Monthly Archives: May 2012

Chapter 3…Under the Rowan Trees.

Chapter 3 as promised, because we hit $3,000 today on my Kickstarter campaign!! Head there to pre-order and see all the fun. This is the last free chapter that I’ll post online… enjoy!

Waaaaiit–make sure you’ve read Chapter 2.  Okay.

 

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~ 3 ~

Under the Rowan Trees

 

 

Shard’s wings cramped in the chilly, damp woods.  If he tried to open them he would strike a tree on either side and tangle in the wild, wiry underbrush.  All stood bare yet from winter except for the long pines and twisting, ancient red juniper that grew evergreen.  Only strange shapes of sunlight reached the ground, mottles of bright and twists of shadow that could have been animals, or just breezes.  Shard was grateful to see that Kjorn was just as twitchy.

Star Island was larger than it appeared from above.  The dark roll of pine, birch and brush, and the river that snaked through them, broken by short rocky cliffs and falls, were beautiful from above.  They became nothing but trouble for a gryfon on foot.

Shard remained at Kjorn’s side as they ranged.  No gryfon was to hunt alone.  Ahead of them, Thyra tracked.  Shard slunk through the trees, edgy in the cool shadows.  He didn’t care for this kind of darkened stalking. 

The witless birds were silent, watching them, and other lesser creatures had fled.  Shard peered around for ravens but saw none.  At his side, Kjorn shone like one of his father’s golden bands every time they walked through the dapples of sun.  Shard’s darker feathers and duller flanks seemed better suited to forest hunting.

But we aren’t meant to hunt on the ground at all.  Shard thought of a gryfess, plunging down on a deer from above.  Hunting through the forest was a warrior’s challenge.  A gryfon, the king insisted, should be able to hunt on any ground he chose. 

Ahead, Thyra paused.  Shard nudged Kjorn, who’d kept walking.  The prince hesitated, lowered his head and peered around, taking slow sniffs.

Shard smelled it too, a musky wash of scent. 

“Wolves,” whispered Kjorn. 

Shard made note of the place.  A round of pale, black-pocked birch and the trickle of water nearby.  “We are in their territory,” Shard said.

The prince swiveled a fierce blue gaze on him.  “We’re in our territory.  The Silver Isles belong to my father and his pride.  You can hunt wherever you like, Shard.”

“I just meant–”

Thyra snapped her beak, cocking her head back at them.  They fell silent, and all three crept forward again.  If they sighted or scented the boar, they would raise a call and all the hunters would drive it out of the trees.  Until then it must be silent hunting.

Damp, spongy earth quieted their footfalls, though Shard kept seeing motion in the shadows at the corners of his vision.  Every time he turned to look, all was still.  Birch trees gave way to a ring of skeletal rowan, gnarled and dark.  In autumn, their berries blazed like forest fires all over the islands, but now they only added to Shard’s tension, for they offered shelter to enemies. 

“I think we’re being watched.”

“Wolves,” Kjorn said again, this time with disdain.  “Too cowardly to try and fight us off.  Maybe they hope to feed off our kill.  I’d see them try!” 

“You sound like you want to meet wolves here,” Shard muttered.  Kjorn cocked his head, eyes bright.  Shard scrounged for even a speck of his friend’s courage.

“And why not?  Think if we took a wolf pelt to my father along with the boar’s meat, think of the honors we—”

“Silence, idiots,” Thyra hissed.  Something moved two leaps ahead.  They froze and crouched.  Thyra perked her long feathered ears, tail-tip twitching, and lifted her beak to sniff. 

Beside Shard, Kjorn’s tension felt like a ball of skyfire, ready to burst and light up the woods.  His tail twitched, talons clutched the carpet of pine needles.  Shard watched his prince warily, hoping he kept to Caj’s instructions. 

Thyra’s tail flicked up to signal, feathers fanning open at the end for a half breath before she lowered it again. She had spotted the boar.  Kjorn and Shard exchanged a look and parted from each other to circle around the sides.  In a triangle, they could drive it out of the woods.

Shard’s heart beat so thunderously through his ears he was surprised it didn’t frighten the boar in the wrong direction.  Shadows moved in the corner of his eye.  He stopped, looked, clamped his will against a warning snarl. 

Now!”  Thyra’s shriek dragged him back to the hunt. 

Shard hadn’t even seen the boar, and the wind was wrong for him to smell it.  But he trusted her, ramped up to stand on his hind legs and flared his wings, only to knock them against two trees.  He stamped his feet to earth and bellowed, a young lion’s roar deep in his chest.  Kjorn’s fierce cry answered his across the woods.  The brush rustled between them and Shard leaped forward.

He saw a flash of hard gray hide, snarled and snapped his beak in threat.  The boar wheeled to charge Kjorn.  Shard leaped after it, and Thyra shouted.

“Stay!  It’s only threatening.  We’ll drive it out of the trees over there!”

Shard looked.  Ahead, the trees broke to a rockier, grassy expanse of meadow.  He heard Kjorn’s shriek and forced himself not to run to help.  He kept to the plan and waited, crouching, ready to harry the boar if it came back his way.  The bright shine of gold ahead was Kjorn, and Shard watched over the underbrush.  He heard Thyra fighting through underbrush and trees to get closer, trying to distract the boar away in the right direction. 

