Book 3 Ch 1-3

Son of Eaglefriend (The Tale of Eaglefriend Book Three)

 

Chapter One – The Two Princes

 

Evinn often held back when he sparred with Vethros. It wasn’t so much to spare his cousin injury to body or pride, but rather an instinctive submission he’d developed growing up alongside the future king. The hierarchy into which they’d been born was as inescapable as the dense cloud of foes to their north, and the hostile hordes just south of the Silver River. He knew his place well—always a step beneath and half an inch shorter.

“Your thrust needs work, Little Brother,” Vethros laughed with a sweep of the Crystal Spear against the steel head of his own. “But enough about your late-night activities in the city—let’s discuss your combat skills as well.”

“You’re assuming our goals are the same,” Evinn replied, smiling through a parry of Vethros’s counterattack. “You always go straight for the kill. Pure gratification, no patience or restraint. If Father has tried to teach us anything, it’s that the outcome not immediately before you is worth striving for.”

“Eaglefriend’s word counts for little in this city!” The name was spewed like an epithet as Commander Peln scolded over his shoulder, mounted on a carrier that flapped its wings nervously. “If only your father had been with us when his father fell.” Their ill-tempered instructor gestured at Vethros, who tried to ignore the remarks. “Then he’d drill the same order into you that I’ve tried to for the past year: KILL! Kill the enemy at first sight, until you see them no more. Those few of us left who will ever know what it is to be a true Eaglemaster curse that infamous mission he pursued all alone. What did it bring the realms of men but the plague of the Pyrnaq, and a childish philosophy of mercy toward creatures incapable of showing the same?”

“He didn’t go alone!” Evinn petulantly spat in a backward glance, before Vethros recalled his attention with a hard swat to the head. Raising his guard again, he was tempted to remind the commander exactly who decided which teachings were permitted at this particular city, but she was perfectly able to do so herself and chose not to speak out in such fashion.

His mother occupied her usual place in his periphery, quietly overseeing the young trainees from atop the walls that stretched like pale skin with dozens of birthmarks. The sun-bleached perimeter battlements were blotted where ferotaur and shrieker skulls had hung until he was a small boy. One of his earliest memories was the sight of those trophies mounted to embolden their citizenry and frighten potential invaders, and then one day they were suddenly all gone, a removal that only his mother could authorize. When he asked her why she had, she said the display upset his father and dishonored the memory of someone he’d once known. Furthermore, she explained in words he would never forget: It’s time our people evolved, and that means not staring so hard at the past that the future never comes into focus.

Commander Peln felt at liberty to provoke him in her presence because of her abandonment of another old tradition, though no one wished to reclaim it: the deployment of aspiring soldiers into the Ferotaur Wildlands. Back when youths of the realm could still become Eaglemasters, they would have to prove worthy of such a station by triumphing beside their comrades deep within enemy territory. But today, even if there were any free eagles left to pursue in the mountains behind their capital, they could never risk such a battle and hope to see a soul return for their prize. Instead, he and his brothers-in-arms were stranded to fend for themselves under a belligerent mentor nostalgic for a bygone age, when home wasn’t crumbling from all sides. Some Eaglemasters simply preferred not to let the future come into clear view, since each glimpse revealed it to be drastically shorter as the years passed.

“No sheepish look to Mother for help, this morning?” Peln chided louder. “You know I was there the day she brought you into this world, the same day our king was taken from us. Not even close to a fair trade, though your birth did raise certain expectations. It pains me to say … very little observation has been needed to determine you’ve no hope of meeting them.”

“Maybe if you observed less and fought more, the realm wouldn’t be in such dire straits toda—” a hoarse cough ended this retort as Vethros buried a long prod beneath his ribcage. He had to straighten up quickly to deflect the next blow that allowed no recovery, and both his sparring partner and commander pounced upon his weakened position.

“Are you … telling me to fight?” the low hiss stung worse than all previous yelling, though the same gap remained between him and their teacher. “You, the son of a coward who refuses to spill the foul blood that has stained my hands for decades?”

Eyes aflame, he turned to meet the rebuke, but this time he felt Vethros pursue with a high strike and refused to be an easy target. Without one look, he threw his left hand out and caught the weapon before it could rattle his silver helm, wrenching it away in a hot burst that spun him until he swished around again to knock the legs out from under Vethros.

For a brief, blurred pause, Evinn seemed to watch himself stand over his older cousin brandishing the royal heirloom of their forefathers, and in his grip it glowed with more than just sunlight. Every nearby Eaglemaster focused on the glimmering Crystal Spear as though in apprehension that it might burst with a newborn star’s radiance, yet his mother’s expression shone starkly among the garrison of knights. Attentive to the spectacle as they were, she did not exude a trace of their worry, but rather a cautious encouragement like years of her waiting had been rewarded.

Finally, after he shook free of this dreamlike state, Evinn let his vision sharpen around Vethros, who lay on his back gawking up as though at a stranger. “Sorry,” he muttered, and hastily bent to help the future king to his feet before too many retained the image of him in the dirt. “Are you all right?” he asked with a few pats to dust him off.

“Fine,” Vethros bitterly answered, jerking the Crystal Spear out of the hand that openly offered it. “Where’ve you been hiding that move all your life?”

“I don’t know.” Evinn scratched the back of his neck, puzzled. “I didn’t even think about it, really. It was like I forgot everything I’ve forced myself to remember.”

