One of the little girls with bright green plumage was growing tired. She stomped and flapped and whined, and it made the other children restless.
When you all gathered this way, in the heart of the Nest, it was to be a time of celebration. Your dances were not what they once were, but they were reminder of your continued existence. Every drum, every song, every child, and all of you - you survived when you were not meant to. And, for that, you gave thanks.
Most of you.
Your mate gave only momentary warning of his pause, knowing you'd salvage his half-finished thought. Revels were your time of strategy, as all others; you gathered to tell Ini and Shrike of the violence humans still committed beyond the safety of your walls. He told the others why they could not follow him. Not the way you did.
"What's wrong? Hm?" Borra swept the child into his arm before Udo rose to protest. "Are you sleepy, little thing? Getting cold?"
You certainly weren't the only one that felt a pang at the sight of him with his broad wings splayed, rubbing warmth into the soft flesh of the child's upper arm. She curled into him, still whining, and one of those rare smiles (rarer for others than you, you supposed) revealed the sharpness of his teeth. He boosted her, allowing her to hold on to the straps of his armor like she was his own.
"Do you think your teacher is the only one who can tell you stories?" he asked the now-silent children.
They watched him, rapt. They knew so little of him, as they should. He would do everything in his power to keep them from being involved in any battle, becoming the casualties of any war.
Your people were sacred; your children above all.
He lowered near them, crouched near Udo. The warmth of his skin comforted the tired little one.
"I've been to the skies beyond," he whispered theatrically, as though the children were a part of his quiet conspiracy just as you, Ini, and Shrike. "Nights like these, the stars glint and gleam. Even among the clouds."
"What do they look like?" one eager child asked.
Their teacher's tension had begun to ease. Let him tell them stories of wild earth, as long as he told them nothing more.
"The sky is a great blanket of darkness," at that, he spread his wings. His dark plumage nearly engulfed them, blocking out the light of their parents' fire from them and the light of Udo's from the others. "So black it seems as though she'll swallow you. But the stars are everywhere, like embers trailing one another on the smoke of a dying flame."
There are so many of them, you thought in amendment, that you saw strange beasts reflected in their gaze.
"The clouds – have you ever felt one? They're a mist of ice, closely gathered. Passing through them leaves a cold, morning's dew on your skin. Feels good in your wings."
They listened with their eyes locked upon him, and you thought for a moment how wonderful it would've been to fly with one of them between you – no poachers, no endangered moor-folk, only the twinkle of stars and the breath of the wind.
He told them of rivers, true rivers, how they changed from stone to sand with time. He told them of the fierce heat of the uncovered sun, the temperate cool of the forest, the ice of the sea at night and how it warmed with the day. Strange creatures lurked within it, brightly colorful and strangely shaped.
"Strange creatures walk the earth, too."
He told them of a fox without giving them its name. The porcupine and the bandit. He told them of the sound of birdsong (and it displeased you immensely that he didn't try to mimic the sound, so you did, and the strange, trilling sound you made sent many into giggles). He told them of the apex of cliffs, the high, prairie grasses that grew freely with sedge. The taste of sweet, fresh harvest grain.
"And I will give it all to you," he whispered to them, resuming his conspiratorial tone. "All of that and more. Just give me time."
"Borra," Udo interjected, his voice quiet and calm like the stirring of snow-crystals on an arctic wind.
"Stay here," he continued, "Learn from your teacher, and when I am old – like Conall," the children twittered again, "you will have command of the skies. That, I swear to you."
"That's enough, Borra."
Despite his gesturing, and the pictures he'd painted so vividly in the low rumble of his voice, the child in his arms had gone to sleep. He unwound her fingers gently, touched his horns to hers, and passed her into the arms of one of the older children for safekeeping.
He straightened, slowly, rising to his full height. With his great wingspan and the tall points of his horns, he was unmistakably imposing, and yet you knew that even as the reverence in his face gave way to the warrior's hardness, no child would be afraid.
"It's not an empty promise," he said to Udo almost casually, as though that was enough to be left to linger.
You watched them as he returned, intimately aware of the eyes of Conall and your elders – their disapproval at your lack of shame.
They had fighting spirits, each and every last one of them. You saw it in the new shine of their eyes, their renewed interest in study.
They would grow to reclaim the skies again. You would see it.
"Where were we?" he asked, drawing the three of you from your thoughts.
"The fortress," you replied. "Men at its spires."
You would not set anything into motion tonight. You caught yourself glancing back at the children again, watching the little one sleep in the arms of one that could have been her sister.
One that hadn't failed to return your gaze even as Udo returned them to kinder, softer stories.