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.
But 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, intending 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 either side of 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 seemed to dwindle 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. And 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. I broke him.”
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 chest plates 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 with a smooth swish and raised it high, hushing the violent host with its luminous edges and point that drove many to shield their eyes.
But 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 stroke of his sword.
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 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 for a long moment 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. And 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.