Chapter One – The Two Companions
Morlen relaxed his hand against Roftome’s feathery side, gently pinching smooth tufts between each finger as the afternoon wind whipped at high altitude. Veleseor’s distress signal horns sounded ahead with halfhearted blasts, as though all distress would promptly abate at first sight of them.
“The city men are spoiled by our constant guard,” boasted Roftome, bearing Morlen with wide-stretched wings over the southern outskirts of the Eaglemasters’ realm. “What are they to do if ever we stray too far to answer?”
“Valeine would exile them into the Wildlands if they fell below her standards,” Morlen laughed, “or banish us before they had the chance to become soft. But until then, I will always answer, though I suppose I’d be somewhat delayed reaching them on foot, if you have business elsewhere.”
Roftome raised his beak in amusement. “Whatever business I may have, I’ve grown so used to your prodding weight, I imagine I’d fly far too awkwardly without it.”
Nodding with a grin, Morlen tightened his hold. “Just as I’d travel lonely and fatigued, without your speed.”
They streaked through smoke toward the Silver River and a burning enemy fleet, most of which now sank and hissed into steamy waters while twenty ships had penetrated the first line of defense. Two hundred Eaglemasters were scattered thin in an effort to contain the widespread formation, their red capes open and rippling, silver armor and beaked helms bright beneath the sun as they rained down arrows from the backs of their airborne carriers. Others among them carried torches that lit the cloth wicks of round clay projectiles, which they hurled to shatter and burst with flaming oil against every deck.
Still the ferotaurs rowed each engulfed vessel tirelessly with thick veiny arms that blistered as the flames licked, and their long white horns began to blacken from tip to base. When the fragmented armada finally crashed onto the riverbank, more than a thousand savages leapt into the shallows to soothe their seared flesh, which sizzled and fused with red-hot iron plating that met the cold water.
Rising tall and broad in thick clouds of vapor as though newly forged from a great furnace, the ferotaurs charged with fangs bared and swords raised. Their forces split into two groups that curved around either bend of the circular city, with many packs densely clustered around those that carried heavy wooden battering rams, and intended to meet at the gate on the north end.
“Shall we, then?” asked Roftome casually, curling his talons in preparation to pounce while they surveyed from above.
“Not yet,” answered Morlen. “She wants them to learn; let them learn. We’ll see how many they can bring down before the gate’s in any real danger.” He looked to the five hundred young trainees gathered atop the walls, all of them sending down volleys of arrows and oil pots as did the Eaglemasters, who circled now like a halo over the stronghold.
Many who flew here had been mere trainees themselves only three months prior, seasoned by an overwhelming assault in which he and Roftome first fought together. The city walls had since been mended smoothly, brick by brick, after the Tyrant Prince Felkoth and his dragon had come crashing through with thousands of ferotaurs in tow. But every youth who had survived that massacre to ascend as an anointed warrior of the realm bore scars that would never be concealed, as would this new crop of hopefuls, before they claimed their own eagles.
Suddenly the only Eaglemaster wearing white instead of red shone out to him in the ring of aerial defenders, and he spurred Roftome forward. “Come on,” he urged. “They’ve still left plenty for us.”
“And best not to keep her waiting,” said Roftome playfully, following his line of sight. “I’ve lost count of the days we’ve spent here since you and she first met, and still she looks to your return whenever we leave for a morning’s sport. I thought she would have grown tired of you by now.”
Morlen patted him warmly. “Do you regret postponing our exploration of the wider world for this?”
With a firm tilt of his white head, Roftome replied, “I regret nothing that’s come to us in all the days we’ve flown together. I’ve grown affectionate toward her as well, though most likely not in the same way that you have. Only, it seems we may be confined to this corner of the world for quite some time.”
“I promise when the fight is done today, we’ll fly far outside the realm, and from dusk till dawn I’ll rest while you roam to your heart’s content. Even till the sun is high the next day if you like, and I’ll wait for your return.”
Roftome’s wings flapped more rapidly at this. “I have missed the mountains. And truly any fresh terrain would be a welcome sight.”
“Good,” said Morlen. “Then let’s end this quickly and be on our way.” With that, they ceased their spectating and dove toward the city’s edge where the enemy horde had suffered sizable losses, though still it pressed on while the soldiers above fought to slow its advance.
Both legions of ferotaurs kicked up brown clouds of dust around the city, stampeding through a relentless downpour of fire, arrows and stones that bounced off of some. Others fell only after being utterly riddled and crushed by many projectiles, which dwindled in supply to the men overhead.
Birds and riders swept in from behind and lifted pairs of them away, dropping their heavy corpses on the rest that marched closer together to avoid being picked off. Soon they began to hear the other half of their forces that drove just as fiercely to rejoin them.
The battalions rounded the bend, meeting hundreds of their own that had survived the charge with battering rams held at the ready. But as they prepared to go forward together and break their way into a bounty of flesh and bone, every beast abruptly stopped short. There, between them and the gate, sat the two companions that they remembered well: the eagle, greater and more fearsome than any other, perched at ease on the ground; and the cloaked man who sat astride it, not adorned in armor or a blood-red cape as the Eaglemasters were.