Shard trotted forward.  The woods remained still and silent.  He lifted his ears, scented.  The wind shifted and the boar’s scent struck like a wing blow.  Shard froze. 

Brush rustled and he saw the hump of the creature’s back.  He braced and roared a challenge. 

The boar broke from the heavier brush straight to the trees where Shard crouched.  His throat clamped against another roar.  The boar’s cloven hooves tore the earth.  He stood as tall at the shoulder as Shard and glared with tiny, wet, red eyes.  Skin as thick and hard as rock sheathed the muscled body, all as Caj said.  Unable to roar, Shard ducked his head and opened his beak in a long hiss, clawing the damp earth. 

The boar squealed.  Shard knew Thyra and Kjorn had to hold their own ground.  It was up to him to drive the beast back.  In all the tales ever told of hunts, courage and glory, no one had ever warned of the tight, cold feeling Shard felt in his belly.

He forced a step forward, then another, raising his wings to make himself look bigger, stronger, and fearless, though terror arced through him. 

The boar shook its ugly head and squealed, a split, three note, horrible sound.  A horrible sound that, to Shard’s awe, dissolved itself into words.

I will not die for your glory, thief.”

Stupid, boars are supposed to be witless!  Shard had no chance to balance his shock.  The boar stamped the ground and charged, thundering forward through the brush.  He drove through tangle and thorn, tusks tearing, hard shoulders snapping twigs. 

Panic and confusion burst inside Shard and he flared his wings without thinking, shoving up from the ground.  The bare, wiry birch caught his wings, tangled his feathers.  Rowan limbs bent and snapped.  He could not beat the air to gain height.  He clawed at the trunks and branches around him like a panicked kit, like a lesser wildcat, a squirrel.  A coward.  More branches snapped under his wings.  The boar rammed its shoulder against the birch.  Shard clung and tried mustering a roar.  Nothing came. 

The boar struck again.  Bark and birch twig fluttered to the ground.  Shard shoved his hind legs against the birch trunk, leaped and caught purchase on a thick, twisted juniper.  Only one leap off the ground, but the boar couldn’t reach him.  It rampaged past with an evil, laughing squeal.

The colors of other gryfons flashed in the meadow beyond the trees.  Braver gryphons.  Einarr and Halven were already proving themselves warriors. 

Roars and shrieks met Shard’s ears.  Relief tingled in him, then shame.  Cautiously he slid down from the tree, leaving long talon scars in the red trunk.  He flexed his wings and found them undamaged, if a little bruised, and he felt calmer knowing he could fly.  A broken paw mended easily.  A broken wing mended with the help of a gryfon healer, or not at all, and being stranded flightless on Star Isle could mean death. 

Shard turned toward the meadow, ready to make up for his cowardice.

“Only a fool would stand ground alone against old Lapu,” a female voice said.  Shard whirled, hissing, and saw no one.  “I’m glad to see you aren’t a fool, Rashard son-of-the-Nightwing.”

“Show yourself!”  He turned in a circle, wings half open, though he didn’t dare try to fly in the woods again.  All the other gryfons pursued the boar to the meadow.  He was alone.  A scent washed him, musky, woodsy. 

Wolf.

When he stood still at last and moved only his ears he heard her, and turned.

In the woods she blended as well as a shaft of sunlight, or a shadow, or a leaf.  The wolves of the Star Isle grew nearly as large as gryfons.  Unlike the lesser beasts that ranged the little forests of the lesser islands, they also boasted bold coloring, had names, and spoke.  What he could see of her coat was like the red heather of summer, but those spots in the sunlight shifted color like gryfon feathers, iridescent gray and gold.  She stood under the tallest of the rowan trees. 

“Who are you?  Speak!”

She stepped forward, ears up, alert but not threatening, amber eyes brightHer hackles remained smooth, her stance passive.

“I am Catori.  Why do you hunt the great boar?”

“For meat,” he lied, then, thinking of Kjorn, angled his head proudly.  “For the great kill, to prove our worth.  For the glory of the king.”  Even as he spoke he wondered why he was explaining himself to her instead of attacking, or leaving to join his fellows.

“Which king?”  She stood rooted as a pine tree, inscrutable as the whispering birch.  Shard hesitated.  The wind shifted through the naked branches and pine boughs and seemed to echo her in tiny voices, Which king?  Which king? 

Snapping his gaze up, he saw only branches rustling in the whispering breeze, and birds.  He looked back to the she-wolf, narrowing his eyes.

“The only king.  Sverin son-of-Per, king of the Silver Isles.”

Her nose wrinkled, showing the sharp points of her teeth.  “King of the Sun Isle, you mean.  King of thieves.  There is already a king on the Star Isle.  Gryfons don’t belong here.”

“We belong wherever we wish.  Wherever we fly.  Fight me if you don’t think so.” 

Movement caught his eye and he looked up.  A raven sat in the branches above, bobbling back and forth and chuckling.  Shard wondered if it the same as earlier that morning.  Did it track me, tell the wolves, cause this trouble

“I have no wish to fight you.”  The wolf drew his attention back down.  “Though you trespass here, and your king has hunted my family.”

“Trespass?”  Shard forced a bold laugh, thinking of Kjorn.  These islands belong to us.  “As for the king, Sverin hunts wolves because you harry our hunts on Star Isle.  It’s your own fault.”