Suddenly, two monstrous hands banged their heads together, and Captain Craed—light on his feet for such an enormous old man—blasted them with a voice so rough it could polish stone. “Then maybe this yeh won’t forget—don’t let yerself become distracted in a fight. Think one squeaky commander’s voice is bothersome? Try a thousand screams in every direction by land and air. Handle an opponent under those conditions, and then maybe I’ll consider calling you one of my men. And you!” He erased Vethros’s grin, “Son of Verald the Valiant—his jaw would drop if he saw how easily you were stripped of the spear he passed on to you with his final act. Honor his memory by holding it TIGHT, like all our lives depend on it!”

He pounded each of their chests with fists as big as skulls and rumbled the ground with strides that quickly left them behind. Still, they could not help but gaze over his broad shoulders past the river’s calm surface, its quiet, far-off shores, and feel that something on the other side stared back into them. Its name was etched into the teachings that ensued here every day, carved deep in the foundations of this very city they guarded, yet they’d never seen its face or heard its voice.

“Yes,” Peln resounded cynically, “Korine forbid that the Ferotaur King ever wrap his talons around our Crystal Spear. Then that she-wolf to our north might actually discover herself imperiled by a formidable enemy. She certainly didn’t when young Eaglefriend approached her and asked for his old companion back, only to be turned away with a bloody nose for all his trouble.”

Before Evinn could decide which response might issue steadily from his chest without shaking under weight of doubt, the silhouette of a tall man hooded and cloaked silenced him, taking form just behind the derisive commander.

“Let the Tale of Eaglefriend lull babes to sleep in strongholds where their waking eyes never see the curse his failures have brought upon them. Here, you heed my words, and tell your father if that displeases him he can complain to me personall—” Commander Peln’s breath vanished and arms flailed as the hooded man suddenly plucked him from his mount and slammed him onto his back in the dirt. No student needed to strain for a sight of the regret in their teacher’s eyes beneath the cool blue of Morlen’s, which shone above a casual grin.

“I need to borrow your eagle for the afternoon,” Evinn’s father said without a hint of request in his voice. “I don’t know if you’ve heard—I’ve found myself inconveniently without one for quite a bit of time now. You understand, I’m sure.”

A groan and nod sufficed from the commander who lay still when Morlen released him and turned toward Evinn. “You’ll ride with me. Vethros, you ride with Auntie and Lielle. I doubt they’ll mind the company.”

Valeine wasted no time gliding down to meet him, amused that he would so presumptuously interrupt her day’s lesson. “The Ferotaur King promises us an overwhelming assault any day now, and you expect me to let you take the two princes away from their posts? Do you think these are the days when you could just sweep me to some other corner of the realm and suffer no consequences?”

Morlen clutched both her shoulders and gave the widest beam Evinn had ever seen in him. “Those days were never forgotten, My Lady, nor did I ever accept them gone. Soon, they may be all we have to keep us occupied.”

“What is it, Uncle?” Vethros asked skeptically, subtly declaring himself the first who should receive whatever tidings Morlen brought here.

Morlen set his sights on the young heir who had looked up to him since birth with a host of questions to which he’d found his answers lacking, and spoke with the assurance he’d given the boy’s kingly fathers on several occasions. “We’re going to see Nottleforf. His highest informant has discovered a secret deep within the machinations of Sydrenna’s forces, an opportunity that may enable us to finally turn the tide of this war. But, it will require some hard choices that may take more convincing for some than others.” He eyed Valeine uneasily with this last bit, then took his mount on the commander’s eagle that gave no protest while Evinn climbed up behind him.

“You’ll follow alongside us, then,” Morlen said to Valeine with a wink. “I’ll be a proper humble escort for such gathered Eaglemaster royalty. By evening I’ll have you returned to your city to find it just as it ever was, only with a slight spark in your eye I’ve longed to see for too many years now.”

The two eagles lifted off, and the busy trainees were permitted little time to trace their eastern course toward Korindelf. Even so, some of the aspiring soldiers stood conspicuously idle to watch the display that previous generations had taken for granted. One could not come by an eagle and explore the skies at will anymore, unless they wished their flight to abruptly end in blood and chains. To be one hundred miles away in a few mere flaps was an exhilaration most of them had never known, a sweet breath they would never taste above stagnation.

Here was only the stench of steel and silver and leather, and the silence of waters soon to be struck by enemy oars.

***

Evinn rarely found his father this cheerful, and observed his busy humming and relaxed frame from a full arm’s length behind. Normally, if Morlen showed his face at all in the city of Veleseor outside their family’s quarters, it was either to quietly watch his lessons or, more frequently, to stand on the defense’s front lines whenever the ferotaurs and shriekers encroached. Though he normally kept the Crystal Blade sheathed, he drew it to artfully show any warriors willing to see that their enemies could be repelled, but spared, if only enough men cooperated toward such a goal. Unfortunately, those teachings had failed to take root over the years, choked by weeds that only wedged their family farther from the realm’s governing power.

Why Valeine never sent him away remained an elegant puzzle, and jagged pieces of it sometimes shone in her eyes when they locked with Morlen’s. Perhaps she was the only other one who clearly grasped his vision and wished it to be solid, despite how it eroded her standing that had once been firm as stone not just at their southernmost city, but the capital. Whisperings that she should assume the throne from her brother’s widow quickly fell quiet when Sydrenna Eaglebreaker began to spread her flock’s corruption, seated unmistakably upon Roftome yet unchallenged by Eaglefriend, named for his bond with her most corrosive servant. That name his family bore, along with the once unrivaled might of the Eaglemasters, sank in cold shadow beneath the king of the Pyrnaq and his rider, who shared no ambitions of peace.