Morlen looked down from Roftome’s back at the hostile masses, some of whom snarled and snapped behind the protection of the front ranks, which did not move any closer. “You are a persistent lot,” he said, unthreatened. “I imagine some of you may have even set foot within this city not long ago, when the Tyrant Prince gave you safe passage, and the stories you’ve told the rest of your kind since then have only whetted their appetites. Your reckless incursions make it clear you’ve forgotten just how easily you lost what your master had seized, after he left you here alone to hold it.
“I wonder, do you still look to the sky for his return? Do you wait to see his great shadow pass over your lands as he comes to lead you to feast once more? I’m afraid your loyalty bears no reward. I broke his dragon. I broke his blade. And as for him, well, I doubt even his bones remain where I left them to burn.”
Immediately the largest ferotaur in sight shoved through those around it and stood as the monstrous rabble’s champion. It bellowed a deep, sonorous challenge while brandishing a heavy double headed axe, and the hundreds that stood behind beat their chestplates and growled in a bloodthirsty clamor. Then it stamped toward the defiant pair with weight that sent vibrations far throughout the vicinity.
Morlen gripped the winged hilt of his sword, sheathed in a finely crafted silver scabbard that bore a pattern of pinholes which, by the gleam of the weapon within, shone like a constellation in the outline of a leaping lion. He drew the Crystal Blade in a smooth swish and raised it high, hushing the violent host with its luminous edges and point that drove many to shield their eyes.
The immense brute that approached him from the right did not slow in the slightest. Its muscles bulged as it clasped the battle axe in both gnarled hands, reared back, and swung to kill. And as the curved blade cut through the air on course to cave in his chest, Morlen lunged and caught its wooden handle with his left hand, just above where its bearer still grabbed tightly. The ferotaur groaned and seethed, exerting all force that its body could muster into the weapon, but Morlen held it back and would not be moved. Then he slashed the Crystal Blade downward and severed both the beast’s hands at the wrists.
The ferotaur’s guttural wails bounced off the city walls as it lifted two stump-like arms that gushed puddles of blood into the dirt. Staggering in a daze, it looked over at ranks of allies that stood in shock, and was left with only one method of attack.
It drew its stout head back, about to gore deep into Roftome’s neck with both overgrown, sharp horns, but Morlen swung the great axe down right between them and buried it in his foe’s slimy skull. The formidable adversary collapsed under the blow with its own weapon embedded in its head, and Morlen sat at ease atop Roftome. As he peered across the short divide, he flicked the blood off of his sword, and soon the trainees watching from the high walls above began shouting “Eaglefriend! Eaglefriend!” in an enthusiastic chorus that the Eaglemasters echoed louder.
Giving into rage, the lines of ferotaurs charged, and Roftome shattered the nearest horned skull that came in reach of his beak before knocking back the front rank with a gust from his wings. Then he grabbed two more attackers by closing his talons around their heads, and flung them sideways while his momentum spun Morlen to cut through others with one blade stroke.
The Eaglemasters unleashed the last of their arrows next, blanketing each pack that tried to take a battering ram to the gate, and dropped their final oil pots to scatter the tight formations with explosions of fire and smoke. Morlen and Roftome flew forward as the city’s aerial defenders joined alongside them, driving the dispersed combatants from the gate to the fields.
“Do you think yourself invincible that you would provoke that many at once?” asked Roftome as he plucked two more foes from the ground and crushed them in his grip, gliding low to toss them like rocks at others.
“Only when I have you as my shield,” Morlen joked. He struck down one that came to gut him from the right, and took the horns clean off another that charged on his left. Then they circled back while the creature patted its slimy bald head in disgrace, and closed in for the kill. But as Morlen prepared to deliver the final blow, a spear flew hard to pierce the beast’s temple and emerged through its cheek on the other side.
Looking to see who had thrown the weapon with such skill as the ferotaur fell, Morlen lacked any surprise when Valeine approached on the back of her eagle, long blonde hair and white robes smudged from battle.
“Typical of you to join the fight at the very end and receive all the praise,” she said as she wrenched her spear free.
“My Lady,” he replied with a wide grin while the chaotic noise diminished, “I know not to overstep my bounds. It’s not my wish to interfere with the natural order of your finely disciplined garrison. I only intended to spare them the tedious chore of proving that an Eaglemaster is deadlier on the ground than in the sky.”
She could not help but laugh just as he’d hoped she would, and they ascended together, both dismounting on the wall while her men hunted down the last remaining invaders.
“We await your orders, Lady Valeine,” said one of the young archers, nodding in respect at Morlen as well.
“Go and ensure that the fallen are truly dead,” she commanded. “Don’t let their cadaverous appearances disarm you; that’s how they look even on their best days. Thrust your spears between every ribcage, and salvage every arrow from them that you can. We can’t afford any waste here. And gather no horns from them. You’ll claim your trophies from those you bring down in the heat of close combat, just as all Eaglemasters have done.” She twirled her spear to lift its base, and the long scythe of sharpened bone held their firm attention as she motioned with it toward the wall’s stairs. “Off you go.”
“Yes, my Lady,” replied the eager youth, who descended with his comrades to go out through the gate. They foraged what they could from the destroyed enemy force, which the Eaglemasters began to transport to a mass pyre away from the city.