“A vicious circle.”  She tilted her head.  “But which came first, Rashard, the mountain, or the sea?”  Above, the raven guffawed and sidled on his branch, echoing her. 

Shard hesitated and fluffed.  Her answer made no sense, and yet with the words came a memory, the low and thrumming voice of a male gryfon.  My father’s voice?

Which sprang first, Rashard, the mountain or the sea?  Not even the eldest could tell, whether first came wave or tree.

“Which came first?”  The raven winged to another branch. 

Words Shard didn’t remember learning clawed his mind and he whispered, “The silence, or the song…” 

“Not even the rowan could say,” murmured Catori,  “had it a voice, and lived so long.”

Shard backed down two steps, wanting to flare, to fly, staring at the wolf before him.  This was madness, all of it.  He needed to return to Kjorn’s side. 

Then an idea struck like skyfire.  He could take a wolf as his prize today.  Kjorn had said it himself.  What honors might Sverin give me, then?  He stamped a taloned foot.

“Enough of this wolf witchery.  Drive me off if you don’t like me here.  Fight me.  I challenge you!”

He snarled, flattened his ears and opened his wings.  The wolf didn’t move.  Then he saw why.  More movement.  More shadows.  The scent clouded him and warbled growls and mutters mocked him from the trees. 

Wolves surrounded him.  He just hadn’t seen them.

“Now answer me truly, Rashard.”  Her eyes glowed in the slant of sun.  “Why do you hunt the great boar?”

Aching to fly, to escape, or to leap and fight, Shard shifted, unable to stand still.  Why did I think I could hunt and fight alone? 

His breath short, he answered the truth in anger.  “To prove my worth as a warrior.  To earn a place in the pride, so I won’t be exiled.”

“Exile,” murmured the she-wolf.  He wondered if she would be so brave if she didn’t have the support of the wolves in the trees.  He doubted it.  He noticed, after seeing the raven, that Catori wore two long, dark feathers twisted neatly into the heavy fur of her neck.  Only bird talons could have done that work.  She was in league with ravens. 

“Exile might not be so bad, Rashard.”

“Stop saying my name,” he snarled.  “How do you know me?”

She turned one ear to the raven, who cackled and babbled his name over and over.  “For your honesty, and for your family, I will tell you how to kill the boar.”  Her amber eyes seemed mischievous, then fierce and sad.  Shard grew alert in spite of himself.  “He has had a life so long that he has outlived any kind of joy.  Even we would be glad not to lose more cubs to his hooves.”

Shard lifted his wings.  “We know how to kill the boar.” 

She tilted her head.  “Do you?”

He hesitated.  It had to be some kind of wolf trick, to keep him away from the hunt, to keep him from helping Kjorn.  But then, wouldn’t they have attacked by now? The vicious wolves Caj described did not seem to be the same kind of wolf that stood before him now, speaking with quiet reason.  He also hadn’t expected the boar itself to speak.  Shard feared more surprises.  Do we truly know how to kill the boar

The thought of attacking this wolf who knew his name, who had spoken as reasonably as any gryfon, didn’t feel right.

Today was about the boar, about Kjorn, about supporting Kjorn.  If this wolf knew how to kill the boar, then Shard had to learn.

“Tell me what you have to say.”  He lifted his head.  A breeze sifted through the woods, ruffling his feathers.  “Then leave me.”

She yipped a laugh, then, to his surprise, stretched down and lowered her head in a mocking bow.  “Why, yes, great gryfon.  Yes, of course, we will leave you to your most important business.”

More yips rose, then full howls of laughter.  Their ghostly voices sent shudders through his chest and the skin under his feathers flushed.  Then the red she-wolf stepped forward from under the rowan tree, her soft fur making her silent in the underbrush, until she stood so close he could have stretched a talon to her throat.

She wasn’t afraid of him, Shard realized.  He knew then that she wouldn’t be even if she faced him alone.

That near, her amber eyes glowing in the sun, she told him what he must do to kill the boar.

Image

(Character of Catori, and this image are copyright.

You do not have my permission to use this character

or post this art anywhere else, unless you give credit to

artists Akreon and Tanathe, and are helping me to promote my book 😉

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Chapter Two, A Raven Speaks

Wait! Make sure you’ve read Chapter One!

 

~ 2 ~

A Raven Speaks

 

Shard checked his terror and bowed low, wings splayed.  His mother’s honor, his place in the pride, and his life all depended on his resolve now. 

“My lord.”  Your fear is only a wind, his mother once said.  It may shape your flight, but not you.  “You know me—”

“Son-of-Sigrun.”

Shard couldn’t read the emotion in Sverin’s low voice, but he made a point of using his mother’s name.  No one ever uttered his father’s, if they knew it. 

“As wingbrother to my son, I expected you first in line.”

I would have been!  If I’d known about the time change.  But everyone else had known.  Excuses were useless.  Shard straightened, grinding his beak.  The Red King looked huge in the dawn, heavy with gold and the edge of threat that gleamed whenever he looked at Shard.  The gentle, chilly breeze stirred against him, and he found his voice.

“I hope to keep surprising you today, my lord,” he managed, then clamped his beak.  The king flattened one ear, then chuckled with surprise, ears perking. 

