By the next morning, the ground had dried out enough that the mud had turned into damp earth, which caused Fortren to be somewhat happier about the impending journey.
He had been roused from a peaceful, yet restless slumber sometime in the wee hours, made to eat a breakfast of wild hare, fresh fish and cranberries, and firmly guided to the landing area, by which time he was finally fully awake. He looked around, and found he was only the second gryphon there. "You could have let me sleep in a bit longer," Fortren protested.
His father grinned, tousling his son's crest feathers with his beak. "I wouldn't want you to miss out on your first overseas experience."
"Oh, that joke was awful," Fortren groaned, shaking his head. Seeing something out of the corner of his eye, he turned to see Alla and her parents arrive. "I see they got you up early as well," he said by way of greeting, strolling over and giving a very quick preen of her ear tufts.
Alla's nares flushed pink, and she ruffled her wing feathers with embarrassment, murmuring to him, "Not in front of our parents." Fortren only replied, "Well, they'd better get used to it." He chuckled quietly after that statement. He glanced at their parents, and noticed that they had their heads turned away, as if studying something of fascination. "Never mind," he said. "We've got more company."
Alla turned to see Rizarra arrive, and, almost directly behind her, the rather purple Keltin. "Rizarra, how nice it is to see you this morning," Alla greeted, oozing her own particular style of snideness. Rizarra heard, and changed direction towards her.
"Pity I can't say the same to you, Alla," Rizarra replied, stressing the name with a supercilious tone. She turned her head to regard Fortren. "Well, I'm sure we'll get on just great together," she said sweetly, with a hint of a sneer. Fortren's hackles puffed up, his feathers standing out from his skin. "Yes, I quite agree," he replied, grinding his beak in a gesture of irritation. A whole two weeks I have to spend with this pompous creature? he thought to himself.
As if she had picked the very thought out of his mind, Rizarra said, "A whole fourteen days with your favourite gryphon, namely myself." She gryph-grinned in a snobbish way, and turned her back to return to her companion, Keltin.
"She didn't have to rub it in," complained Fortren. His feathers slowly settled back into their normal places as he calmed down.
Over the next hour or so, other gryphons arrived, either singly or in twos and threes, until the landing area was once again packed. After several minutes of loud chatter, Galmin appeared and, standing on a large rock at the side, waited for the crowd to take notice. When the talk had died down he began speaking again, mainly a repeat of the previous day's speech.
"Now, does everyone understand their instructions?" he asked at the end. A quiet chorus of affirmative replies came back to him. "All right then. If we could just clear the area for Sinclan's team to get ready..." Galmin pointed to a pile of large packs that had been placed at the side of the landing area.
When a sufficiently large enough space had been opened, Sinclan stepped forward, and with a gesture of impatience waved for his team of youngsters to get their packs on their backs. When that had been done, with the help of others, there were a few moments of haggling over who was going to leave first, then Fortren flapped his wings hard, ran a few feet, and lifted off the ground. Having gained enough height, he hovered above the ground, waiting for the rest to join him.
"Go on with you, now!" prompted Sinclan as he managed to propel himself up to their level. A couple of gryphons began to fly off, until Sinclan yelled after them, "Southwest is that way," pointing in the proper direction. Their nares bright red, they turned and followed the group, which was now ahead of them. "Silly gryphlets," mumbled Sinclan to himself, bringing up the rear.
Fortren slowed down and, with some difficulty, turned his head to watch with his keen eyes Alla's group depart, following several kilometres behind. He turned back to view the terrain ahead, and sighed. This would be a long, boring flight.
It took nearly four days to finally finally reach the Southern Continent, making landfall on the long narrow peninsula known as Cape Hypri. Once there, the three groups spent a day together before going their separate ways.
Fortren had never flown so far or so long in his life. Through the pain and exhaustion, he looked down at the terrain he was flying over, and suddenly realised that this was actually...thrilling, in a strange sort of way. Hundreds of metres below him stretched huge expanses of rainforest, teaming with plants and animals he had never heard of, and bathed in extreme humidity, Through it all meandered a river or two, dirty and brown, but home to more species than he could shake a talon at.
To his right, as they flew onwards toward the distant mountains, Fortren could identify fjords, deep inlets carved by massive glaciers long ago, and framed on all sides by rocky cliffs and lush vegetation. If he strained his eyes to their limit of sharpness, he could even make out the shapes of dolphins leaping through the water in one of those narrow sounds.
Fortren sighed. All these new sights... Being so far from the sea, and so far north, the gryphons of Plains Aerie rarely saw anything exotic. The only other rainforests in the north were near East Rivki, covering the southern most part of the Northern Continent; the coast was relatively featureless, no ancient valleys flooded by the sea; and dolpins were limited to the warm waters of the tropics.