Morlen looked at Valeine fondly. “Is it odd that whenever you talk about breaking ribcages, I get a warm feeling right about here?” He took her hand and pressed it to his own ribs and chest.
She smirked as her cheeks flushed and gently withdrew her hand, glancing to see if anyone watched them. “Are you sure you want them to see us like that? It could make you the most targeted man in the entire realm.”
“It’s been three months. They already know. You just don’t want them to see you vulnerable and content because it would make them fear you less.”
“And do you fear me less, Morlen Eaglefriend?”
He smiled, though not in jest this time, and looked at her as though in total surrender. But no army could bring him down, nor could any weapon threaten. He closed the gap between them while she made no effort to move away. Brushing her hair from her cheek, he brought her mouth to his and held her close, as she held him tightly in return, and they stood unashamed of their display for all to see.
Then he led her by the hand to Roftome, climbed to mount between ready wings, and pulled her up to sit behind him. With her arms resting at his sides, he ushered Roftome to lift off, and together they flew north to escape the city and all duties it entailed, for just a few hours of peace.
Sunset’s purple afterglow caressed the realm’s northern expanse as they passed over it, the citadel of Veldere a distant beacon of silver and white against the snowcapped Eagle Mountains, the Speaking River a jewel-encrusted trail beneath them. Words were needless as the wind seemed to capture and preserve them in this moment, never to be degraded or erased by all the ages to follow.
They approached the river’s head, where great falls cascaded down rocky cliffs into a wide basin of billowing mists that did not disperse, but coalesced into a bright terrestrial cloud. Morlen ushered Roftome to land at the pool’s edge, a jagged rim where he and Valeine dismounted.
Roftome knew his continued presence would only intrude on Morlen’s carefully designed retreat, and basked in the atmosphere of his ancestral home, about to take off. He peered high into the surrounding peaks at his many thrones that had sat vacant far too long, and planned to claim new ones as well. Morlen ruffled his plumage pleasantly, seeing that his exuberance could not be contained.
“Tomorrow, when the day has grown long,” said Morlen, “I’ll be eager to hear of your adventures. Until then, my friend, I’ll wait for your return.”
“I think I shall have more than a few to tell you,” answered Roftome. “A single night and day in these heights can hold more strange and wondrous things than an entire season in the most beleaguered empire of men.”
“And I shall come to know them with you, one day soon.”
“One day,” Roftome repeated, while his immense wings spread to cup the breeze. Then, he held his part of a warm farewell glance with Morlen and Valeine, sprang away from the ground with stout legs and shot high into open air, looking only upward.
Morlen’s gaze followed him until he faded into the twilit backdrop, and lingered a short while thereafter. Then, finally alone with the one whose full attention he could scarcely win in the bustling city, he looked only to her.
“I always found the Crystal Pool an enchanting place, growing up,” said Valeine, strolling around the stony curve ahead of Morlen. “Not only because an important piece of it was an heirloom of my house. But because, it’s like a shrine to what has always been, before so much that we’ve built and destroyed through the ages. It’s always reminded me that no matter how bleak the realms of men become, there can still be a new beginning.”
Morlen walked along her path as she turned to face him, and he too admired the aura that never dwindled. “So much power radiates from this place,” he said, drawing a long breath through his nose. “Standing here now I can almost see their battle: Korine the Ancient throwing down He who lurks in the shadows, both of them entwined and smashing like lightning into stone while pieces of them splinter out and fuse together like a hundred white-hot embers.” He partially unsheathed the Crystal Blade, examining the mystical weapon at the very spot where it had been forged.
“The visions are hitting you early I see,” Valeine marveled, using both hands to waft the dense vapors toward her.
“I’ve had far clearer visions than that,” replied Morlen as he moved nearer to her, “deep beneath this very pool, in a cave where the mists trickle down and become trapped. Nottleforf told me how to get there through a hidden tunnel.”
“What possessed you to crawl down to such a place?”
Morlen smiled, thinking back to that night, the same night he had met Valeine when her city was under siege. “I was looking for someone.”
Her arched eyebrows made it clear that this sounded entirely like a fool’s errand. “And, did you find them?”
“Yes,” he said assuredly, “I found them.”
Valeine smiled back, suddenly wondering what other answer she had expected. The guard that she was so accustomed to keeping up every day was now fully lowered since their departure from the city, and she felt as though an enormous weight had slid off her shoulders, leaving her freer than she’d ever been. “What else did you see?”
Morlen reached deeper into his mind, recovering images that were still quite vivid. “I saw a man who looked so much like my father, only younger. His hair was lighter, and his eyes…” She was looking into him now, and he allowed himself to be open to her, unafraid of what she might find. “He was alone, surrounded by a sea of shadow, holding up a sword of blue flame as it bore down on him.”
“What else?” she asked, her hand moving up his arm.
Morlen moved closer as well, until their faces were all but touching. “I saw a lion in a cage. The bars were shrinking inward, crushing him, but still he remained inside, trying to find the courage to break free.”
“And did he break his cage?”
As though an electric current coursed through and bound them together, he drew her to him, and they cast off belts and garments until no encumbrance remained. The potent mists washed over, cocooning them in their hunger and happiness while they no longer felt ground or water beneath their feet.
