The Grounded Sphinx
A young sphinx finds herself in a bit of a mess...
A short story about Ciph the sphinx and her first encounter with someone. Takes place more than 10 years before the main story of "The Moth and the Bear book I."
Content warnings: very mild blood, language, off-screen violence.
The stark bang of a closing iron trap shook Ciph from her thoughts and sent her leaping into the air a split second too late. The fire of pain shot through her body like a lightning strike.
The foliage all around was suddenly too close, grabbing, tangling. Her paw was caught fast. Panic spurred her to beat her wings, frantic, and new pain coursed through her wing as her primary feathers caught around a thicket and tangled tight, wrenching her elbow and twisting the joints.
She was stuck.
Her heart was hammering, her body screaming, Fly! Fly, stupid! But the futility of that was growing more apparent by the second. She held herself still, trying to breathe through the panic.
As the initial shock began to wane, Ciph took a moment to absorb what had just happened.
An iron snapjaw trap had closed around her left forepaw, and the reflexive jump she’d taken had wrenched her arm as her wings opened. Now her right wing was hopelessly tangled in the foliage.
This was why her mother had always warned her not to follow game trails, as tempting as the winding paths were. The forest was no place for a sphinx.
Little good that did her, Ciph had always thought, but here she was. Caught in a trap, just as her mother had feared.
This was bad.
Panic rose again, and before Ciph could quell it she struggled against the trap, thrashing and spinning and straining. It was no use, of course. After a moment she tired herself out and went still, crouching stiffly at the end of the trap’s chain and gasping for breath in the smashed-down grass.
It was late in the afternoon, likely late enough that the human who had set this trap wouldn’t be back to check it before dark. Where did that leave her? Well, if a pack of direroden didn’t come sniffing, perhaps by morning Ciph could find a way to get out of this mess.
She shut her eyes for a moment, bracing herself. She hadn’t yet been able to look at her paw, fearing what she’d see. Cautiously, she opened her eyes and peered down at it.
There wasn’t much blood, which surprised her. The jaws were clamped just below her wrist, and the iron teeth were gouging deep ruts into her flesh, but the teeth weren’t very sharp and most of the pain was coming from the pressure, not punctures. She reached over with her free paw and gave a tentative pull on one side of the trap, but it was shut tighter than a drake’s jaws.
She shifted, bringing a hind foot up to brace against the trap, and gave it a firmer tug, to no avail.
Well, the trap was anchored to the ground, perhaps she could untie it. She tried to limp over to the anchor, but her tangled wing kept her from reaching it. If she hadn’t panicked when the trap snapped shut, she could probably have dug the anchor out of the earth.
She was going to have to pry open the trap.
Ciph huffed, set her ears determinedly, and tried again. And again. And again. The sun set, the sky darkened, and she kept tugging and pulling and moving about, trying to find the right leverage to pry the trap open.
Finally, Ciph had to lay down and rest. Perhaps she wasn’t strong enough to brute-force her way out. She’d have to think it through.
The trap consisted of a pair of jaws, alongside two wing-like levers that had pushed the jaws closed. If she could compress the levers, the jaws would slide open. The problem was that she only had one free paw, and with her wing tangled up, she couldn’t bring her foot around to the right angle to step on the other lever.
So… what now?
Ciph sighed, laying her head down on her arm. She had heard tales of creatures gnawing their own feet off to escape these traps, would she have to do the same? Her stomach turned, but something deep in the back of her mind twinged readily at the thought, and Ciph knew she would do it if she had to.
She prayed to the gods she wouldn’t have to.
Perhaps in the morning light she’d be able to think of something more clever.
By morning Ciph’s muscles were aching terribly. Panic had dulled the initial pain, but she’d yanked her arm very hard when the trap was first sprung, and her tangled wing wasn’t happy either. Everything felt sore, including her brain. There’d been no sleeping through the discomfort.
Still, there was work to be done.
Ciph took another look at the trap, hoping daylight would illuminate some little pin she could pull, or a screw she could twist. She fiddled with the levers, trying to find a way to squeeze down one and then the other, but that didn’t work. Her paw wasn’t strong enough, nor the weight of her body heavy enough, to compress them both at the same time.
Then she heard voices on the wind, and she looked up.
