Authors: Rachel Rossano
“Dardon’s sounds best as far as I can see.”
I turned to Iscarus. “Ready yourselves to leave. Give my
love to my sister. Wren, Dardon, Tyron and I will ride south immediately.”
Organized chaos erupted. Wren turned to Tyron and asked, “Do
you have a horse?” One of the men led Arthus off toward the barracks, and
Iscarus began issuing orders. I walked among them as though in a dream. My cot
knocked at my shins without memory of the steps between the great hall and the
barracks. I gathered my journey bag and necessities in a fog.
“Are you well?” Wren’s voice cut through the haze. She stood
in the doorway of my room dressed for travel, saddlebags slung over one
shoulder. Worry pulled at her eyebrows.
“I am taking my father’s place.” I sat on the edge of my
cot. “It feels wrong and right at the same time. I am not sure which way to
turn. If my father lived, I planned on returning from the war and learning more
of the statecraft I was going to take up. His murder altered that. Everything
changed. He isn’t here to coach me, and I am far from prepared. What if I make
Her hand on my shoulder stopped my worried wanderings. “You
are a great leader, Tourth. The evidence is overwhelming. Dardon, Svhen, and
Arthus follow you and have thrown their lots in with yours. Philon, Hiller,
Warwick, and Iscarus speak highly of you and were willing to offer support
immediately before knowing the situation. None of them impress me as men easily
led into decisions.”
“You weren’t around when we were growing up,” I muttered.
She smiled slightly, but she didn’t stop. “Finally, and most
telling, your people follow you. At risk of their lives, they protect you and
face down death rather than reveal your presence in the valley.”
My chest constricted. Too many faces came to mind.
She squatted down so that we were almost nose to nose, her
saddlebags on the floor. Strange changeable eyes focused intently on mine, she
demanded my complete attention. “These people need you, Tourth. Deus has chosen
you. His wisdom is perfect, and He never makes a mistake. Keep your eyes on Him
and your feet on His path; He will never lead you astray.”
“Are you two finished drooling over each other?” Dardon
asked from the doorway. Wren flushed an appealing shade of rose before scooping
up her bags. “Poor Tyron is waiting out in the courtyard with his horse
wondering when we are heading out.”
“We are coming,” Wren replied.
Dardon grunted and strode off.
Wren met my gaze steadily for a long breath as though
measuring something. Then she turned away. “Meet you in the courtyard,” she
called back as she disappeared in the direction of the outer door.
I was left to my packing and sorting out this new feeling
growing in me regarding the unusual stranger weaving herself into our lives. I
had some serious thinking to do.
The crisp night air spoke of more snow before morning. I
adjusted the lantern on its hook so the light fell more clearly on the path
ahead. Behind me Tyron’s mount, a heavy-footed plodder, snuffed, shaking its head.
I quite agreed with the sentiment. Night was a poor choice for travel, if we
had a choice, but we didn’t.
“The next crossroads should offer markings for a trail due
south,” Tyron offered. “We can take that, but I cannot promise we won’t run
into a scout from the enforcer or King Orac.”
“It is worth a risk,” I assured him. “We should be running
into Orac’s outlying scouts any moment now if your information is correct.” I
glanced farther back past Dardon and his horse to where Tourth’s stallion,
Trader, trailed with his silent master on his back. “Are you ready with what
you need to say, Tourth?”
“Ready as I will be,” he replied.
I couldn’t really see any of them in the blackness, but I
could hear them. Turning my attention back to the trail, I lapsed back into
Father. I took a deep breath. You understand this new
element so much better than I.
I had never felt this way about a man before Tourth. True, I
sensed attraction for other men, but it had been nothing more than admiration
of one aspect of them. With Tourth it was different, stronger and deeper.
I first saw him as an opportunity for a solid roof over my
head. Then, he became a mission. I knew that I was beginning to see these
people as a family similar to my own and wanting to be a part of that, but I
never saw this new…. Attraction didn’t seem like the right word, though there
was definitely that. Respect, affection, similar interests, and family all
seemed to be intertwined with it, but at the root, it seemed to be a
Something bonded us together in a way different from my
relationships with Svhen, Arthus, and Dardon. More primal and exclusive, it
resembled.... My breath caught as the realization dawned. It was romantic love.
