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.
~ 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.
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 bright. Her 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.
(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 😉