“You’re a loyal friend to my son.  His wingbrother.  Not chosen lightly.  You, I’m afraid, have more to prove than any other.  Your father resisted mine.  Your mother was blatant in her disregard for the ways of conquering–”

“Only by asking that I be permitted to live,” Shard broke in, and his heart nearly stopped.  He had interrupted the king. 

Sverin’s eyes narrowed and the next words tumbled out of Shard.  “But she took a new mate, of the Aesir. Your own wingbrother.  She serves you as healer.  My father fought you, but that made him a warrior.  There is courage in my line, my Lord.  And loyalty.  I don’t know my father’s name and I don’t wish to.  Let me prove myself to you.  For  Kjorn, my wingbrother.”

He said the word again, just to remind the king.  Breathless as if he’d flown six leagues, Shard thought it was best to stop there, and bowed so low his beak touched the ground. 

The king spoke quietly.  “Well said.”

Shard didn’t dare lift his gaze. 

“My son loves you well.  For my son’s sake, you may hunt.  For your sake and your mother’s, prove your words true.”

Dismissed, Shard dipped his head once and trotted away, every muscle screaming to scurry away just as Einarr had done.  Relief slipped over him like cool water after flight.  He didn’t look at the king again, but felt the gold eyes burning him until he was out of sight.

When he looked up again he saw Kjorn, gold as the sun on the slope. Shard broke into an undignified sprint, shedding terror in the running.

“He said yes,” he gasped, bowling into Kjorn. 

“Of course he did!”  The prince laughed, shoving Shard off with a thrust of his wing.  “Now hurry.  Caj and the others are meeting at the Star Cliff.”

“Caj will wait on you.”  Shard laughed as they shoved into the sky. 

The Day Star glimmered in the late dawn, guiding their flight.  Just as the rising sun marked the dawnward quarter of the sky, and the setting sun marked nightward, the starward direction was so named because the star in that part of the sky always shone first in the evening and died the last at dawn.  If a gryfon flies far enough starward, his mother once told him, he will reach the freezing cold top of the world.  To the sharpest gryfon eye, the Day Star could be seen even in the brightest part of the day. Shard’s happy thoughts marveled as they flew starward.  

The hunt!  The thought rolled happily over his mind and Shard soared through the air, the terror of seeing another gryfon banished before him washed away in relief and hope.  He laughed and chased Kjorn lower until they saw the group of hunters milling on Star Cliff.  Shard counted only seven.  Einarr and Halvden, four experienced gryfess hunters and, of course, Caj.

“If his Highness is quite ready now,” Caj rumbled as Shard and Kjorn landed hard and loped over the stunted grass. 

“We are,” Kjorn said, including Shard.  All but Caj mantled low as the prince approached.  Instead, Caj loosed a short, disapproving huff. 

Caj stood taller than most, his flanks scarred from countless battles with gryfons and other beasts, his broad wings bright as a cobalt sea under the sun, his lion haunches rich gold.  The king’s honored wingbrother flaunted no metal or gems.  He probably saw Kjorn as nothing more than another bumbling young male adding weight to the hunt.

And Shard, he barely saw at all. 

“Nest-father,” Shard murmured, inclining his head.  Caj lashed his tail in answer and he paced to higher ground.  Not his true father, but his mother’s mate. 

Surely he doesn’t begrudge my coming?  More honor for our family, his nest? 

“Shard!”  One of the gryfess hunters bounded forward with a happy cry.  Shard’s nest-sister.  Of course she would be hunting with them. She would probably help Caj to lead. 

“Thyra!” 

The daughter-of-Caj glimmered pearly lavender in the morning, and before Shard could offer more greeting, she slammed into him and they both rolled across the grass, laughing and kicking like kits.  The other gryfons, irritated, cleared from their rollicking path, until Caj’s short, deep-chested growl halted them. 

“Save your energy.  Daughter.

At Caj’s voice, Thyra raised her head, at once a huntress, sleek and proud.  Caj snapped his beak and lifted his wings for attention.

“The boar will not be so playful.”  All the gryfons turned fierce eyes to Caj, watching the him pace the edge of the cliff.  Mostly he addressed the new males, his golden eyes only rarely checking the trio of younger females, and never Thyra.  They all knew what to expect.  Shard fluffed.  His nest-sister was one of the finest hunters of the Sun Isle. 

“This morning we sighted a boar on the nightward side of Star Island.  Deep in wolf territory.  Beware not only of the boar, but of our enemy.  If they catch a gryfon on the ground, they will not be merciful.”  He cast sharp looks at the young males.  “I know this.”

Fights were inevitable on contested hunting grounds.  Shard’s gaze strayed to the scars on Caj’s flank as the old warrior delivered a strategy for flushing the boar out of the tangled underbrush, thick rowan and pine.  Dangerous ground for gryfons, perfect for wolves and boar. 

Shard listened, determined to be a part of the victory, though the kill would go to Kjorn. 

Caj paused, raking them with his gaze.  Feathered ears snapped forward, heeding.  Caj was more dangerous than any wolf.

“A boar is deadly, even to the strongest gryfon.  You haven’t hunted, any of you, until you’ve hunted boar.  They have weapons to rival ours.  Hooves sharp as ice.  Tusks as strong and sharp as a gryfon claw and three times as long.”  He addressed that to Halvden, who stopped preening and blinked to attention.  Caj went on.  “Because of their thick skin, you cannot kill from above, like a deer.  You must get underneath.”  Caj flexed his black talons against the peat, squeezing out rainwater as if he held the boar’s throat before them.  “You must fight on the ground.  Boars are fast.  They’re also stupid, which makes them fearless.  If we can’t get the beast off its feet, we can’t kill it.”  His gaze stopped on Kjorn.  “We can only bring down our prey together.”