Often his father would sneak away for days or even two weeks at a time, alleviating the tension Valeine silently suffered at his side, and sweetened her spirits with an abrupt reunion out of thin air. Today had certainly not been the first time he’d seen his father enter a space that had been quite unoccupied merely a second before; hardly a soul found it unusual. What was extraordinary was his enthusiasm to share the knowledge he’d acquired in his travels, let alone that it was tied to the great war with the Pyrnaq from which he’d seemingly recused himself.

“You leapt from the rock today,” his father suddenly interrupted his train of thought as they passed high over the lake of the Forbidden Isle, barely discernible through the canopy of mists. “You might think that I arrived a moment too late, that I didn’t see. I saw. Your mother saw it too. And though it brought me no pleasure to see Vethros with a scrunched-up nose and dirty backside beneath you, there’s no denying the entire world would be better off if just a sliver of humility made it through that boy’s skin.”

“Leapt from the rock?” Evinn repeated with a shake of his head. Though his father frequently spoke in metaphors he failed to understand, this one gnawed at him despite his inclination to let it wash over.

“A lesson my father taught me when I was your age. It’ll make sense later today. For now, though, there are more explicit matters we must discuss with Nottleforf, and there he is, as though expecting our punctual arrival.”

“Alone?” Evinn marveled with a downward look. “In the open fields?”

“Voices carry far through the halls of Korindelf, and this matter should now only reach the ears of the Eaglemasters’ lords and lady.”

“After it reached yours.”

“Naturally,” replied Morlen. “Sometimes, as it happens, I in fact am justified in taking great strides for the realms of men, even if they thank me like our friend Commander Pelshen-whatsit back there.”

Through their descent, Evinn took in the fertile lands south of Korindelf, so vast he felt a nagging doubt that his father had actually sprinted across them with the Tyrant Prince’s army of shriekers and horsemen in tow. Hundreds of hedges and knolls offered cover for a long, methodical crawl. No enemy could have cleared away every refuge quickly enough to extract him, and no ally had reason to disperse the murk that separated his legendary escape from a less flattering truth. His father’s allies grew scarcer as the years piled on, though, yet still the stories remained intact underneath.

His mother and Vethros came to synchronously land beside them, and they dismounted to approach Nottleforf, whose grayish-blue cloak whipped like turbulent seas that parted to receive them.

“A pleasure to see you this day, Prince Vethros,” the old wizard said without straining to be heard over the wind, which seemed to calm at his voice. “And you as well, Prince Morth.”

Vethros tilted his head quizzically toward Evinn, then back at Nottleforf. “Why do you always call him that? No one else ever does.”

“Odd,” replied Nottleforf with a grin and wink at Morlen. “For some reason, I’ve always been far more partial to that particular truncation.”

Evinn was glad to watch his mother shed her firm demeanor that duty so often demanded, and she exuded a warmth reserved only for family. “We don’t get to spend enough time with you, Nottleforf, and it saddens us that most of it is devoted to talk of war. But I must say I flew harder than I have in recent memory at the mention of your good tidings.”

“Ah, then my task is made much harder by your expectations. Good possibilities present themselves in what I’ve just learned, make no mistake, but if you traversed the many miles between our realms with plans to be immediately heartened, I’m afraid I might face your wrath for the first time.”

“Luckily our mutual associate here has taught me to restrain my wrath over the years,” she replied with a sideways glance at Morlen, who returned her smile. “I can settle for being intrigued today.”

“Well, that I always bring in generous supply—Morlen can attest to it better than anyone. Perhaps he’d like to start us off.”

At this, Morlen addressed them all with his eyes set on Valeine. “Sydrenna’s splitting her forces for the first time. She understands she’ll never break the Eaglemasters’ final defenses on one front, so she’ll chisel away at them from two. Soon she’ll put her full strength behind an attack on your city, and when it’s taken, she’ll lead her army in a ground invasion of the realm while sending the Pyrnaq unmanned to crush the capital.”

“Unmanned,” said Valeine, shaking her head. “Why not just order half her clan to fly south while maintaining her northern assault?”

“Parting man from beast increases her number by thousands,” Nottleforf answered.

“Not to mention that in her greed she’d never permit any man or woman to fly out of reach with so many of her flock,” said Morlen. “It appears, she’s willing to trust only one soul with the responsibility of that command.”

“The king of the Pyrnaq,” Vethros uttered, and when every face turned toward him as though to wish he’d think more before speaking, he cleared his throat awkwardly, then corrected, “Roftome.”

“Roftome,” Morlen repeated sternly. “His servitude has finally persuaded her that she has nothing to lose by placing him half a world away with every creature she’s cultivated.”

“And you think he wouldn’t still do her bidding at our capital?” Valeine pressed. “Slaughter every person in sight as soon as half the Eaglemasters are gone to deal with her southern campaign?”

“Not if I get to him first,” said Morlen, his expression pleading for her to be patient, as though far worse proposals were yet to come. “And now that he no longer has to win her confidence, the purpose that drove him to fly back to her army when he could have escaped with me will emerge. I don’t think she anticipates it. In fact, I think it will horrify her when he reveals it at last.”

“This still doesn’t address how we stop her ground forces from overrunning the realm, along with the ferotaurs and shriekers that pour in behind her, assuming she succeeds in taking my city. Quite an extreme assumption by the way … Almost as though you’re planning for it.”

“The sooner she establishes a secure foothold in your realm, the sooner she sends her Pyrnaq on their separate mission,” said Nottleforf. “And that separation could be her undoing.”

