Sharp rocks cut Eve's bare feet as she ran. She climbed and stumbled over boulders and rocks, always keeping her eyes on the dark spot high up in the sky.
They couldn't take him. Not now. Not after all she'd done to stay hidden, stay safe.
The edge of the ridge appeared through her tear-stricken vision. She tripped over the first step downwards, managing to catch herself on the rusty railing. She flung herself down them with all caution of heights thrown to the wind.
Down in the crater a cabin appeared. Painted grey to blend in with the stone walls that loomed all around it.
The shadow overhead grew, as an ear-piercing shriek filled the air.
Eve sobbed, skipping the last two steps to sprint as best she could over the rocky bottom of the crater. Her hair fluttered in the still air as she passed.
The shadow grew closer.
Her heart beat faster.
She wouldn't let her children die too. She wouldn't.
Eve looked into the basket proffered to her on the table. A few potatoes from their dried out garden, some wilted dandelion roots for tea, and a dead pheasant.
She looked up into the face of her oldest son, Magnus. His black eyes glittered like coals in the sallow skin of his face.
"It’s what I could find," he said, taking the bird in his hands, "There should be some good meat on the bird.”
"It's alright" - she picked up the potatoes, offering a wan smile and ignoring the rumbling in her stomach - "we'll make it work."
Eve sat outside peeling the potatoes into a pot. The grim, high walls of the volcano crater rose around her, and the sun peaked out from behind sparse clouds. Eve glanced at the sky, ever watchful of what could be perched on the rim.
Not far off Mathias squealed, toddling around with pebbles clenched in his hands.
Back inside, Magnus hummed while he worked. A dull rumbling that filled her head with idle tune. She looked over her shoulder at him as he bent to pick something off the floor.
He looked more like his father every day. Broad and sturdy. But he was too thin. His hands knotty with showing bone.
She walked inside and dropped the peeled potatoes in a pot over the fire. The flames crackled happily, licking at the rocks hemming them in. A bit of boiling water splashed up and hit her arms, and she flinched, dropping the last of them into the fire.
Without hesitating, Magnus set down what he was holding and reached his hand into the fire, pulling out the blackened potato. He dropped it into the pot.
Mathias squealed, “BUTTERFLY!” outside.
Eve watched Magnus' hand. The skin that had burned away in the fire revealed shimmering black scales, iridescent like raven's feathers. She reached out and stroked them with her thumb, flakes of burnt skin coming away under her hand.
"You could have left it," she said.
Magnus blinked at her, pulling his hand back, shaking off the remaining dead skin, "Food is scarce enough."
He sat down and poked the fire with their iron rod.
"We can't stay here much longer," he said, glaring into the flames.
Eve crouched down beside him, her plain grey dress falling over her knees. She could see the shape of long teeth under the taut skin of Magnus' face.
She didn't know what to say. That it was true? That they were going to leave? They were all too thin. She looked down at his clawed hand, unsheathed from its small human disguise. Sometimes she wondered if she brought her sons here because she feared them and what they might do to the world. A rogue thought she squished.
"I understand why you want to stay, but Mom," he said seriously, "we can't keep scrounging for every meal. We'll become cannibals at this rate... let me fly out."
"You can't go out," Eve said, "we must stay here, where it's safe."
"Safe from them," Magnus said, "but Mathias and I deserve more than this.”
Eve looked out the door. All she saw was grey. She stood.
Magnus stared up at her, hand clenched around the fire poker. His pupils contracted, and a bit of his hair twitched. "I don't want to die in the bottom of a stinking pit.”
The scar on Eve's leg throbbed. The phantom smell of deep-fried feathers filled her nose and made her eyes water. She remembered the sound He made when he fell. How the trees shook, and the phantom cries of burning flesh filled the air.
"It's not safe," she whispered.
Magnus scoffed, a sound that was almost a hiss, "Of course."
As her children sat around the fire and ate, Eve sipped some tea. Her stomach rumbled, and her back ached. All she had was a small potato to nibble on. But it was enough, because the rest was smeared greasy over Maithas's face and fingers, and Magnus licking his plate clean.
It felt like a long time ago that she'd left that burning field. Even longer since she'd seen grass. Lain spread eagle over the soft carpet of the earth.
And when she thinks of grass, she thinks of when they came... she was pregnant with Mathias at the time, a six year old Magnus sleeping back at the cottage. Bugs flitted through her hair, and the grass waved all around her.