He held Kjorn’s gaze until the gold prince dipped his head.  “If you survive,” Caj rumbled coolly to all, “you will have proven yourselves worthy of the king’s pride and he may choose to let you remain.  Hunt well.”  Shard shifted his feet, anxious to move.  Caj’s next words blazed sunlight through his blood.  “In the light of sun, with the grace of great Tyr, for the glory of the king, we hunt, we fly!” 

Caj flared his bright wings and lifted from the ground with a ringing cry.  The four females rose behind him.  Kjorn and Shard leaped into the sky with the other young males, and all followed Caj’s flight starward.

They ranged into the wind with Caj at point and Thyra far on the left flank.  The six islands shone under them in the dawn, and Shard focused starward.  With the others ranged out he flew nearly alone in the sky, and took the moment to gather himself.  All he needed to do was stay at Kjorn’s side.  To go at all was an honor.  If he helped to bring down the boar and managed not to die in the process, why . . . he tried not to think so far ahead. 

The paw print stamp of the islands floated under them. The great Sun Isle formed its heel, with the five toes of Star Isle, a crescent mass called Talon’s Reach, then mountainous Pebble’s Throw, Crow Wing, and Black Rock. 

Aside from the Sun Isle where Sverin ruled, and the Star Isle, overrun with wolves, there was no good place for a gryfon to live.  The other islands lay mostly barren, with sparse game and little shelter.  No wonder most exiled gryfons fled the Isles completely. 

With the clouds still drifting clear of the sky over the islands, Shard could see nearly all of the Sun Isle, their home island and the largest.  Most of it rolled in a grassy, rock-strewn plain of peat and rough earth, scattered with hills that led into a thrust of barren mountains.  The Nightrun River split the land, rolling down from the White Mountains to plunge over a cliff into the sea.  Birch and juniper forest rose up around it and little streams tendriled off into the rest of the isle. 

Shard had spent most of his kithood in that wood, catching bugs and then hare and birds with Kjorn and Thyra.  Only small game lived on Sun Isle but for the reindeer in the snowy, more dangerous mountains.  The White Mountains in the far starward edge of the island lent cold rainy winters to Sverin’s pride on the windland coast, and bitter cold and snow to the other side of them. 

If exiled, Shard would have nowhere to live on Sun Isle.  If he even stayed in the Silver Isles.  Most exiles had fled.  No one really knew if they even survived the flight oversea to somewhere beyond.  Shard thought of the copper gryfon, exiled that very morning.

Where will Einarr’s brother go?

A harsh cackle nearly sent Shard out of his feathers and he veered.  A raven.  A raven had called at him through the high air.  Why would a raven fly so high?

“I’m not hunting,” Shard growled.  “I have no scraps for you, pest!”

“But you are hunting,” the raven taunted.  “Aren’t you?”  Shard glanced around to make sure no others saw him speaking to the bird.  Kjorn would have laughed himself out of the air.  Unlike lesser birds, ravens had learned the gryfon’s tongue in the First Age.  Shard knew they had done it only to be bothersome. 

“No.  Do you see anything up here to hunt?  Leave me in peace.”

“If you were in peace, I would leave you, son-of-Sigrun.”  The bird snickered, clicking its beak in good imitation of a chiding gryfon mother.  Heat flushed under Shard’s feathers. 

“How do you know me?”

The raven studied him with one black eye.  “You are Rashard, son-of-the-Nightwing, the last born Vanir of the Silver Isles?”

Shard ground his beak, gaze flicking about.  If anyone saw him talking to a raven–but his curiosity bubbled.  He had never heard of the Nightwing.  Or anything else about his father.  “I am Rashard.  Speak plainly.”

The bird snickered and dove back toward the islands.  For a heartbeat Shard considered catching him, and his wingtips twitched.  Only the thought of what Caj would say of him falling out of ranks to chase a mudding carrion eater stopped him.  He stared until the speck of raven disappeared into the bleak green of Star Island.

There were too many reputations to guard.  His own, Kjorn’s, his mother’s.  Even Caj.  Shard knew nothing of his father, or this Nightwing, and he knew that was of his mother’s design.  And didn’t I just tell the king I didn’t care?

Caj gave the call to descend toward the forest.  The call for the hunt to begin.

Shard narrowed his eyes, tucked his wings and dove.