“I stood my ground there when the Tyrant Prince and his dragon engulfed it in fire,” Valeine protested. “Roftome … Countless eagles Sydrenna now possesses bore witness to that. You’re suggesting the Eaglemasters simply allow her forces to fly inside our realm, then I immediately lead my people in retreat at the first sign of danger, and this raises no suspicions?”

“You’ll be gone before she arrives, and for good reason,” answered Nottleforf. “The Ferotaur King is expected to unleash his hordes upon your city any day now, yes? So let him, and she’ll make her move to find the Eaglemasters busied by the overwhelming incursion that drove you out. She’ll even save you the trouble of beating back the rampant swarms, since she doesn’t want them spreading through the empire she intends to seize. Triumphant atop your abandoned walls with no opposition on any side, she’ll make herself more vulnerable than ever, and that’s when you strike. She’s only fought the Eaglemasters in the sky. March south to meet her head-on, and she’ll wish she’d never picked a ground fight with you.”

“The defenders of one stronghold versus her entire clan,” said Valeine. “She might like those odds better than you’d guess.”

“Perhaps at first,” replied Nottleforf. “But when I send Korindelf’s armada to land behind her with three thousand men, I suspect she might grow uneasy.”

Valeine’s eyes widened hungrily for just an instant before she contained her gut reaction, and when she turned to Morlen he casually shrugged in response. “What are allies for? They weren’t ever going to march into Sydrenna’s mountains like I did and face the wrath of the Pyrnaq. But, given the chance to topple her without a single talon or beak poised against them, they’ll be most eager. They’re wearied by the specter of conquest imposing constantly overhead, and they’ve never forgotten your father’s final act to liberate them.”

“You can truly stomach this?” Valeine asked. “Surrendering our home to this woman who took everything else from you?”

Morlen recoiled as though hit where he was weakest. “She didn’t take … everything. But if it means a chance to break her hold on what she did, and ensure she controls nothing ever again, I’ll gladly lose a battle to win this war. I’m living proof that he betrayed her—if she sees my face before giving him power over her flock, it’ll be the ruin of him and whatever plan he means to hatch beneath her feet. After she sends him away, though, she’ll realize the grave peril she’s been in for all these years, because my face will be the first thing she sees.”

Evinn felt his heart race with courageous excitement, and not just because his father’s ambition so rarely outshone his regret. This new conviction struck him like a fire in winter, its warmth generated by someone else yet his to absorb nonetheless. He’d grown used to the waves of frustration and pride that swept like ever-changing winds through the crowded sparring grounds back home, but this was a force he had no desire to ignore. This was the man his mother had fallen in love with, the man the stories were about—almost a stranger to his eyes, yet one he would follow into unfathomable dangers.

Valeine drilled into Nottleforf with the same look that had deterred many young trainees from discovering nuanced methods of dying. Grudgingly, though, she appeared to be swayed. “This informant of yours,” she began with reservations, “you’re certain they’re reliable?”

“Oh yes,” the wizard replied. “A great man. Wise beyond his years, which is saying something indeed.”

With nostrils flared through an exhalation meant to delay her acquiescence, Valeine eventually said, “I’d like to hear what the two princes think of this.”

Vethros stood up a little straighter, his spine as rigid and vertical as the Crystal Spear in his hand, golden hair washing upon the silver plating of his shoulders. “If we’re to suffer a loss, I’d rather it be a small one that’s abruptly redeemed by victory. I’ll be on the front lines for both before I allow my coronation to go forward.”

All attention then shifted to Evinn, light brown haired and skinny like a reed—not as much a vision of the Eaglemaster lords in their glory as his cousin was. He smiled to keep from shaking under the weight of each stare that watched for him to top that response or at least present himself on equal ground with it. The future king’s thirst for honor often backed him into such a corner. “Small losses. Abrupt redemption. What could go wrong?”

Nottleforf seemed to smirk at both Evinn and Vethros simultaneously, for starkly different reasons. Subtle wit couldn’t always earn a long look from those eyes that had seen empires rise from dirt, but it could at least make them twinkle with amusement. So could overconfidence in the face of the unknown. “Then we are agreed,” the wizard said. “The city of Veleseor will fall to the ferotaurs and shriekers, and when Sydrenna Eaglebreaker claims it from them and sends her Pyrnaq north, she will find herself pinned between our two armies in the south.”

Morlen held his breath in anticipation of Valeine’s answer, as though he were just a youth kneeling before her, his entire existence in her hands to accept or reject. She made him wait for it too, and after she’d reached her decision she regarded the two princes like they knew nothing of hardship yet. “I hope you boys are ready to earn your red capes,” she said at last.

Evinn watched an enormous weight slide off his father’s shoulders, which enjoyed a momentary respite only to buckle again. “Home for me has never been a particular place,” said Morlen as he looked at Valeine. “Rather a state where I find myself in the perfect company. But the place you’re about to give up—the importance it holds in your heart is not lost on me. I’ll fight to win it back for you, and hope your heart finds the same warmth there after the dust settles.”

“The men of Korindelf will do the same,” Nottleforf pledged. “I’ll see to it that they arrive when they can deliver maximum effect, now that you’ve graciously facilitated that. Let it never be doubted that the Eaglemasters are most accommodating.”

“Nor assumed that we’re willing to sacrifice without limit or reward,” Valeine added.

“A foolish assumption indeed. Though one could be forgiven for such a thought after observing centuries’ worth of evidence. It won’t be long now before you witness the greatest reciprocation your allies have ever made, one that’s long overdue.”