They became lost in a blurred haze, clinging only to one another and needing no way out. The moon rose high; the night was young, and tomorrow so far off.
Chapter Two – The Pyrnaq
Sydrenna scraped the rabbit bones clean with her metal pick and hollowed out each one to extract every last bit of marrow, paltry sustenance at best. Then she wiped her gaunt cheeks and extinguished the tiny campfire, since warmth was a luxury she could not afford tonight, with so many on her trail. The minuscule spout of smoke she’d risked just to barely cook her fresh kill could have compromised her position already.
Her flock was close, and though she was tempted to extract them now and make an escape under cover of darkness, if she traveled any nearer they would likely catch her scent on the wind and call out to her. Then she would lose them, and be left powerless under the rule of those who intended to reap what her talents could provide.
She abandoned the campsite to resume her trek beneath the trees, and despite a full day’s effort to keep low and out of sight, her spirits fell at the sound of chains that clanked against flapping wings as her pursuers began to circle overhead. Even her tanned leathers and dark brown hair failed as camouflage against these enemies, since there was one man among them who knew her movements all too well.
“Come out, girl,” he called down. “There’ll be no blood this night, only talking. Show yourself.”
No blood. She laughed under her breath, nocking an arrow to the bow she gripped firmly in her left hand. Then she sidestepped into an adjacent clearing to get a good shot and aimed high at the central figure in an aerial formation of eight, all sitting astride their winged servants. But before she could fire, two arrows pierced the tree just behind her, promising a penalty of death if she followed through. At this, she reluctantly lowered her weapon while they descended upon her.
“Good,” their leader grunted as his mount perched above, a pale, balding man, stouter than those who accompanied him, though they were all far better fed than she. He angled the two swords sheathed at his hips in a blatant gesture to taunt her, relishing her abundant disdain for his newly acquired trophies. “The time for loyalty has come, child. All others of the clan have paid me tribute as Chieftain, and your defiant spirit now lacks the allure it once held. I know you keep your flock hidden somewhere in these parts, more than any other man could handle on his own. I’m offering you the chance to give them to me willingly, in exchange for a life at my side.”
She smirked at his arrogance. “I’ll bring them to you, all at once, in the biggest phalanx you’ve ever seen. And it will be the last you see.”
“My scouts have watched your disastrous attempts to build such a phalanx these past weeks,” the chieftain replied, unfazed. “Chaining your strongest to four others who merely pull it every which way until it bursts. How many have you torn apart in your grisly experiments?”
“Enough to know that with the right creature at the center of my flock, they would be stronger together than all of yours separate.”
The chieftain sat up straighter and drew a long breath, his patience thin as he prepared to leave. “Consider your position carefully; it’s rare that I ask before taking, especially from a girl of seventeen. Your mother and father would attest to that if they hadn’t… well”—he playfully tapped the two blades so shamelessly displayed on his person—“resisted. Let their spirits rest honorably with these heirlooms restored rightfully to you, and be our houses joined. Bring me your flock when you’ve come to your senses, and embrace the warmth under my roof that other women covet. Or, the next time we meet, if you’re still not prepared to accept my offer, I’ll take far more than you ever knew you had to give.” Then, with a last unflinching look, he lifted higher and flew east while his men rapidly followed.
She stood alone as they left her to weigh what few options she had. But in her mind there was no choice, only a future that she had long dreamt of, in which her prowess with their most valued beasts would propel her beyond those of lesser skill and heart. She would live to see it become a reality, or die.
This warning left little time to plan her response though, and every day that she did not submit, a bloody showdown drew nearer at hand. Her flock was not prepared for that, despite so many weeks of training, venturing far beyond safe territory in search of the finest specimens she could capture… so many sacrifices. None of them could withstand the strain of being tethered to four others that resisted its lead. Yet, one gruesome failure after another, she remained convinced that her ingenious formation would succeed, and free her people from the tyrannical clans that had enslaved them.
Exhausted after so many hours spent looking over her shoulder, she felt confident at least that evasion was no longer necessary tonight. A grassy hill rose up out of the woods, so she climbed it to find comfort under the stars and a broad vantage point. Tomorrow she would have to escalate her strategy without drawing the chieftain to her most precious resources.
Her body yielded to fatigue, but her mind worked too busily to rest, calculating every possible course of action and the consequences each would bring. Finally, her thoughts slowed enough that when she closed her eyes, she began to fall asleep. But just when she let herself sink into the quiet, she heard the unmistakable sound, as a hunter hears game step freely into a trap.
Wings, a single pair, flapped at a relaxed pace, so powerfully that they displaced enough air to be heard from a great distance. She rolled off her back and crawled flat on her elbows, looking out over the wide canyon that divided the mountains of her people from those of the red-caped knights. There, alone and unmanned, soaked in moonlight, flew the most formidable creature she’d ever seen. Its wingspan surpassed the length of three men at least, and she could see the glint of its talons even at such a far stretch. It boldly left safe ground in its wake and trespassed at the edge of a domain where no others of its kind dared to fly, inviting any challenger.
“Welcome home,” she whispered hungrily, tracing its path as she slithered down the hillside. Under the trees again, she sprang up and sprinted toward the area she’d painstakingly avoided while being pursued. The chieftain and his men were likely bedding down miles away by now, thinking that she would comply with his proposal in a matter of days, and she had no time to lose.