 

~~~~~

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Chapter One

At long last, the first chapter of The Song of the Summer King…

~ 1 ~

The Red King

 

Fresh morning air lifted clouds and gulls above the glimmering sea, and drew one young gryfon early from his den.  Too early, just before sunrise when forbidden darkness still blanketed the islands.

The sun rose unhurriedly from the glittering sea, and Shard strained against the steep sky, breathing deep, challenging himself to the highest possible dive.  The sea spun below him.  His mind flickered lightly in the thin air and he shoved down panic.  Some would call it too high.

His wings drew in and flapped out sluggishly, feeling separate from his body.  He had to bank, to get lower, breathe the deeper air.

Night sparked at the edge of his mind.  His dreams flocked up from the night before.  Nightmares of the impending initiation hunt.

The hunt!  Shard thought wildly. What’s the sunmark? 

Dreams scattered like crows from Shard’s mind.  He gave up on grace and tucked his wings to dive.  His thoughts collapsed for three breaths as he plummeted on faith toward the sea, blind and gasping.  Plenty of sky stretched below him.  Plenty of room to fall, to breathe, to regain safe air.

Terrifying chills laced his muscles.  The hunt, the hunt haunted him.  In his dream he’d been late, missed it completely and faced banishment from the pride.  But as Shard fell lower, he realized that the sun still hovered, dipped in the sea, that the dawn rippled softly across the water.  Not as much time had passed as he’d thought.

The ocean swelled toward him and Shard shrieked into the morning to warn gulls from his path.  He shoved his wings and feathered tail to flare, the hard stop shocking his muscles.

It was never the dive that was dangerous, his nest-father had taught.  It was the landing.  Shard laughed, raw and breathless, and turned to regain some sky.  He angled his tail to help him turn.  His tail swept long like a mountain cat’s for balance, but feathers lay over the length, and could fan wide at the end to help with flying.

Shard floated higher on gentler, warmer air, still far above land.

Small, bright breezes pushed under his wings and buffeted the soft feathers of his face, bringing him scents from all the islands.  He reveled in the damp spring air, still edged with winter in its coldest gusts, and wheeled through the tattered clouds that had left rain the night before.  He flew high enough to see the whole cluster of the Silver Isles, bunched like the stamp of a gryfon’s hind paw.  They stood alone in the cold starland sea.

An eagle scream pierced his thoughts and in the high, thinner air above, it sounded like his name. 

Shard!

Ocean rolled under him.  He shouldn’t have flown out so far or so high, but Shard only felt truly free up in the wind, and he had to practice high flying to keep up with his larger peers.  He peered down at the islands.  Today, a hunt on one of those isles would determine his future.

“Shard!”

It was his name.  And whoever called it sounded worried.

Shard’s ears twitched as he tucked his long wings and dove for the nesting cliffs on the dawnward side of the massive Sun Isle.  Not the fast, plummeting dive he had planned, to clear his head, but straight and steady.

Shame at his cowardice wriggled.  Next time.

“Shard!”

This time he knew the voice, and keened a response.  A mote of gold circled below him, what looked like a huge fishing eagle.  It wasn’t.

The broad, bronze-black faces of the nesting cliffs glittered in the low morning light.  Shard stretched his talons forward, laughing into the wind that beat back his long, feathered ears and rippled the last of the winter coat on his flanks and hind legs.  He aimed for the gold gryfon below him, who was shouting.

“You’re late!”

“Not yet, Kjorn!”  Shard laughed at his gold friend, and before Kjorn realized Shard wasn’t slowing, Shard slammed into him from above and sent them both sprawling lock-claw toward the sea.

“Get off!”  Head tossing, tail lashing, Kjorn shrieked and tried to pry free.

“Did you see how high I flew?”

“You’re a mudding genius.  Shard, listen!

They fell, a tangle of gray and golden feathers, wings flashing and snapping.  Salt waves leaped and crashed toward them.  Kjorn wrenched free and wheeled away.  Shard corrected and glided up beside him.

“Did you forget the sunmark?”  Kjorn was a third again Shard’s size, gold as the morning and with eyes a rare summer blue.

“No,” Shard murmured, gulping a breath.  “I had to clear my head.”

“That shouldn’t have taken long.”

Shard laughed and banked to catch Kjorn’s wing, but Kjorn shoved higher, avoiding another spar.  “The others have gathered already.”

“But we weren’t going to present until the sun reached middlemark!”

Kjorn stretched his talons.  “It was changed.  Didn’t you hear?”

“No.  Is your father there yet?”

“My father the king.”

“Your father the king,” Shard corrected, perking his ears toward the nesting cliffs as he and Kjorn glided in.  Gryfons moved about on different levels of the cliffs, little bits of color waking, stretching deeply, bowing to the morning sun.  Shard and Kjorn floated on the buoyant air over the rocks to the highest cliff overlooking the dawnward quarter of the sea.

“No,” Kjorn said.  “He hasn’t come back yet.  He flew along the coast at sunrise, to ask Tyr’s blessing for the hunt.”

“Then I’m not late.”  Irritation sizzled under his feathers, and worry.  Why wouldn’t I have heard of the time change?  Did someone say something, Mother, or Thyra, and I forgot it? 

He shook off worry as they glided in.

Copper Cliff shone like its namesake in the dawn.  A flat, grassy round formed the top of a cliff that dropped sharply into the sea, and a tumble of stones from the First Age sat in rough display near the edge.  A perfect place for the king of the pride to stand and speak.