“In the meantime, we’ll prepare the people of Veleseor for an unpleasant northward migration,” said Morlen. “Vethros, would you be good enough to return the commander’s eagle? Please tell him it was very kind that he agreed I can borrow his trusted carrier whenever I wish. The three of us will meet you at the city after a minor detour.”

“Detour?” Vethros muttered in confusion as Morlen and Valeine mounted Lielle. Evinn crammed in behind them with a shrug like he understood just as little about the remark.

“We’ll see you in no time,” Morlen assured. “And you.” He nodded a fond farewell at the wizard, then turned Lielle to lift their weight in a flight that skimmed over the green fields, aiming due south.

After they had left him far behind, Vethros peered at Nottleforf curiously, craving a prompt answer. “Do you know where they’re going?”

The wizard’s ageless smile left little room for doubt … or demands. “Wouldn’t you rather see for yourself than be told?”

Suddenly jarred by the foreign feel of a realm over which he had no authority, Vethros shuffled away with one last quiet glance and briskly strode to sit atop Commander Peln’s eagle. Taking off, he still felt as though he were being studied for several minutes until a strange sight consumed his full attention. To avoid being spotted by those he followed, he landed within a patch of trees and stared out from his perch to watch their every move.

Lielle had set down at the edge of the Forbidden Isle, its bright blue mists a towering wave at the head of a storm sent from another world. Morlen, Valeine, and Evinn dismounted and sent her flying west to Veleseor before approaching the radiant divide. He watched Evinn’s face light up with wonder when Morlen put his hand easily through the barrier that had refused entry to thousands in the legends of old. Valeine gave a rare grin while Morlen let his body sink into the dense vapors until he disappeared entirely, then she and Evinn carved paths of their own to follow him.

When they vanished, he eagerly shot upward again and darted to the very spot where they’d entered, swinging off his mount to slam both feet down into the grass where their footprints still lingered. With each step forward, he imagined the Isle’s fabled fruits so vividly—like stars to be plucked from the heavens, and when you ate your fill, you knew you were more than a man. Another step … The encircling mists swirled like fingers that beckoned him closer, to take his place among only a divine few that stood like lions above a sea of ants. One last step … He reached out as Morlen had done, ready to cross beyond this plane of mortals and bathe in celestial mysteries reserved for his eyes over all others, and—

Like cold, polished granite to the touch, the mists would not receive him. No matter where he frantically threw his hands, they merely slapped with a tone of something he’d never heard before. The denial of what he considered rightfully his was understood far throughout the west as a transgression worthy of the lash, yet here it rang out like shallow drumbeats to taunt him.

“Uncle?” he called, thinking perhaps Morlen’s arm might extend back to clasp his own and bring him along. When he found that he remained quite alone, though, he yelled again much more forcefully, “Evinn!”

But even the echo he expected gave no answer, leaving him in silence that drowned out his voice, which was supposed to command a host of men in the months and years to come. Backing slowly from the mystical domain that scorned his continued search for any given opening, he mounted the eagle once more and spurred it toward the realm that he knew best.

On the verge of being overrun by two dreadful hordes, it was a realm that knew blood, sweat, and tribulation more than any other. It still had much to learn of him, however, as did the enemies who came to claim it.

And he would teach them in full.

 

Chapter Two – Beneath the Peel

 

When the mists receded from his body to permit free passage inside the Isle, Evinn felt as though they stripped something off of him in a way that resembled removing a mask. At first, he was so delighted to have shed this unknown encumbrance that he barely noticed his mother’s upward stare and drooping jaw. Brittle fragments of it still bit at the back of his neck, zapping with a current of disdain at his daring to explore how nimbly he could move without its rigid embrace.

But when he took his first pace forward, it could not follow, and he began to understand: He was no longer a piece being carved and shaped for its pre-determined place on a strategy board, second in line for the throne, second most relevant, second most worthy to speak. He was formless, committed to no single path; within him were the beginnings of so many that they could not all be walked in one lifetime.

With eyes closed, he felt the very fabric of space bend to his pull, and transcended land to rise among luminous planetary bodies that orbited him. Manipulating their gravitational connection, he drew them in so near that he could feel their heat, then repelled them, repeating the motion of expansion and contraction to create a symmetrical, synchronous dance. Each time he summoned them, he heard the earth itself groan and creak, yet he stretched their limits even more so that they almost came together as one. Then, abruptly, a dozen small, round objects pummeled his body and shook him out of the trance.

He opened his eyes to see the Isle’s trees extending their branches and trunks toward him as though in a circle of worship, their apples laid as offerings at his feet. Some had withdrawn their roots so far from the soil that they appeared on the brink of toppling at any moment. Still feeling the tension between them like steel rope he’d wrapped many times around his hands, he slowly unwound it and restored the woods to normal as the ground gave a satisfied rumble.

Returning the full focus of his parents, he found their expressions neither dumbfounded nor fearful, but so gladdened that they eased his own initial shock. His mother gave him the same hopeful look she had hours earlier at the training grounds, when he’d stood tall with the Crystal Spear surging like an ember about to give flame. With a little extra pride in each step, his father strutted over and patted him firmly on the shoulder before picking up one of the blue apples that had been cast forth.

“We knew you couldn’t keep it down forever,” said Morlen with a grin that crushed into the fruit’s side, though it looked like a dense jewel to adorn a king’s scepter.

“Keep what down … exactly?” Evinn asked while examining his burning fingers that showed not a single blister.