As she ran closer to the carefully hidden spot, she started to hear the calls of her flock when they detected the singular presence that had dominated them for so long. Deeper within the woods, she eventually came to a halt as their screeching wails erupted around her. Then, she pulled away meager brown blankets strewn with leaves and twigs to uncover eight immense downy heads sticking out of the ground, flapping their beaks at her like hatchlings about to be fed. Their bodies and wings were still buried as she’d left them, each wearing an iron collar clamped around its neck with chains that were tightly staked in the ground on either side.
“I’ve no food for you tonight,” she said. “But if you help me catch what just flew within reach, we can take whatever we want, and no one will stop us.” She pulled up every stake, and each captive began to wriggle while she slung a large bundle of wire mesh netting over her shoulder. Then she stood before one beast and wrenched it up by its collar, which was harnessed to another set of steel links that wrapped around its abdomen behind the wing bones.
She mounted as both wings emerged to spread wide, and held its restraints like reins when it finally lunged out. Both its feet were shackled together by a short length of chain, which it brought to the beak of another that clamped on to be lifted out. Finally, all eight sprang loose in this manner and broke through the forest roof together.
Sydrenna led her flock in a disciplined formation high through the night sky, her sights firmly set on the target that presented itself as though it had no predators.
Roftome drank in copious starlight above snowy peaks, where the air was unpolluted by the torches of men. He had yearned for such a reprieve ever since committing himself to Morlen’s cause at the southernmost fort, and wished dearly that Morlen were with him now. But Morlen’s cause was deeper than the protection of borders from foes, and he suspected it would soon anchor them both more firmly in the realm of those who called themselves masters of eagle kind. He wondered, if he dwelled there long enough with his companion, would the city men see him as merely another eagle who had been tamed?
He flew past the farthest reaches of the home he remembered so well, and braved the open gorge adjacent to the mountain range where his brothers and sisters knew never to roam. This ominous corner of the world was one even he had avoided all his life, but the thrill of surveying new terrain overrode his already diminished sense of caution. Besides, he had done battle with the fire-breathing leviathan with wings of stone and come out unscathed; what threat remained with which he could not contend?
This was the plan he and Morlen had decided: to leave no cloud untouched, and no peak unexplored. They were meant to embark on that quest together and discover every path in land and sky they’d yet to travel. Such indefinite delay had become harder to stomach of late, and here was the perfect place to begin—where thousands of eagles had been taken, tortured, and broken into obedient shells of their former selves.
Long had he harbored the urge to confront his lost brothers, the Pyrnaq, their brightest feathers caked in dirt, their voices shrill and cold. He would gladly meet them head-on, look in their eyes and hear them speak if they still could, and see if anything of them was salvageable. The free eagles of his beloved mountains had followed him into fire and combat against the most dreadful of men; perhaps there was something still inside his lost brothers that would compel them to follow him home, away from those who kept them.
How could he go back with Morlen to ensure the city men’s continued prosperity, while his own kind languished by the thousands in chains? How could he spend the rest of his days defending an empire of masters who did nothing to protect the wild eagles they so boastfully claimed? And Morlen would surely not go with him now, not while his heart belonged to a woman who could never leave.
The clouds parted to reveal the routes from which he had to choose, leading to the unknown, to new battles worthy of him and challenges that could push the limits of his spirit, and they all held more allure than the one in his wake. But, his bond with Morlen had opened paths within himself that he’d never before realized could be revealed. Where their days of fighting other men’s battles grew tedious, their allegiance and care for one another only grew stronger. After surpassing the lifespans of many men, never had he believed himself able to feel loyalty for any of them. Before, he had thought it a shameful weakness. Now it enriched more than any adventure he’d ever undertaken.
A swell of calm and peace ensued while the celestial roads before him began to fade, and he sensed where he belonged most. As enticing as the unknown was, the thought of coming to know it without his friend brought a hollow feeling that he could not abide. Whatever fights lay ahead, whatever trials remained in store, he did not wish to face them alone. His place was with Morlen, now, and from this day forth.
He made to turn back toward the mountains of his birth, when suddenly a terrible force crashed upon him from above, hurtling him downward while constricting like a serpent’s coils. Links of metal pinned his wings tight against his curled body and cut into his flesh, and he caught only a glimpse of the four eagles that had pounced on him before they hoisted the great snare upward to pinch it closed with their talons. He sagged upside-down beneath them, the tip of his beak protruding through the net while his feet stuck upward, claws ineffectual against it.
His squeezed lungs belted a high-pitched note of rage that pierced the night, and the treacherous beasts squawked in unison to drown him out. He writhed and twisted against the infernal contraption that only dug deeper into bloody feathers, and four more Pyrnaq swarmed him, knocking him back and forth, pecking at him through the wires. Soon his wails no longer had vengeance at their core, but terror, utter anguish, the single word he screamed indecipherable to all but one who was miles away. “Morlen!” he cried desperately. “Morlen!”