The owners of the trap, most likely. There were two, both men, one short and scruffy and the other lanky and blond. They stood watching from the other side of the glade, whispering to each other and pointing. They had a sly manner about them, like zatels eyeing up a pheasant’s nest.
Ciph growled low in her throat, tail lashing. It had to be obvious to them she was trapped and helpless, but still they were slow to approach. Well, small as humans were, it was caution that likely kept them alive in this dangerous country.
Finally they made their way towards Ciph, steps crunching quietly in the spring grass.
"No horns, see?” the short trapper said, gesturing to Ciph’s head. “Young, then."
The blond trapper glanced up at the sky warily. “That means the mother may be nearby.”
“We should hurry, then.”
“Can you speak?” the blond trapper asked Ciph.
Ciph swallowed back a hiss, steadying herself. “Yes,” she croaked.
The trappers frowned at each other.
"Should we…?" the short trapper grumbled.
A chill wind shuddered the trees, and the blond trapper scratched his chin. “If it can walk on its own two feet, perhaps… but it’s going to struggle. Sphinx don’t take to being led. We’d need more men either way. It’s almost as big as one of our garjen.”
"We could go and come back…"
"And walk right into the mother's claws? I think not. We should take what we can and go quickly."
Take? Ciph wondered in horror, looking between the trapper’s faces. Take what?
The short trapper shrugged. "I'm just saying, I know a noble who'd pay more for a sphinx pelt than we make in a year."
"Too much trouble. If they'd pay for the pelt, they'll pay for… let's see…" the blond trapper looked Ciph over, as though appraising a hunk of meat. "The tail, the paws, some feathers certainly. Perhaps the wings entire, if we can conceal them."
Ciph’s fur prickled.
“We could each carry one under our coats, I think,” the short trapper suggested. “At least until we get back to camp.”
“Well, best get started, then.” The blond trapper raised a crossbow from behind his back, leveling it right at Ciph’s face.
Ciph balked, eyes wide, but she couldn’t bring herself to beg, not to these creatures. Instead, she looked the trapper in his cold gray eyes, bared her fangs, and hissed.
He hesitated, swallowing, and suddenly his shorter companion gripped his arm to get his attention.
“What? The mother?” the blond trapper whispered, cringing down and looking up at the sky, but that wasn’t where the danger was.
The shorter trapper was looking behind, back across the glade. He whimpered.
Ciph followed his gaze, and almost laughed.
As if she didn’t have enough problems already.
Ciph had seen Kanai before, but always from on the wing or a high vantage point. She’d thought of them as sort of wingless, giant sphinx, and she attributed their bad tempers and grim senses of humor to being grounded like humans were. Who could blame them?
But she’d never been stuck on the ground with them before.
There were three, young, watching from the other side of the glade. They were all staring at the human trappers in the eager, predatory way hunters did when they’d spotted prey. The air itself seemed to still in response, a hush falling over the forest.
The trappers clearly knew how doomed they were.
The blond one suddenly bolted, diving into the brush like a mink into water. His companion fretted aimlessly in dismay for a breath, looking about him as though anything in the vicinity could save him, then fled into the forest in another direction.
The Kanai all lunged forward, two after one trapper and one after the other, and vanished to either side, out of Ciph’s sight. She crouched down, hoping desperately that her spots had concealed her in the grass and none of them would come sniffing.
They’d all looked to be youngsters. Ciph’s mother had warned her the children were far more dangerous than adults.
For a few tense moments, Ciph lay there listening to the wind pick back up and rustle the leaves. Could she be so lucky?
But soon approaching footsteps rumbling in the earth told Ciph that staying concealed had been too much to hope for. She sat up, trying to quell her racing heart and settle her puffed-up feathers. She’d meet this with as much dignity as she could muster.
Being friendly with Kanai was said to be a good habit. They were reliable foresters, careful time-keepers, and often willing to share food in exchange for knowledge, especially of their own kin in distant territories. Ciph and her mother had attended many Kanai festivals and gatherings over the years, but always at a sensible distance.
Being friendly was a good habit, but so was staying well out of reach.
Unfortunately, there was no staying out of reach with one paw in a foot-hold trap and one wing tangled in a bush.
A fourth Kanai appeared in the glade. No less a child than the others, but her demeanor was different. Unlike the first three, this one seemed… tired? Miffed? Not so eager, anyway. She sighed heavily and stood up on her back legs to look around, peering over the trees for signs of the others. She sniffed the air, and then her eyes fell on Ciph.