“The power that manifested when I first carried you,” his mother answered with a hand flat across her belly. “It pulled my brother from a cocoon of shadow that nearly captured him in the mountains beyond the Wildlands, punctured enough holes in the Ferotaur King’s sorcery that I and the Eaglemasters could narrowly escape just as you were being born.”

“A strength our bloodline inherited from Morthadus of the Blessed Ones,” said his father more seriously. “You don’t just share part of his name, Morthevinn. You share his gifts as well, amplified by the potent essence of the Crystal Pool, where you were … Shall we say”—he glanced awkwardly at Valeine—“made, like the crystals themselves.”

“The crystals,” Evinn whispered. “I did feel a strange connection with the Crystal Spear when I held it, like if I tried hard enough I could pour so much energy into it that it might melt and blind us all.”

“Yet you restrained yourself,” his father replied with praise, gathering some of the fallen apples and directing him to pick up the rest before they started deeper through the forest. “You could have made Vethros and everyone else who’s ever treated you like a subordinate lament their folly, but you approached this new discovery with a cautious, cool hand. A show of wisdom.”

“Don’t forget the Eaglemaster blood that flows through your veins,” his mother insisted. “It’ll tell you when caution is no longer necessary.”

“Ah, Vethros must’ve gotten a hefty dose of that indeed,” Morlen quipped, evoking a shoulder slap from Valeine that knocked a few apples from his grasp. “I’m not speaking ill of the boy! Just saying—he’s reckless, and now more than ever is a time for precision, and patience.”

“I was abundantly careful when I realized my ability to control things around me grew stronger each day of my pregnancy. Reluctant to draw greater concern from the men when I was smothered as it was … Afraid their fixed idea of reality was already dangerously shaken by the dark powers we faced. Then when danger became so overwhelming that small worries no longer mattered, I understood—don’t let yourself be caged by someone else’s vision of what is. Shatter it, and let them see how much more you both can be when the shards fall away.”

The quiet that followed soon broke when Morlen took an aggressive chomp from his apple, with eyes set firmly on Valeine as though the enchanted fruit did little for his appetite. Evinn smirked at the display and then faced his mother more earnestly. “Is it gone now? I mean, did it leave you … after I did?”

Morlen went to take another bite, yet his teeth merely clanked together with nothing in between as the apple jumped from his grip into Valeine’s open hand, and she ate down into its core. “Not completely,” she replied with a smile, closing her eyes to savor such an indulgence for the first time.

Then, in a way reminiscent of his detection that a ferotaur fleet approached, though not frightening in the slightest, he knew they were not alone. The presence of hundreds shone out to him through dense trees and brush that revealed nothing to the naked eye, and his father squeezed his arm to confirm what he sensed.

“Old companions of mine. They’ve wanted to meet you for so long—they may come up a bit close.”

The warning came just seconds before a crackling of twigs and leaves announced the emergence of at least twenty statuesque, golden lions. Every male was crowned with an ancient flowing mane that appeared to mark the generations through which they’d lived like the rings within trees, and the females were sleek and smooth with nurturing eyes. A wet nose nudged the back of his head, and when he turned he came face to face with the largest of the group that lowered its massive head against his palm.

“They know your scent and energy well,” said his father with arms outstretched for many of the grand creatures to affectionately rub up against. “It reminds them clearly of all the Blessed Ones who lived and died here throughout the ages. And you”—he glanced at Valeine, who cradled two relaxed, somewhat drooling jaws in her hands—“you have so much of my scent on you that you’re practically family.”

She snorted so loudly that the nearest lions’ eyes grew wide in alarm before she calmed them with gentle strokes of their foreheads. “Or maybe they remember how I protected you several times in battle at Korindelf, when they joined us against the Tyrant Prince.”

“Hard to forget,” replied Morlen. “Seventeen years later I’m still trying to pinpoint your exact motives. Perhaps this experience was the big payoff you had in mind from the start, and I craftily prolonged your wait just so you’d keep me around for all this time. I suppose the magic’s lost after today.”

“There were a few other payoffs along the road,” Valeine answered with a grin at Evinn. “As for the magic being lost, you won’t have to suppose—I’ll make sure to let you know.”

“All right, you’re upsetting them now,” Morlen joked with a pitying tone while he massaged the jowls of a lion that conveyed no such distress. “Shall we continue along? We can reach the lake before nightfall even with them vying for our attention—they haven’t had a visitor other than myself in a great while.”

“The lake!” Evinn repeated as he hurriedly strode past them. Despite having never been here before, he felt the Isle’s core drawing him like blood to a heart. It was an eclipsed sun whose fire still poured out into his mind’s eye, and his father gave no signal from behind that he pursued a false trail. He hardly noticed the apples still clutched against his body with one arm, or the countless others that dangled above. Today’s discoveries were already so numerous that he was just starting to look back on the smallness of what he thought he knew, while fathoming what waited to be explored ahead.

Palpable joy soured into collective grief throughout all those he walked with as their diversely colored surroundings faded to a bleak, monochromatic landscape. Thick boughs heavily laden with fruit and greenery seemed to shrink back fearfully from thousands of blackened trees whose contorted, skeletal bodies bore no sprout of life. Certain patches of the woods looked especially decimated and jagged, like epicenters of explosions that had raged with flames for many miles.

“Oil pots, from the Tyrant Prince’s army,” Morlen said, tracing his line of sight. “My father used their infernal weapons against them to great effect. He blamed himself for their entrance, you see, after their lieutenant posed as a prisoner in the last group he liberated from Felkoth. Always be careful whom you invite here, for they can then invite any others they wish.”