But his friend couldn’t hear him, nor could anyone help him now as he dangled limply like a dead fish in the clutches of far worse creatures than he had ever imagined. They hauled their fresh spoils in a well-practiced procession, and he could only look down as the peaks he adored drifted far from view. The canyon over which he’d intrepidly glided soon passed as well, and the Mountains of the Lost opened wide like countless fanged mouths to swallow him whole.
They descended toward their destination, and he resisted their pull with one last ferocious surge, but it was quelled by repeated blows to his skull that left him barely conscious. His vision swam with blurred images as they lowered him through a forest roof and finally let him crash in a tangled heap of metal upon the ground. One beast flapped above him and opened the net while his feet were locked in irons. Two more clamped their beaks cruelly around his legs and pulled him out, dragging him across dirt and leaves before he abruptly slid feet-first into a deep hole.
They showered his body and wings in flurries of dirt from a nearby mound until he was buried from the neck down, and then one of them brought him an iron collar in its beak, a ghoulish coronation as it slipped around his stout head. Hands from an unseen person behind him clamped it closed on his throat, hooked two chains through its rings, and slipped an abrasive blanket over his head. Both chains pulled his neck tightly in opposite directions, and he could feel them lock in place on either side.
Utterly helpless, captured, and quivering in agony, he sat in his shallow grave without the strength to make even a feeble sound. All he could do was wait, either for the cold creep of death, or for the hands that had imprisoned him to lift away his veil to a new world of slow, legendary torment.
Morlen awoke gasping for breath, and sat up sweat-drenched in the forest where he and Valeine had slept, at the western edge of the Speaking River.
“What is it?” she asked, laying her hand gently on his bare back, still half asleep herself.
He drew his knees to his chest and clasped his wrist around them, almost trying to recall a dreadful nightmare. But this terror was more present, more invasive, not a mere collection of frightening images.
“Roftome,” he whispered. “Something’s wrong. He’s in danger. He’s suffering terribly, and he needs me.”
Valeine sat up next to him, her long hair smooth and cool on his shoulder, her breath quite pleasing on his cheek. “It’s early yet,” she replied. “He’s probably sleeping off his night’s hunt. He’ll be back to collect us in no time.”
“No.” Morlen shook his head. “His pain… I first felt it when Felkoth used him to escape the ambush your father set at the capital. I found him in these very woods, slashed and bleeding to death. And now, the way it stings all over, it’s so familiar, but even worse than it was then. I know it’s him.”
She looked out over the river as the sun had just started to rise, not doubting his intuition but never one to leap to drastic conclusions. “We should wait past the hour that he promised to return. If still he doesn’t, the Eaglemasters have many eyes watching far beyond our borders. We’ll be able to ascertain something as to his whereabouts.”
Morlen let out a tense breath and took her hand in his, soothed by her calm resolve. But part of him was already sure that they waited in vain, and the drawn-out tension would only sour what remained of their long-needed solace. He’d desired nothing more than to lie with her peacefully in this serene place, until the day grew late and Roftome came back to him with a wealth of stories to tell. While just yesterday he’d relished the notion of time passing slowly, today couldn’t be over soon enough.
He reclined beside her again, though, wanting to be as much a comfort to her as she was to him every day. She could still sleep at least, and he would let her, pretending to do the same. And as he lay there, a fierce beauty in his arms, his eyes stayed wide open and fixed upon the mountains that towered across the river. He’d heard of the ghastly fates that awaited eagles there, but so many victories had made him feel that he and Roftome were untouchable, especially by a mere specter of danger given life by old stories.
Only the coming hours would reveal the cost of their complacency, and he suspected he might soon begin to pay dearly. But, he could not help but imagine the severe price Roftome had already paid during their brief separation, and how much more would be taken before they were together again.
At noon Valeine basked in the sun beside the water, but her graceful display was utterly lost on Morlen as he stood upon the lower cliffs, searching the skies frantically. Soon it became all too clear: Roftome was not coming back, and the circumstances of his disappearance would not easily unfold.
Valeine solemnly strode up the rocky trail to join him, and her words were hopeful. “Come on, we’ll find someone soon enough. They’ll take us to my brother, and he’ll have any reports that could be of use to us. We’ll find out what happened to him, I promise.”
She held out her hand, and he grabbed it for strength while they trekked higher together. As she’d predicted, it was not long before they spotted an airborne patrol, which seemed to dart in their direction before they made any attempt to signal. Six recently anointed Eaglemasters landed before them, youths who had all fought months before as trainees at the Siege of Veleseor, and they raised their spears in salute.
“Greetings, Lady Valeine, and to you, Eaglefriend,” said their leader. “Are you in need of aid?”
“We need to see the king at once,” she answered. “If two could kindly escort us—”
“Yes, my Lady!” all six volunteered in unison.
She smiled slightly and turned to Morlen, who shrugged as though unable to fault their enthusiasm. “Two will do just fine, gentlemen. I wouldn’t want to draw all of you from your posts, and leave the realm under threat.”
The first soldier who’d spoken ushered his carrier to step forward, and bade the fellow beside him to do the same. “We will gladly take you. Your timing is impeccable, my Lady. King Verald was soon going to summon you both from Veleseor to meet with him.”
“Was he now?” she said, climbing up to sit behind her former pupil while Morlen rode with the other. “Well I shall gladly spare the king’s messenger a trip to the most threatened corner of the realm.”