The Kanai blinked curiously, tilted her head, and fell back onto all fours. The earth shook.
Ciph’s dignity went up in smoke as the Kanai loped forward, eyes bright. With each step closer the ground trembled.
Finally, as the Kanai came close, Ciph couldn’t stand it anymore. “Stay back!” she snarled, fur and feathers all standing on end.
The Kanai paused, raising a quizzical round eyebrow, and smirked. “Aren’t you stuck?”
“Of course not.”
“You look pretty stuck to me.”
Ciph’s tail lashed, rustling the dead grass.
“It’s alright,” said the Kanai. “I want to help you.”
Glaring silently, Ciph considered this. She thought of the trappers, and the other Kanai that had run after them. Would those Kanai be back to chase her next? Would they be as polite as this one if they found her still bound as she was?
“Fine,” Ciph grumbled. “Some help would be… appreciated.”
The Kanai smiled, bowing her head, then approached. She sniffed the ground, looking the trap over. “Ah, one of the snapping kinds. I see.”
The Kanai shuffled closer, looming over Ciph like a mountain. Panic again begged Ciph to beat her wings and fight with everything she had to escape, but through sheer force of will she managed to stay still. The Kanai lay down, which made her seem no less enormous, and reached for the trap with both hands.
“The trick is to pinch these side parts, see? It makes it open,” the Kanai said gently, pointing to the lever arms on each side of the trap.
Ciph watched the claws as they came closer. They put her own little thorns to shame.
“Here, I’ll pinch them,” said the Kanai, “you pull your hand out. Are you ready?”
Ciph couldn’t find her voice, but she nodded.
The Kanai gripped the levers between her claws, careful not to shift the trap too much as she held it, then squeezed.
The jaws of the trap loosened, and Ciph pulled out her paw.
Fear, for a moment, drove the thought of her tangled wing from Ciph’s mind, and she thrashed backwards in an abrupt and undignified bid for freedom.
“Whoa! Stop! Stop!” The Kanai sat up and grabbed the ensnaring tree to hold it steady. “You’re still stuck! Hold still!”
Every movement the Kanai made was more frightening than the last. Ciph snarled at her and scrambled madly for purchase, clawing up clumps of grass and beating her trapped wings against the grasping foliage.
Suddenly the Kanai let go of the tree and backed away, ears tucked. Ciph gasped for breath and collapsed in a disheveled pile of leaves and feathers.
Neither of them moved for a moment, and Ciph’s nose caught the sharp scent of fresh blood. She looked herself over, but nothing seemed any more damaged than it was before.
“Sorry,” the Kanai said quietly. “Are you alright?”
Ciph glared at her. The Kanai’s ears were still lowered, her eyes wide. She seemed nervous.
“Oh yes, I’m having a fabulous time. Thank you,” Ciph mumbled.
The Kanai grimaced and lowered her head. “Your wing is so tangled.”
“I can… I can help…”
Ciph snorted, then shifted to sit up. “I can manage, but thank you.” Twisting awkwardly, Ciph reached up to pull at her primary feathers. The tree branches were woven through them with all the durability of a reed basket, and none of the precision. What a mess.
Still, Ciph set her jaw and got to work, picking at the twisted branches and feathers. Her shoulder twinged at an errant motion, and she couldn’t hide the gasp of pain.
“Can I help? Please?” the Kanai begged, leaning forward. “I won’t hurt you, I promise.”
Ciph paused, looking up into the Kanai’s black eyes, and noticed the smell of blood again. She glanced down at the Kanai’s nearby hand and cringed.
Well, her little thorns had found a mark. In all her earlier flailing, Ciph had caught the Kanai’s hand with her claws in a few places. The blood was barely visible in the nearly-black fur, but the sheen of it and the smell was unmistakable.
Ciph sighed, shaking her head. “Fine, fine. You can help, just… be careful. I’ve only got two wings and I’d very much like to keep both.”
The Kanai shuffled closer, reaching tentatively for Ciph’s trapped wing and the entangling branches. Ciph braced herself, expecting to be grabbed the way she’d seen trappers handle their quarry, but the Kanai did nothing of the sort.