“They still talk about your father in the five cities,” said Valeine with a soft touch to Morlen’s arm, bringing him out of a sad remembrance. “The ones who didn’t wish to return to Korindelf or the Freelands started anew in our kingdom, and many of them have children Evinn’s age now. They know they have Matufinn to thank for that, and you.”

With his head lowered, Morlen stealthily wiped each eye, then gave Evinn a sideways expression like they were just reuniting after years apart. “You look so much like him,” he boasted, not for the first time. “I see the best of him in you every day, and know that he would marvel at the same.”

Many of the young trainees back home had never even gotten to meet their fathers who’d fallen in battle, let alone hear stories of the family line they carried on. Evinn was grateful to be reminded of his connection to such a rich history, though it was like gazing down at his faint reflection on the surface of a frozen river. The opaque depths offered only a few windows—some tranquil, others tumultuous.

“And my grandfather Valdis,” he said to his mother, whose eyes warmed at the name. “Was he anything like I am?”

“During the rare moments when he could shed his stony exterior and simply be himself, yes,” she answered. “Humble, soft-spoken though he had a yell that could send ferotaurs fleeing, and often trying to earn a smile from me. The role he more frequently had to play though, the one my brother carried on and which Vethros aspires to, that took him a little further from us each day.”

“Like it took his grandfather before him? The one whose song the Eaglemasters sang proudly until the day I was born?”

A sharp chill ran through his mother, cutting him to the bone from several paces away, and she gently shook her head. “No, Morthevinn. Not like it took him.”

She hardly ever used his full name, reserving it mainly for occasions when she was aggrieved … or afraid. He understood it as a clear sign to move on, and was glad to focus forward where the dreary old battle scene met with a lush forest again. The sound of flowing waters soon became unmistakable too.

Glints of gold began to catch his eye through the trees, dancing on the surface of a river that ran from west to east as the sun set behind its origin point. It might as well have been a needless trail toward a towering mountain visible from miles away; he had known where it would end even before coming upon it.

Strolling out from the last ranks of woods, they entered a sprawling green meadow in which this river met the lake like a thread in the eye of a needle, only it did not pass through—not in any dimension they could see at least. His father led them over the silky grass down to the lake’s gravelly bank, where sat a small rowboat big enough for only two. Resting his hand on the dark, rough wood like it was the door of his abandoned childhood house, Morlen drew in a deep breath through his nose. He seemed to ride the musty aroma toward memories so freshly preserved that they still made him smile.

Evinn planted his feet just above the waterline and bent forward, more stricken by vertigo the farther he leaned. “I feel like it’s slowly swallowing the world whole … like it has no bottom.”

Morlen nodded with more reverence than he had shown for any place, even a field of battle that had tasted heavy losses. “Nottleforf believes it extends even beyond the realm of the living, to a place where those whose times have passed can still be found. Perhaps, years from now, if all truly comes to darkness, the energy concentrated here will be too bright for the shadow to overwhelm. Perhaps here, the last bearer of light will make a fierce stand, and find that he does not stand alone.”

In solemn respect for the ancestors his father spoke of, Evinn laid down the apples he carried along the shore, all except one whose purple bittersweet he saved for himself. It washed over him and delivered to his core the revelations he’d already attained since entering the Isle. From this day forth, if he allowed himself to be so limited in spirit and action and thought as he had been, it would be with the knowledge that those limits were artificial, self-imposed, and he could not imagine a worse failing. It would be like … he glimpsed a distant rock formation protruding from the lake’s surface like an iceberg, and suddenly recalled his father’s reference from a few hours earlier. It would be like letting himself remain stranded atop that very point after leaping out and seeing that he could not just swim, or walk—but fly.

“The lake offers doorways throughout the physical world as well,” said Morlen. “That’s how Felkoth transported his army to the very heart of the Eaglemasters’ capital, despite my father’s last stand to thwart them. It’s how I’ve abruptly returned to you both so many times after my periodic absences. Simply dive into the depths and know your destination, and the lake will present you an opening that draws a stretch of many miles within arm’s reach.”

Wading through the glassy shallows, Evinn pictured home—the city of Veleseor—and his living quarters within the central tower. Its people were quite accustomed to attempted invasions but not prepared for this one that would succeed and displace them … perhaps for longer than his parents and Nottleforf estimated.

“You go on ahead. We won’t be long behind,” his father assured, purposely ambiguous about whether that meant minutes or hours.

“We shouldn’t tarry,” he heard his mother whisper.

“Lady, you’ve hurt me. By all your previous indications, what I had in mind would be time well spent.” Evinn sloshed forward more rapidly, eager to get out of earshot.

“All your delicate work convincing me of this battle plan—you don’t want us to lose what precious time we have to make it so, do you?”

“I’ve envisioned the harvest of distant fields for so long now … I suddenly find myself wishing to be anchored here with you.”

“Wasn’t it Nottleforf who told you—don’t mistake the nearest constellation for all the heavens?”

“Something like that. But that doesn’t stop me from touching a few fiery stars along the way. And with you, it’s often hard to tell the difference.”

At the sound of his mother’s sudden laugh of delight that signified she had no mind to move from where Morlen wanted her, Evinn dunked his head and pushed out with broad strokes. The lake’s depths plunged beneath him, submerged hills falling away to the steep slopes of forgotten mountains, to canyons that split open the most ancient foundations of rock and soil. The longer he stared down into that vast, endless tunnel, he could not be certain whether he beheld the earth’s molten core or gazed all the way through it to bursting galaxies in dark skies.