It wasn’t mature enough to be considered worthy of an outward action like a
kiss. However, it remained, rooted in mutual affection and respect, and
promised a lot more than the barely visible attraction that peeked out at us
The question, Father, is do I encourage this and see where
it goes or pull it out now?
I didn’t get the chance to listen for His answer. The sounds
of a horse on the trail ahead drove all musings from my mind as I reached for
one of my throwing knives with my free hand.
“Who goes there?” the new arrival queried, drawing his horse
to a halt across the trail. He also carried a lantern. It swung wildly,
illuminating trees and the gold, brown, and orange crest adorning the saddle
blanket of the horse. A flashing glint of light on metal indicated he was also
“Travelers seeking to meet the king’s party,” I replied.
“Then you found it.” Another horse formed out of the night
and pawed the edge of the lit path. The man riding it wore a horsehair crested
helmet. “What business do you have with the king, woman?”
“The business is mine.” Tourth urged Trader forward between
Brone and Tyron’s mount. Dardon hung back. “I beg audience with King Orac on an
urgent matter regarding the state of his realm.”
“Speak to me, then. I am the king’s uluimere, I handle all
the business of the king.”
“I respectfully decline, Lord Portan.” Tourth inclined his
head. “This matter must be primarily for the king’s ears. I call upon the
citizen’s right of audience.”
An uneasy silence fell. The horses shuffled and snuffled,
but none of the riders spoke. Lord Portan’s face was hidden in the shadowed
recesses of his helmet, unreadable. Tourth’s features, barren in the glow from
the lanterns, formed an indiscernible mask. Unseen by the man across the
circle, Tourth’s hand nearest me shook so that he had to rest it on his thigh
to steady it.
“Very well, stranger. I will wake King Orac, but what you
have to say better be worthy of the inconvenience. His Majesty does not suffer
fools or exaggerators who wish to waste his time.”
“Thank you, Lord Portan.” Tourth bowed his head again.
Lord Portan gave a signal. An armed company formed around
our group. He turned his steed and started back the way he came, riding fast.
We followed at a slower pace huddled together in the midst of a dozen man
escort. Lord Portan would reach the king long before our arrival.
Out of the night, a harsh screech made my heart leap. My
falcons had been absent for so long, I was relieved to hear one of their calls.
Our escorts, as a group, swiveled their heads seeking the sound. I scanned them
as best I could to see if any of them carried bows.
At my side, Tourth tensed. “Is one incoming?”
“Could be. If they think I am being threatened, they might
A crease appeared between his eyebrows. “Who is the leader
here?” he asked the nearest guard.
“Captain?” The guard turned to the man to his right. “The
man wishes to speak to you.”
“Yes?” The men switched places with minimal maneuvering
indicative of habit and skill.
“A falcon is going to drop out of the sky and land on this
woman’s shoulder within a few minutes. May we request that it be allowed to do
so without anyone drawing a weapon?”
The captain’s eyebrows rose. “Will it attack?”
“Only if it feels I am being threatened,” I responded
although the question was directed to Tourth.
“And if no one acts threatening, it will refrain?”
“I am reasonably sure it will.”
“Isn’t it trained?”
“No, it is wild. It just chooses to associate with me.” It
was the easiest way to describe my relationship with my birds in a situation
such as this. He needed to understand I didn’t control the birds. They were
free to come and go. They were kind enough to honor the training and fulfill my
The captain turned away to issue the order just as a distant
flapping indicated the bird’s approach. It called again. This time I answered
with a shrill whistle. Tourth winced at my right elbow.
The answering call clarified which bird only a moment before
Keaton swept out of the darkness like a piece of the night detaching itself
from the curtain enclosing us. Claws caught my shoulder, but his weight shifted
sloppily. He almost fell, catching my head with his wing in his effort to right
himself. He gave a pained squawk. I dropped Brone’s reins and reached up to
It was only when he settled on my right arm, setting his feathers
to rights, that I realized the whole company watched us with mixed expressions
of curiosity and uncertainty.