Just one of the Kanai’s hands could have wrapped all the way around Ciph’s body, but the creature was very careful. She held the wing with remarkable gentleness, claws brushing delicately over the feathers. Almost too gentle, hesitant, as though afraid.
“This isn’t too bad,” the Kanai murmured, “it’s just that this blightvine is all wrapped up in the branches too. That’s why your feathers don’t want to just slide out.”
“Yes, it’s this plant here.” The Kanai pulled on a strand and tugged it out of the mess, then held it out for Ciph to see. “It’s common in stands like this. It likes to tangle things. You wouldn’t have gotten stuck if it weren’t growing all over this birch tree.”
“I see…” Ciph couldn’t say she was altogether that interested in botany, but it was good to know for future reference. She’d commit the look of the shiny leaves and their planty scent to memory.
The Kanai was making good progress on the wing, faster than Ciph would have guessed. Her long, sickle-shaped claws were making short work of the blightvine, and as she pulled the plants away the feathers were freed one by one.
“Your feathers are so pretty,” the Kanai murmured reverently, almost to herself.
Ciph frowned at her horrendously mangled wing. It looked like a dead animal. “Uh… thanks?”
“I mean, you know… the ones that aren’t messed up.”
“A-actually, even the messed up ones…” The Kanai flushed and shifted awkwardly. “I mean, they’re all… nevermind. Sorry.”
Ciph smiled. What an earnest creature. “I’ll take the compliment. I’m sure I’ll be able to fix them anyway, with enough preening.”
The Kanai looked relieved at this. As she continued delicately extricating the tangled wing, she cocked her head, looking Ciph over again. “Aren’t you kind of small for a sphinx? How old are you?”
Ciph’s nose twitched. She wasn’t actually sure of that, anymore. Not since… well, not for a few years. “Old enough.”
“Old enough for what? Getting killed by poachers?”
“Apparently,” Ciph snorted.
“Well… I’d feel bad leaving you here by yourself. Do you have a family somewhere?”
Ciph sighed and rolled her head to the side. “Somewhere? Probably.”
The Kanai frowned, confused.
“I’ll be alright,” Ciph explained. “I’ve been on my own for awhile, now. I’m used to it.”
“But your wing…”
“It’s fine. It just needs some rest and grooming.”
“But this is the far edge of our territory, it’s not safe for you here. There are a lot of humans.”
“Two fewer now, I should think.”
“Yes, well…” The Kanai rolled her eyes. “Those poachers weren’t alone. You’d be safer further north.”
And with that, the Kanai pulled the last of the tangling branches out of Ciph’s wing. Ciph stumbled a few paces back and spent a moment flexing it, but it was very sore from being stuck and twisted all night. It didn’t want to fold nicely against her body the way it usually did, so she let it hang limply at her side. It looked quite pathetic.
“I can carry you a little ways north, if you want,” the Kanai offered, sitting back on her haunches. “There’s a mountain with a cave that’s hard to reach, you could rest there.”
“I know the one. I… I suppose I have no choice but to accept. But those other Kanai who came before you, do you know them?”
“They’re my brothers, yes. I don’t think they’ll bother you, but if they try to…” A fierce look came into the Kanai’s eyes for a moment, flashing like sun on the water. “I’ll be certain they regret it.”
Ciph chuckled and flicked her tail, equal parts appreciative and intimidated. “Do you think they…” she hesitated, searching for a more delicate word but finding none. “Do you think they ate those poachers?”
“Definitely. They’re probably off looking for the rest of the group now.”
“Oh.” Ciph sat back, surprised at the quick answer. She hadn’t thought Kanai would admit to such things so readily. “Good.”
The Kanai squinted at her, dubious.
“Do you eat a lot of humans?” Ciph asked.
“Me? No. My brothers do. I’ve lost count how many.”
“But you don’t?”
“Not really. It’s weird to eat things that can talk.”
Ciph scoffed. “‘Talk’ is a generous way to describe what humans do. ‘Scheme incessantly’ is more accurate.”
The Kanai chuckled at that.
“Anyway, thanks for the help, and apologies for being so reluctant to accept it. Oh, and also apologies for the, um… the scratches.”
“Oh that’s alright,” the Kanai laughed, looking down at her hand. “I don’t mind. I’m just happy I could help.”
“I’m called Ciph, by the way.”
“Good to meet you, Ciph.” The Kanai turned to smile down at her warmly. “My name is Sliuk.”