Morlen peered out as they ascended, not sure which corner that was anymore. They passed for an hour over the southern edge of the Eagle Mountains, and then finally dipped down into the nestled capital. Red flags rippled in the wind, the eagles embroidered upon them appearing to flap their wings vigilantly over every tower. The city’s central villages were still under re-construction, now three months since the Tyrant Prince had invaded only to meet a well-prepared ambush from above.
Their group landed in the courtyard paved with white stone, and all four dismounted to enter the citadel’s great hall. Its marble floors were bright, and the polished silver paneling of its walls shone subtly throughout, casting a fine gleam upon the throne where King Verald sat amid his guards and advisers. He was draped in garments of deep red and wore a silver crown with elegant wings that folded back along either side of it, and in his right hand he held the Crystal Spear like a royal scepter.
At sight of his guests, Verald rose with blond hair resting on broad shoulders, his face bright. “I’m glad to see you, Sister. The three hundred Eaglemasters I dispatched to your city yesterday returned disappointed, saying the fight was finished long before they arrived. The fields were littered and river overflowing with the enemy, they claimed. But their worst complaint was not getting to witness the devastating grace of Morlen and Roftome firsthand.” He nodded a kind welcome to Morlen, who returned the gesture though pained by the utterance of both names together, worried that they might never be paired again except in talk of the past.
“Brother,” Valeine greeted, not lacking respect for the king, but not heaping glory onto him either, since she had done far more than he to save the realm when the Tyrant Prince Felkoth had nearly brought it to collapse. “Roftome is why we’ve come. Last night he ventured alone over the eastern reaches of the Eagle Mountains and never returned. Morlen… we suspect he may have been attacked, and hoped you’d heard anything that could shed some light.”
The young king’s expression suddenly fell, and the way he now silently seemed to offer Morlen his condolences suggested he had indeed heard a disturbing report or two. He sat down in his throne, and stared pensively at the floor before meeting Morlen’s gaze again.
“I,” he began, careful not to assume too much, “did receive a strange account regarding last night. Two of my scouts watched an eagle grander than any they’d ever seen dwelling in the mountains. Their descriptions led me to immediately picture Roftome, having encountered him myself up close long before his loyalty to you, Eaglefriend. But, the notion of him being unmanned, so far from your last known position at Veleseor, seemed quite improbable.”
“It was him,” said Morlen. “We took a night’s leave at the northeast falls after the battle was won, and he wished to explore the mountains.”
“You didn’t accompany him?”
Morlen hoped not to be too bold in his response, though his relationship with the king’s sister was no secret. “I… had other plans.”
Valeine took his hand casually at this, standing before her brother, who needed no further elaboration. The king gave a faint smile of approval, and was content to know that neither of them sought it.
“Did they say more of him?” Morlen asked urgently.
Verald rested his chin upon his left hand as the gravity and consequences of what he was about to divulge set in. “They said he flew east, beyond sight of their post, toward the Mountains of the Lost. And after he’d gone, they heard a terrible cry of distress, which they pursued into the adjacent valley outside of our realm. But there was no trace of him after that.”
Morlen clenched his fist and bowed a sorrowful head while Valeine gripped his other hand more tightly, and he boiled as thoughts of countless atrocities committed against Roftome spun through his mind. He should never have parted with him, never let him fly off by himself into the unknown.
“Morlen,” said Verald, as though to stall him from making a rash decision. “The part you played at the Siege of Veleseor when my sister had no other aid, at the Second Battle of Korindelf when my father and the Eaglemasters had nearly lost hope, your defeat of the Tyrant Prince and his dragon that took so many of those we loved—any one of those acts places us in your debt. Altogether they entitle you to ask anything that is within my power.”
Valeine regarded her brother with a far gentler expression, a tear glistening at the corner of her eye. Morlen, too, was warmed by the declaration.
“I ask nothing. I’m going out there to find him and bring him back.”
“I’ll place fifty Eaglemasters under your command,” said the king. “Seasoned warriors who have endured hardship and blood.”
Morlen shook his head. “You have my gratitude. But, if they can take him and leave no trace, they can take all. I won’t give them that satisfaction, or have them rally their forces in defense. I will go alone, with stealth, and let them keep their guard down. I will be the enemy they never see coming.”
Valeine looked at him sorely. “You could be gone months, a year even, and that’s assuming you encounter no danger.”
“He would do the same for me. He wouldn’t rest knowing someone was bringing me harm. Neither will I.”
She pursed her mouth, fighting back the anger and grief at his quick decision to leave indefinitely. But the regret in his face made it clear that to part from her was no easy choice at all. Deep down she still understood that his intention had been to stay by her side, and that no other circumstance, dire or fortunate, could have divided them. Reluctantly, she accepted the course of action he had resolved to follow, and he saw it in her eyes, to his great relief.
“Stories of the Pyrnaq have troubled us for generations,” said Verald. “Eagles abducted from the very haven behind our own capital, tortured instead of tamed, slaves rather than companions. But so few men have claimed to have ever seen them or their captors. The last expedition of Eaglemasters that flew to investigate the mountains where they supposedly dwell went out over fifty years ago, and never returned, though I’m confident my men under your leadership would not suffer the same fate. If you insist, however, on going alone and on foot, I’ll be sorry not to have you as an ally in the campaign I’ll soon be waging.”