Hour after hour they flew, and Fortren continued to marvel at new sights. Over the rush of wind he could hear others' exclamations, and he grinned to himself. Then he remembered the fortnight ahead, and his grin vanished.
It was just past noon on the second day of flying west when Sinclan and his team reached their destination, a small fertile valley in the lower flanks of Mount Stuli, one of the shorter peaks in the Bandari range. Around the rim were a number of caves, easily enough to accommodate their group of twenty-one.
As they swooped in for a landing, Fortren could see a few gryphons standing around, seemingly waiting for them. Upon touchdown, one of Fortren's forelegs snagged on a large rock he hadn't seen, and he sprawled beak-first in the valley's dirt. A chorus of amused laughter greeted his ears as he pulled himself upright.
His nares flushing red with extreme embarrassment, Fortren mustered as much dignity as was left, shrugged off his pack, with some help from Bella, who was nice enough to hide her amusement, though her eyes sparkled with mirth, and waited patiently for something to happen.
When all were down, their packs off, Sinclan greeted the leader of the disciplinary group already present. "Tolkin, good to see you again. These little hell-raisers cause any trouble?" Sinclan's gaze swept over the current occupants, arrayed behind Tolkin.
Tolkin gryph-grinned and chuckled wryly. "No more than usual. I see Rizarra's paying another visit," he remarked as he looked over Sinclan's shoulder to survey his lot of miscreants. Rizarra turned away from his gaze, intently studying a nearby bush, covered in blooms of mauve, her favourite colour.
Sinclan growled lightly, turning his head to glance at her, then back at Tolkin. "Yes, well, you know how she is, always making trouble where none exists." He cleared his throat then said, "Now, if you could show us where to drink? I'm sure all of us are quite thirsty," gesturing to the gryphons behind him, who had initiated idle chatter amongst themselves. A few replies of confirmation drifted out of the babble.
"Yes, of course. Just follow that path over there." Tolkin pointed with one talon at a well-worn trail winding out of the valley. "And about fifteen minutes flight south you'll find a plentiful source of game. Deer, mainly, but you'll find a few herds of cattle every now and then." As an afterthought he added, "If you desire seafood, then I'm sure you know to find it in the ocean?" Tolkin chuckled at his joke.
Sinclan glared at Tolkin, then shook his head. "Your humour hasn't improved much, I see." He turned his back to Tolkin and addressed his group. "Alright, listen up!" When all talk had died down, he said, "Those of you who are utterly dying of thirst, follow that path there. The rest of you can help set up camp."
A controlled rush of gryphons followed Sinclan's declaration, and within a minute or two only four gryphons remained.
"Right, you four! Pick up some packs and get moving. Those caves over there." Sinclan gestured impatiently. He turned back to Tolkin. "I'd imagine you would be off now."
Tolkin hmmed. "Yes, I think so. Come on you lot!" he yelled to his team, already prepared. "We've wasted enough time."
As his gryphons started taking off, Tolkin said to Sinclan, "Nice seeing you again, old fellow." He clapped a taloned foreleg on Sinclan's shoulder. "Good luck."
Sinclan watched with grim amusement as Tolkin launched himself after the last of his gryphons. "Old fellow, indeed!" he muttered to himself. "Sixty is hardly old." Glancing back at the four shifting packs, he admonished them for taking their time and, looking around for the biggest cave, he set off in that direction, anxious to rest his aching body, grumbling as he went.
Fortren looked down into the clear running water of the stream he and the rest had been directed to. It wasn't very deep, only about a metre and a half in the middle, but it was enough to soothe away some of the aches and pains of long hours of travelling, and slake one's thirst. He put his head down, and scooped up a beakful of the icy mountain water, letting it run down his parched throat.
He almost choked on it when a shriek of disgust rent the still mountain air. He turned to see a female thrashing her way out of the stream, spraying everyone nearby with water, while a few gryphons laughed at her predicament.
"Haven't you ever seen an eel before?" jeered a male, Titan, Fortren thought him to be.
"Not that size!" squealed the victim, Rhania, who now stood on the bank dripping water and shivering. A perceptible red colouring suffused her nares, and she turned and stalked away down the path toward the valley, not wanting to be the butt of another male-originated joke.
Titan, and another whom Fortren was barely familiar with, congratulated themselves loudly. Titan had found in a hole in the far bank a large black eel, much larger than those back home, and, with a deft flick of his foreleg, thrown it at Rhania, who was innocently looking in the opposite direction. She had received a terrible shock, as she wasn't overly fond of anything that lived in rivers, and had reacted as they thought she would, with a nice satisfying shriek.
Really, thought Fortren, going back to his contemplation of the water and what lay beneath its surface. I'm sure Sinclan will put such active minds to good use.
His reverie was broken by the order to come back and assemble in the valley. He sighed, and once again found himself thinking, Is it worth it?