“The falcon is injured,” I explained.
“We can see that, lady,” one of the men replied. His young
face watched me stroke Keaton’s black-brown breast with awe. “Will he recover?”
I smiled at him. Not everyone could tell the genders apart.
“Keaton will be fine. He chiefly needs rest. Do you mind if he stays with me?”
“As long as he doesn’t attack anyone, we don’t mind. You aren’t
prisoners.” The captain signaled for us to move out.
I urged Keaton to perch on my left shoulder. He willingly
obeyed, stroking my ear with his beak upon perching. Then, he went to sleep.
I glanced at Tourth to find him stifling a smile.
“What is so amusing?”
“Keaton’s arrival raised our party’s prestige tenfold. Only
a high ranking lord keeps falcons in these parts.”
I nodded. I gathered that from my travels.
“A bird that answers your call, is trained to the point of
coming willingly, and behaves like that around a human is unheard of. I
wouldn’t be surprised if you will be esteemed as a miracle worker or a witch
among these men by the morrow.”
“Sooner, if I have any say.” The captain urged his horse
closer to Brone on my left. “How long have you kept that bird?”
“I raised him from a hatchling. We are blessed. He is the
most stranger-friendly among my birds.”
“You have more, lady?”
“I do; six more, but I no longer ‘have’ them. They come and
go as they please. Sometimes they carry messages between my siblings and
myself.” I glanced at him only to encounter an awed stare.
“She is not from around here,” Tourth commented from my
“Obviously. King Orac will most likely wish to speak with
you. He is attempting to gather a number of birds himself, but has not been
very successful at finding a keeper for them who demonstrates skill enough to
please him. He might wish for a lady bird keeper upon meeting you.”
Thinking of Tourth, Kat, and the whole situation at hand, I
frowned. “I respectfully decline the position at this time; however, I would be
more than willing to discuss birds with him.”
We approached the outer edges of a camp. I estimated a
company a thousand strong surrounded us as we rode sedately to the center of
Lord Portan himself awaited our arrival before a simple tent
just like all the others surrounding it. The sole marking that it was the
king’s was the gold, brown, and orange crested banner hanging over the opening.
We dismounted in front of Portan. His eyes widened upon seeing Keaton, but he
didn’t comment before escorting us inside.
A chair, a table, and bare ground were austere surroundings
for a king. The scent of trampled grass filled my senses. Heavy canvas
separated a small area from the rest of the tent leaving barely room for five
men to stand abreast, shoulders almost rubbing. Wren paused at my left,
Keaton’s dark body perched on her far shoulder. Tyron flanked her other side.
Together we looked like an honor guard for her and her bird. Dardon chose a
spot at my right, closer to the men guarding the exit.
“Playing rustic?” Dardon regarded the rough-hewn wood of the
table legs and the unpadded seat of the chair with raised eyebrows.
Lord Portan frowned pointedly at him. “Wait here.” He
disappeared into the larger area of the tent.
I caught Wren eyeing her surroundings, no doubt marking the
exits and the two men flanking the opening to the outside. Tyron edged about
uneasily while Dardon flexed his hand a few inches from the hilt of his sword.
As I tried to catch Dardon’s gaze to signal him to behave, the canvas parted
and Orac stepped into the room.
He looked the same as when I saw him last. A short man, he
barely surpassed Wren by an inch or two. He moved with the grace of a boar, but
the power of each movement commanded its own form of appreciation. His cool,
silver eyes scanned us, beginning with Wren.
“My lady.” He inclined his head slightly to her and Keaton.
“We are honored by your presence and your noble bird.”
“I am not of noble birth, your majesty.”
Orac tilted his head to one side. “An honest admission, lady.
That alone is worthy of regard.”
I continued to study his face. He assessed Dardon with a
glance, deciding not to comment on his hand’s proximity to his sword. Avoiding
my gaze, he frowned at Tyron’s livery instead.