Or judge.

Shard and Kjorn angled toward the broad sloping meadow that stretched deeper inland from the cliff, and landed together.  Kjorn thumped hard on the rocky peat, Shard a falcon’s touch beside him.

Kjorn eyed his landing and ruffled.  “Are you prepared?  I thought we were going to spar this morning.”

Shard folded his wings and dipped his head.  “I had to fly,” he murmured.  The rush of flight seeped out of him and anxiousness slithered back in its place.  Exile didn’t hover over Kjorn’s head if he did poorly on the initiation hunt, only embarrassment.  Shard could lose everything.  “I’m prepared.”  I hope.

He remained one of the few males in the pride not friend or kin to Sverin, the king.  Since he had come of age, he could only stay if he proved himself useful and loyal.  “But I’m worried,” he said, softly so only Kjorn and the wind would hear.

“I’m with you, brother,” Kjorn stared him in the eye, “whatever happens.  I told my father I wouldn’t hunt without you.”

Shard perked his ears, and stretched out a gray wing.  Kjorn fluffed happily and extended his own golden wing to eclipse it.  “Wind under me when the air is still.”

Shard took up the wingbrother pledge.  “Wind over me when I fly too high.”

“Brother by choice.”

“Brother by vow.”

“By my wings,” they said together, “You will never fly alone.”

“Kjorn–”

“After the hunt,” Kjorn said, folding his wing, “you’ll show me how you flew so high, and that fast dive–”

“If I’m still here,” Shard tried to joke.

Kjorn bumped at Shard’s ear with his beak.  “Go.

Shard bounded up the slope toward the king’s rocks.  He didn’t see the king yet, but three other young males waited in a line below them.  A coppery male several years Shard’s junior, almost too young to hunt, looked relieved to see him trot up.  He and Shard exchanged a nervous look, but before Shard remembered his name, the young gryfon looked away and whispered to the gryfon ahead of him, also copper-brown.

“Is it true that the king killed three wolves on his initiation hunt?”

“No,” drawled an answer before the older copper could speak.  All three looked to the green gryphon who stood first in line.

A year Shard’s junior, bright emerald, his name was Halvden.  A son of the Conquering.  Shard flattened his ears.  All three gryfons ahead of him were bigger, even the youngest, for half their breeding was of Sverin the king’s pride, called the Aesir, from across the Windland Sea.  Of all the young gryfons in the pride, only Shard’s blood was fully of the Silver Isles.  Of the smaller, conquered pride, called the Vanir.

Halvden continued, carelessly using the king’s full name.  “Sverin’s initiation came when he and his father conquered the Silver Isles.  We might take a great beast,” he said with a knowing glint, “but the king took a kingdom.  Hello, Shard.”

Shard tensed his wings.  Everyone knew Halvden was a braggart.  It was why Shard avoided him most of the time.  But there was no avoiding this.  “Fair winds, Halvden.”

Halvden turned fully, as if he couldn’t care less when the king arrived, to face Shard and the other two gryfons.  “Fair winds, son-of-Sigrun.”  The word cut.  His mother’s name.  No one knew his father’s.  “I saw you flying.  Were you hoping Sverin would be so impressed that he would allow you to skip the hunt?  Or that your nest-father would excuse you on account of your disadvantage?”

Heat burned under Shard’s feathers.  “I hunt as well as you.”

“Yes, the field mice of Sun Isle live in terror of you.”  Halvden flicked his tail, idly fanning the feathers at the end to show off the colors.  He even had a handsome tail, Shard thought in dismay.

A breeze picked up between them.  The cool weedy scent of the Nightrun river drifted to them and Shard tried to let it calm him.

“Quail and mice,” Halvden continued when Shard didn’t rise to his first insult.  “I heard that old Caj and your nest-sister spotted a boar on Star Island.  That beast would strip your feathers to line its den before you could take to the sky.”

“I wouldn’t fly.”  Shard bristled, raising the longer hackle feathers behind his ears and down his neck.

“Have you ever seen such a beast?”

“Have you?”

Halvden flared his wings, advancing a step.  The younger gryfon in front of Shard crouched back and spread his wings a little in deference, stepping out from between them.  The older copper gryfon didn’t move to interfere, and Haldven raised his head higher than Shard’s.  “The only reason you’re here is because the prince begged–”

“Prove that!”  Shard crouched, ready to leap and fight. Against Halvden, he knew he would probably lose.

“Enough,” rumbled the older, copper gryfon, stepping forward so his shadow fell over Shard.  He stood as tall as Halvden, though he looked older.  “Prove yourself on the hunt, Halvden.  Not here.”

Halvden paused, sizing up the older gryfon.  He seemed familiar to Shard, though he couldn’t place why.

Halvden perked his ears in mock attentiveness.  “I don’t think I should follow the advice of your family–”

“The king comes,” said the older gryfon.  Halvden blinked and spun as they all perked ears toward the king’s rocks.  The king glided in from his morning flight, massive wings flaring, stirring the grass as he landed on the top of his rocks.

The largest of the pride, Sverin son-of-Per looked every bit a king.  He wore gold, crusted with emerald and sparkling catseye, around his neck, and golden bands clamped to his forelegs just above the spread of black talons.  Tokens from Sverin’s grandfather’s war with dragons in the farthest arctic lands across the sea.  The dawn outlined his copper flanks, throwing sheen across the scarlet feathers of his shoulders and the deep crimson of his face.

Shard and the others bowed.  Other gryfons in the distance paused their morning business to watch the judgments.