Dredus worked with the sheep when the weather permitted, his back to her. He could move the whole herd with a flick of his fingers, like a sheep dog flicking its ears.
Eve enjoyed watching him. She fancied imagining a time when there were still small villages to burn, and princesses to save. Knights that rode after vast winged dragons, thinking to boost their ego with a kill.
Dredus wasn't a particularly handsome man; old scarred features, and rough hands. But he was calm. He didn't raise his voice, and as he watched the grass burning under his feet he promised to build. He'd kiss her and tell her he'd grow her a garden. That he would learn to create things under his destructive hands.
And he did. He did everything he said he would, and possibly more.
But with dragons came fire, and though he kept his away from her, others were not so kind. The beasts of the world looked to them and narrowed their eyes. What was a human woman doing with a dragon anyway?
The blow hit her fast and sudden. One moment she was leaning back, laughing at the sheep, and the next something pushed passed her, toppling her with its massive weight. A foot landed on her leg, the nail scratching a long cut into the top of her thigh, and she cried out.
Dredus whirled around as the muscled form of wing and mane smashed into him.
A proud beaked, iron coloured griffin with wings the length of semi trucks. It reached out with its arms, slashing and pecking. Ripping away Dredus’ soft human disguise until his scales showed.
"Filllthy dragon!" it screeched in a raggedy voice, "Defiler!"
More griffins landed by the treeline, scattering the sheep under their great shadows. Grey, white, and rusty red, they stalked into the fields like the lions they took after.
Dredus writhed in the grasses, knocking them flat as the long tendrils of his snake-like body curled out of the shredded human skin.
Eve blinked herself out of the memory. She liked thinking about him. Dredus’ memory made her angry enough to forget her constant fear.
But there was only so much strength she could put into the memory of having to watch him die.
Eve wandered the top of the ridge looking for dandelions, an empty basket on her hip. Mathias clambered over the rocks behind her, his hair falling into his eyes.
"Mommy! Mommy wait!"
Eve stooped to remove her shoes before carefully climbing the smooth steep rock. Moving aside the wilting yellow flower to look at the base of the plant growing from a crack in the sheet rock. Roots locked away from grasping fingers. If she wasn't careful, pulling it out would leave all the good bits behind.
The sun, high in the sky, beat upon her back until sweat dripped between her shoulder blades.
She looked over the field of rocks. Then at the sky. The bright clear sky made them sitting ducks. A lump formed in her throat - she’d kept track of griffin flight patterns, and they got closer each day.
"Mathias," she waved, "come look what Mommy found."
Mathias waddled over, dropping some rocks from his fisted hands on the way, "What Mommy?"
Eve put her hand under the flower. Mathias cooed, "Pretty flower!"
Eve took a knife from her pocket. A golden blade with a silver crossbar and cracked leather handle. The sunlight bounced off the blade, tarnished with use.
She reached down to try and dig up the flower.
A shadow appeared overhead. A cool breeze wafted over her sweaty face. She sighed with relief, then stilled.
“A bird!” Mathias said, pointing.
Her stomach clenched. She whirled around as a high shrill sound pierced her ears. She was knocked aside as the body of the griffin swooped passed her, claws outstretched for -
Mathias stood frozen, fear in his face, "Mommy?!"
Eve jumped to her feet as the griffin flew passed. But she wasn't fast enough. As she lashed out with her knife it caught only a swish of air and hair on the end of its long tail.
Mathias screamed, wriggling in the griffin's claws.
This couldn't be happening. It couldn't. this place was supposed to be safe!
Eve ran after the slowly disappearing shape. Squinting against the harsh light of the sun.
"Magnus!" her feet scraped the bottom of the stairs as she flung herself towards the cabin. “Mathias!”
The door of the cabin flew open, along with a jet of fire. Magnus tumbled out of the flames, with face and chest a mess of blood, skin, and solid scale. Long angular wings sprouted from his back.
Behind him, the golden flickering eyes of a second griffin appeared; it’s white and brown molted feathers mingling with the smoke and burning wood. The whole cabin creaked as it forced its bulk through the small opening.
"Magnus!" Eve shrieked again. She gripped the knife tight in her hand. Sprinting for all her worth.
She wouldn’t sit this one out. Not like last time. She wasn't going to let some stupid, biased chickens take her children.
"Little abominnnation!" the griffin screeched.
Magnus' wings shuddered. Fire licked along his clothes and skin, and his frills started to spread. Long jagged fangs broke through the thin skin of his face. He rose, taller, and taller, with a rumbled, “Finally.”