Valeine studied the king more sharply. “That’s why you were about to summon us here.”
“Indeed it is. The war in the East is won at last, an achievement for which we each deserve credit. The shriekers are scattered and leaderless across the Dead Plains, no longer under control of the Dark Blade—Morlen kindly saw to that. They aren’t a threat to Korindelf anymore, not with its newly manned blockade and the small contingent we installed to train its army properly. Our days of being split along two fronts are finally over, and the time has come for us to invade the Wildlands in full force. We will deliver the ferotaurs one thousand times the destruction they’ve inflicted upon us over the centuries, and our people will never have to look fearfully at our southern border again.”
Valeine stood a bit taller in response, as though she had long dreamed of such an opportunity. “And you’re leading this campaign yourself?”
“I’d thought that was rather obvious,” replied the king. “And why not? All five cities in the realm are named to honor the kings who oversaw their construction while beating back the hordes that sought to topple them. They weren’t sitting here every day listening to tedious counselors, having their every need catered to, though I’ll admit I wouldn’t mind a bit more of that. They were at the heart of the action, inspiring valor and devotion. It’s said that Father’s grandfather Veleseus fought in the Wildlands for years before he fell to ensure the completion of the stronghold over which you now preside. I mean to carry on his legacy, to build a future worthy of our realm.”
“And the queen will rule in your stead?” asked Valeine.
Verald nodded with a grin. “Elleth is a natural leader, and she’s already won the people’s hearts—last I heard she was out in the city with a battalion of guards bringing fresh loaves and fruit to those displaced by Felkoth’s invasion. She plays the role of Queen like she’s had years of practice. And she’ll rule far more at ease knowing that my sister is by my side in the coming war.”
Morlen turned his attention to Valeine, their diverging paths fully fledged now. They would forge into opposite, unexplored corners of the world, and both be lucky to find their way out. “I suspect when I return from my quest, I’ll find the realm of Eaglemasters in an unprecedented state of peace thanks to your cause.”
“Peace?” said Valeine, as though it were a foreign word. “That’s the one thing we’ve never trained for.”
“I was hoping you could help me with that as well,” said the king. “I’m not sure I’ll know how to handle a realm with no enemies. To shape something from such newfound freedom will require better ideas than mine alone.”
“I would daresay,” she replied. “And that freedom is something I will gladly help you claim before we tackle the far more daunting task of deciding how best to enjoy it. I’ll return to my city and make it ready to serve as a launching point for your campaign, and the beasts that lick their chops at the sight of it each day will soon run as far from it as they can.”
The king rose in a battle-ready stance. “And I’ll be proud to lead our men alongside you, Sister, toward a brighter age. I only wish that Morlen and Roftome could join us at the head of our charge. And indeed they may before it’s finished. Until that day, Eaglefriend, it seems all I am left to do is bid you a safe journey. May you fare better than those who have gone before you into those mountains, and emerge into open skies with your companion.”
Morlen nodded graciously. “Your hospitality is unparalleled, King Verald.” Then he and Valeine turned and strode out of the hall, into the bright courtyard with the young soldiers who had escorted them. He went to the citadel’s well to fill four water skins, which he tied shut and stored in the pack that held other provisions left from their retreat.
“You’re not wasting any time at all, are you?” said Valeine. “You’re to set out this instant? Without so much as one look back?”
“You’ve heard the stories of what they do to eagles,” said Morlen, strapping the pack over his shoulder with his bow and quiver. “Every second I delay could drive him farther from me in body and mind.”
The Eaglemaster who had transported him mounted his carrier. “I’ll gladly fly you to the territory beyond our realm, Eaglefriend, and leave you at the foot of those mountains.”
Accepting this offer, Morlen climbed up to sit behind him, though still his eyes were on Valeine. “And I’ll be looking back far more than I should, so don’t stray so far that I can’t find you when I return.” They lifted off while Valeine watched from the ground, and Morlen held her gaze until they rose above, passing again over the Eagle Mountains. He wanted no goodbye, no farewell, not with her. She was the only lifeline that connected him to this world now, the only anchor that would keep him from drifting to his doom in the untold perils that awaited.
The sun sank low in their wake when they’d left the realm behind, and Morlen looked out on what he suspected was the last sight Roftome had taken in as a free eagle while they retraced his ill-fated path. Beneath them, the divide widened north of the Quiet Waste, and straight ahead on the other side rose the Mountains of the Lost, picturesque and open to inspection like a creature luring prey.
Morlen patted the Eaglemaster’s arm and signaled for them to descend, so as not to draw him too far from safety while dusk approached. They glided down to skim slowly over the ground, and he disembarked, waving in thanks to the young knight who quickly ushered his carrier to turn back.
Then, with sword and bow ready to be drawn against any adversary, and a few days’ worth of provisions, Morlen advanced alone, following Roftome’s residual presence like one who navigates by the stars through fog. His friend had left him a trail into this place, one that no other inhabitant could detect, and he suspected it would soon be too faint to follow. But what he feared worse than being stranded, worse than never escaping, was what would be left of his friend to find when it faded out altogether.