“Halvden, son-of-Hallr,” rumbled Sverin, wasting no niceties. Halvden stepped forward and mantled, letting his green wings droop from his shoulders and spreading his long flight feathers in a handsome display of respect.

Shard tightened his own plain, gray wings to his sides.

Dull as a sparrow and about as usefulHalvden was right.  What have I ever hunted but quail and mice? 

Sverin regarded Halvden fondly.  “Your father is a great warrior, and a friend.  Your mother was wise to choose him.  If you prove yourself half the gryfon he is today, I shall be proud to have you in my ranks.”

Halvden fluffed and then let his feathers smooth to sleekness with more dignity, dipping his head.  “Let’s hope I can prove myself by more than half, my Lord.”  He mantled again and strutted off when the king flicked a wingtip in amused acceptance.

Shard perked his ears again, hopeful and attentive.  Halvden had barely needed to say anything.  Maybe it won’t be so hard.  Then the older copper in front of Shard stepped up and mantled.

Sverin’s golden eyes cooled.

“Son-of-Vidar,” he rumbled.

That was a Silver Isles name.  A conquered name.  Shard fought the urge to cower and pretended he was made of stone.

“Your father was of the Vanir of the Silver Isles.  You’ve waited long enough to seek this honor.”

“I thought it best,” said the copper quietly.  “To let things calm down.”

“I remember your father.”

“I don’t, my Lord.”  The copper gryfon’s voice remained blank.  “My mother is a huntress of your clan.  Your father’s cousin.”

And Shard remembered.  Four winters ago, Sverin had banished a gryfon for flying at night, which was forbidden by their bright god, Tyr.  Exile at any time meant questionable survival.  Exile in winter meant death.  The exiled gryfon had been this gryfon’s father.

“Why didn’t you seek to reconcile with me sooner?”  The king’s tail lashed.  The large copper gryfon lifted his head, ears flattening.

“I wasn’t flying at night, my king.”

“You’re of his blood.  You should have sought honor.  Apology.  Redemption.”  The king raised his voice; it cracked and rolled down the slope.  “Or were you afraid.

“No,” snapped the copper, wings lifting in agitation.  Shard forced his own feathers to stay smooth, calm, but saw the younger gryfon ahead of him step back, half-cowering.

The king lowered his head, eyes blazing gold.  “You are a coward, the son of an oath-breaker, who now seeks to strut up to me and expect a place in this pride.  I need strength in my pride.  Courage.  Loyalty.

“I am loyal!”  But he flared his wings and crouched, his voice rising in threat.

“You will not hunt and fly in my ranks, son-of-Vidar.  Your blood is poisoned by your father’s betrayal and disregard for my law.”

Silence.

Trying to take a breath against his tight throat, Shard then had to stifle a gasp.  Refused, before getting a chance to hunt? 

The larger copper gryfon stared at the king, eyes wide, the black centers pinpointed in the panic of a witless eagle.  “What are you saying, my Lord?”

“Leave this pride.  I will not have you.”

“My mother, and brother–”

“Are better off without you.”

Silence stretched taut across the slope and the rocks and for a moment Shard thought the copper gryfon would spring, and challenge the king himself.  His copper wings twitched.  Then his gaze twitched to the younger gryfon behind him.  He faced the king, and bowed.  Shock rippled up Shard’s skin.

“As–as you wish, my Lord.  I am not worthy of the pride.”

But Sverin no longer heard his words.  He had turned his head, looking away toward the sky as if the copper gryfon no longer existed.  Shard blinked and looked away too.  He heard the younger gryfon ahead of him whisper a name.  They must be brothers.

“Fair winds,” whispered the older, then shoved off from the ground, wings beating hard to gain sky.  Shard ground his beak, not looking.  His heart shoved ice through his body and heat roiled in his belly.  He wondered, if that was the reception of one half-blood with a dishonored father, what would his be?

Gulls cried above.  Shard thought one of them sounded in pain, then realized it was a female gryfon, a gryfess keening sorrow into the morning.  Sverin snapped his gaze around and all fell silent again.  The younger copper in front of Shard cowered back.  Then, for some reason, he glanced to Shard.  Shard drew a breath and forced himself to nod encouragingly.  He had never seen Sverin banish someone before even giving them a chance to hunt.

Second son-of-Vidar,” the king rumbled.

“My … my name is Einarr, my king.”  The young gryfon’s voice trembled.  Shard released a breath, willing him to be strong.

“You’re young to be seeking glory.”

“I seek honor, after…”  Einarr trailed off.  What was there left to say?  His father exiled, his brother exiled right before his eyes.  Shard stepped forward as if he could give Einarr strength.

“Yes,” Sverin murmured.  “I imagine you would.”  He stared down the young gryfon with cool golden eyes.  “Your brother could have learned from your brave example.”  His tail twitched.  His gaze didn’t waver.  The sound of waves breaking against the rocks shoved into the space of silence.  “You may hunt.  Let us hope you have more of your mother’s blood than your father’s.”

“Thank you, my Lord,” breathed Einarr.  “My king.”  He scraped a low bow and turned, sprinting from the king’s sight.  Shard stared after him.  One gryfon banished.  Two kept.  Why had he thought this would be easy?  Flying with Kjorn had made him too confident.  The king possessed more ferocity in a single tail feather than Shard had ever felt in his entire body.

Drawing breath, he gathered himself and looked up.

Sverin was staring at him.

Waiting.

 

(This beautiful raven is part of the cover art.

It is also copyright. You do not have my permission

to repost anywhere else, unless it’s to help me sell my book!

Thanks for understanding. J.O)