With a cry of rage Eve whirled passed the unfurling form of Magnus. She shot headlong into the barrel chest of the grey griffin, curling her knife in a vengeful arc to drive it into its feathers.
The thing squacked, looking down at her in surprise. It opened its mouth to strike, but was knocked sideways with such force its neck went wild with whiplash.
The air hissed as Magnus passed, and feathers burned into the griffin's skin as the weight of the dragon pressed down on it.
Magnus roared, opening his mouth wide to scoop up the griffin's whole head in his jaws. They closed with a sickening crunch.
He was bigger than she’d ever imagined. Long and arched, with wings that spread like an ash-ridden smog above her.
She shook where she stood.
Magnus tilted his big head up and scanned the sky.
The second griffin, and faded yellow thing with a scar on its face crashed to the ground near them. A small black shape flung from underneath it, running like a miffed cat.
Mathias jumped at her, wrapping himself around her legs. He too, was dragon now. His juvenile spines quivered along his back, and he looked up at her with wet eyes.
The scarred griffin eyed Magnus up and down.
“Welll, Dredus’ little whellpp,” it said.
Eve wobbled, sweating. Magnus stomped over her, his scaled stomach easily clearing her head. He charged the second griffin, rearing back and spreading his wings with a roar that shook Eve's heart and ribs.
The griffin rose onto its hind legs.
But Magnus was bigger. The sheer weight of him knocked the griffin flat, crushing under him with a sickening crack.
Eve let out a sob. Mathias rubbed his head against her legs, keeping her from toppling to the ground.
This wasn’t how it was supposed to be - she was supposed to keep them safe… But how could she? A human woman with a knife against these things? Her constant fear made her weak.
Magnus turned to look at the burning cabin, then at her, “Are you alright Mom?”
"You did well, my sons," Eve said, hesitantly stroking the huge head of Magnus, while Mathias curled around her where she sat.
Her knife balanced on her knee.
"Now we will leave," Magnus muttered, his huge body shaking. She could just barely see it under the sun's final, bloody rays.
Eve looked over the two dead griffins, and the cabin, still blazing with fire. Her heart thudded uncomfortably slow, reminding her just how close she'd come to losing the only people left close to her.
Mathias licked his lips. Even without his human disguise, his ribs showed, and his neck was ribbed with veins.
The tip of Magnus' wing came to rest behind her, hiding the flaming wreck from view.
Her stomach rumbled.
“We can’t always hide,” Magnus said. He tilted his head to stare her in the eye. “Let me take us somewhere else. Somewhere beautiful. Somewhere with food.”
Eve took a moment to marvel at him. His eye that was easily as big as her hand. He was so big like this, scary and intimidating, not at all like Dredus, or even Mathias. His eyes were still small. Still her son.
“But what about -” she started.
Magnus huffed, startling Mathias from a dazed sleep. Smoke rose from his nostrils. “They’ll stop coming after we keep killing them,” he said. “It won’t take them long to realize who's got the upper hand.”
“I’m the one supposed to be taking care of you,” Eve’s voice quavered. In reality, she had no idea how she was supposed to do that, but it had to be worth something to say it. “A Mother watches out for her children.”
“And that’s what you’ve done,” Magnus nudged Mathias with his tail, “We are both still alive, aren’t we?”
Mathias stretched, looking up at them, “Food, Mommy?”
Eve closed her eyes. She knew that even if they left, even if they hunted down every last griffin, that nothing would change. If not griffins, then humans; equally as hard to please. They’d come after her family with pitchforks, yelling something like “witch!”.
“The others will come looking for them,” she said as a way of giving in, motioning to the two griffin’s bodies.
She stood, looking out over the shadowy crater now devoid of sunlight. Both Magnus and Mathias watched her.
It would have to work… somehow. She owed Dredus just enough to try.
“We can go,” she said, looking at the phantom shape of stone stairs far ahead.
Mathias shot to his feet, already zipping off into the darkness. “We can get snack!” he shrieked.
Eve’s stomach twisted. She couldn’t see him… she wanted to see him, always.
Magnus knelt down, offering his back, “Let me carry you.”
Once astride Magnus’ back, the two headed off towards the rim of the crater. Not exactly into the sunset, because the sun had long enough shut its eye on them, but following Mathias’ gleeful shouting, tinted with the hiss of his dragon tongue.
Nothing had changed. Not really. Eve saw it as another day in a long line of days… this one just a touch harder.
So she cast a prayer to the wind under her breath. A half hearted hope to keep them all safe.