Then, the lake’s infinite center beat in a subtle rhythm that produced a rising bubble just for him. Half swimming toward it and half pulled, he watched the pocket of air grow broader, brighter, and discerned a familiar area contained within, a point in space at least an hour’s flight from the Isle, right at his fingertips.

He reached toward it, expecting his hand to touch some sort of smooth, cushiony surface, and instead felt his whole body being swirled into a vacuum that left water, rock, and time far behind.

 

Chapter Three – Forbidden

 

Evinn burst into his bedchamber, met only by burning candles and moonlight, waiting to hear the pitter patter of droplets upon the woolen rug beneath his feet. When the silence remained unbroken, he examined his leather-clad arms and legs to find them completely dry. Then he whipped sharply around as though to catch a lightning bug, and hoped to glimpse something similar left over from the enchanted passageway that had delivered him here. His tall shadow flickered a greeting on the sandstone wall with nothing in between them, but still, what lingered of the otherworldly experience clung to him like the dampness he had expected, and he did not wish to cast it off.

After removing his silver helm and its attached feathery mail that overlapped around his neck, he set it down on a modest wooden table and took an inventory of what could not be left behind. Immediately his eyes locked onto the possession he valued most, and he strode to pick it up from its shelf—his mother’s rare copy of The Kings and Noble Houses of the Eaglemasters.

A thousand years’ worth of richly-penned triumphs, delicately-forged alliances, and diverging bloodlines with ties to the throne, its weight tilted him slightly off balance. If his empty hand gripped the unwritten volume that could recount every failure and tragedy this tome omitted, his spine would be straight as a spear.

He knew the pages of his immediate pedigree almost by heart—his grandfather Valdis the Decisive, remembered for his choice to lead the Eaglemasters against the Tyrant Prince Felkoth and his dragon in the Second Battle of Korindelf. Even though death was a likely outcome, and ultimately the fate he met that day, his people won victory through his sacrifice. Beneath his celebrated deeds were listed his children: Verald, Ivrild, Ondrel—uncles Evinn had never known—and lastly Valeine, whose achievements were not yet marked though the book was hers to ink, and none would question her.

The father of Valdis was Vondreth the Tortured, known as a jubilant prince who flew loyally beside his father Veleseus into the Ferotaur Wildlands and, long after, returned alone, a king cold of heart whose mighty shoulders sagged under the weight of a dreadful secret. Though he died in battle with the shriekers in the east decades after assuming the throne, it was widely whispered that he advanced needlessly beyond his guardsmen into the sea of foes that devoured him.

He had named his son partially to honor his grandfather, Valdroth the Quiet, who with five words could deliver a hammer stroke of wit and authority that others could not manage with twenty. It was said that his face of stone sufficed alone to evoke fear in the enemy and obedience from his subjects, and so to hear his voice at all was both wondrous and terrifying.

The thin silk ribbon from within the book’s spine marked the page that Evinn visited most often, near the end, and he opened it now to read once again of Veleseus the Bold, son of Valdroth and father of Vondreth. What intrigued him the most on this page was not the account of the realm’s expansion by the construction of this very city where he and his family now lived, nor the missing dark details of what this king had become, and still was, deep in the Wildlands. It was this simple passage:

Before his conquest of the southern realm and disappearance beyond the Silver River, he was known to steal away on many nights while thinking the rest of his household slept, flying north into the mountains to hear the eagles sing for long hours.

Growing up with the enemy shores always in his periphery, hardly a day had gone by for Evinn when the other boys did not chatter about the monster that made the ferotaurs seem like intrusive neighbors by comparison. His wings, horned head, and spear of bones blotted out the sun worse than any storm cloud, they said. His taloned feet plucked sleeping children from their beds and could whisk away ten at a time before their parents woke to find them gone forever.

Recent years of face-to-face experience with the true threats from those shores had taught them that what haunted their early nightmares was sequestered on the far side where men no longer dared tread. That was small comfort, though, to know that such a ghost was flesh and bone as they’d imagined and simply couldn’t reach them … for now. But this single line written with a dutiful hand in dusty pages meant to immortalize the dead drew his thoughts far more than any predatory phantom.

… known to steal away on many nights while thinking the rest of his household slept …

Who could have known this but a member of that household, like his son, perhaps the same son who had flown with him to the Wildlands and returned so tormented by what he had seen? A monster had haunted him too, just as it now did the children of those who’d watched it emerge from a long slumber with their own eyes. Why disclose this small detail of Veleseus the man rather than the ghoul he became, if not in hope that those who came to know the worst would remember the best as well? Beneath corrupted tissue and claws that could bleed an army dry still lingered an Eaglemaster, a father—gentle, kind, and buried far too soon.

It often made Evinn reflect on the message his own father vehemently spread to so many deaf ears, that there were men trapped within the horridly inhuman bodies of the shriekers and ferotaurs, like sculptures waiting to be chiseled out by caring hands. But then he flipped forward through the book to the last written page, the remembrance of his mother’s brother Verald the Valiant, slain in a duel with the Ferotaur King after withstanding sorcery and striking blows that no other man could.

What trace of good was left to uncover in one who had cut down the son of his sons?

Vethros was listed as Verald’s only child on the same page, and one day his accomplishments and the highlights of his reign would adorn the next one. Evinn had long suspected that he himself would end up a brief footnote in small print on Vethros’s page. After those first steps he took in the Isle, though, he found most of the certainties he’d long held to be pleasantly shaken to pieces. Now he was only grateful that hundreds of blank pages remained to be filled, defying the circulating prediction that his people’s time had nearly run its course.

Stay tuned for the rest of Chapter 3

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