male, one female. The third was black. The fine downy fluff on its front half was grey over black skin, and its hindquarters had jet-black fur. Its big heavy-lidded eyes were silver, and its beak and forelegs were also black. It fell on the prey almost instantly, tearing at it with its beak, and its siblings were quick to join in. Saekrae tore into the animal's flank and began to eat…; there was plenty for all of them. The animal had a lot of meat on it; evidently it had been well fed out on the plains. Its flesh was tender and had a rich flavour, and Saekrae could feel her strength returning with every beakful.
Once she had eaten and the chicks had had their fill, she settled down to sleep with her wing spread over them to protect them. A hard time was beginning for her, but she was not afraid. She could find food now, and there was plenty of it. Everything would be all right.
The chicks grew well. The black one was the strongest of the three, and the most vigorous. Its voice was loudest and it had the best appetite. It was more than happy to bully its siblings, too, and take the best share of the food Saekrae brought. She did nothing to stop it. It was always the way for one chick to be stronger than the others.
She did not give the chicks names, either. Chicks as young as they were rarely all survived to a year old, and it was bad luck to name them too soon.
Saekrae persisted in trying to find food within the valley for a time, but rarely found anything, and in the end she took to going out onto the plains to hunt. It was a good strategy. There was always prey to be found there: big, rich, good-tasting prey. She quickly regained her health and strength, and the chicks thrived. They grew and strengthened, their babyish fluff slowly giving way to proper fur and feathers. The black chick's unusually coloured coat showed no sign of changing; its coarsening fur remained black, and the feathers on its front half were metallic silver. The pointed tufts of feathers that grew over its ears proclaimed it to be male, and Saekrae had no doubt that he would be a powerful adult some day. But it would be a long time before he or his siblings were completely independent. Still, Saekrae had no doubt that with this new source of food she could rear them to adulthood.
And then, quite suddenly, it wasn't there any more. She flew over the plains again, headed for the spot where the prey always gathered, and it wasn't there. When she ranged further she still found nothing. The landscape began to change: there were patches of trees here and there, and strange outcrops of rock poking up out of the soil. They were oddly shaped and did not look like any rocks she had seen before. Plants grew here that she did not recognise. But there was no food. Eventually, hungry and exhausted, she was forced to fly back. Griffins were not built for long-distance flying, and if she went on she would be too tired to get back to the valley.
Things did not improve on the next day, or the next. She made a few kills, but only sporadically, and the huge herds she had fed on before were gone. She flew far and wide over the plains and did find other herds there, but they were far away, too far for her to carry a kill back to her nest. In the end she was forced to eat what she caught on the spot and carry whatever she could back to her chicks.
It was not enough. Little by little, as the weeks went by and food remained scarce, she saw them beginning to starve. One of the brown chicksthe only female of the broodweakened very quickly. She had already been the feeblest of the chicks, and now that there was not enough food to go around, the other two were quick to bully and steal food from her. Saekrae knew she would not survive long. But after a time, when Saekrae, too, was beginning to be in danger of starvation, the other of the brown chicks weakened as well. The black chick, still the strongest of them all, did rather better and even began to bully it as well. Saekrae had never seen a chick with so much will to live.
And then, one day, she returned to the nest to find both brown chicks dead.