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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—”
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.
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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