Hawksong Page 2

Eventually, I forced the creeping sorrow back, until I knew I could stay composed when I faced my people, with no trace of anxiety on my face or grief or anger in my eyes. As I lingered, a single crow detached from the rock above me. He circled once before returning to his post, assured that I was still here, standing strong. There was nothing left to do.

As I shifted my tired human form into one with powerful wings and golden-brown feathers, I let out a shriek. Fury, pain, fear; they dissolved into the sky as I pushed myself beyond them with every smack of my wings against the air. IT WAS LATE when I returned to the Hawk's Keep, the tower that housed what was left of my family, the highest-ranking soldiers and the most prominent artisans, merchants and speakers of the avian court.

With my mother's command, the seven floors of the Keep had changed from my safe home to my prison. Instead of being a refuge from the blood and pain, the walls were suddenly a trap keeping me from reality.

With Andreios standing near in case of trouble that never occurred inside, I lingered on the first floor, fifteen feet above the ground-level courtyards and training grounds. I watched the last of the merchants pack up their belongings, some grateful to have rooms in the higher levels of the Keep, but most wary of the world they would be returning to when they left here.

Market lasted from dawn to dusk. Merchants and storytellers would gather on this floor, along with common people, and during the day the Tuuli Thea and her heirs  -  her only heir, now  -  would go among them and listen for complaints. The artisans had nearly been strangled out of avian society by the war, but my mother had started encouraging the ones who remained to show their wares. The avian market was famous for its craftsmanship, and losing those arts completely would have been tragic. Along with crafts, custom weapons and other fine luxuries, stories and gossip could be found at the market. This was where merchants, farmers and anyone else who did not fight heard all the details.

I had seen enough serpiente soldiers fallen beside our own over the years, and now, with the image of Gregory Cobriana branded into my mind, I was reminded once again that they were just as mortal as my own kind. However, fear makes all enemies more dangerous, and the stories told in the marketplace on this night were as sickening as ever.

Parents lamented their dead children. One young man broke down in tears, a display of emotion quite unseemly in avian society, as he recalled his father's death. Gossip traveled like a river: how the serpiente fought like the demons that legends said they had taken their power from, how their eyes could kill you if you looked into them long enough, how...

I tried to stop listening.

My people greeted me with polite words, just as they had the day before. Another hawk child was dead, along with a dozen of the Royal Flight, a score of Ravens  -  another flight, just below my personal guards in rank  -  and eighteen common soldiers who had joined the fray when they saw their prince fall. So many dead, and nothing had changed.

"Milady?"

I turned toward the merchant who had spoken, a metalsmith of good reputation. "Can I help you?"

He was wringing his hands, but stopped as soon as I spoke, his gaze dropping. When he looked up again, his face was composed. He held out a package carefully wrapped in soft leather, placing it on the counter for me to see. "My pair bond was among the Ravens who fell yesterday.

I had been working on this for her, but if milady Shardae would wear it, I would be honored."

The gift he offered was a slender boot knife, etched with simple yet beautiful symbols of faith and luck.

I accepted the blade, hoping I would never need it, but saying aloud, "It is lovely. I'm sure your pair bond would appreciate that it is not going to waste." The merchant replied, "Perhaps it might protect you when you go out again."

"Thank you, sir."

"Thank you, milady."

I turned from him with a sigh that I was careful not to let him hear. It was already too late for either side to win; this war needed to stop.

Whatever the cost.

If only I knew how to end it.

"Shardae?"

I knew the young woman who approached me now from when we had both been children. Eleanor Lyssia was an eternal romantic, with grand dreams that I wished I could make come true. The last time I had heard from her had been a few years before, when she had just been apprenticed by a seamstress.

My smile was genuine as I greeted her warmly. "Eleanor, good evening. What brings you to the Keep?"

"I'm finally allowed to sell my work in the market," she returned brightly. "I was in charge of the shop today." The smile she wore faded to a somber expression. "I wanted to tell you... I heard what happened yesterday. With Gregory Cobriana." She shook her head. "I know none of this is proper to say, but I like to think we were friends when we were children?" I nodded, and she continued, "When I heard what had happened, it gave me hope. If the heir to the throne can put aside the past and just comfort a dying man...

perhaps anything is possible."

She looked away, suddenly awkward.

"Thank you, Eleanor." The prospect made me want to laugh and to cry; I settled on a tired smile. I did meet her gaze; I hoped she saw my gratitude. "Fly with grace."

"You as well, milady."

We parted ways, and now Andreios moved to my side. As always, he knew when I needed to escape. His presence would dissuade anyone else from approaching before I could do so. I wondered if he had heard Eleanor's words, but we did not speak before we both shifted form to fly above the market to the higher levels of the Keep. Andreios stopped at the fifth floor, where his flight was quartered; I continued to the sixth. I passed the door to my brother's rooms and whispered a final goodbye before I entered my own.

Chapter 3

I WAS A CHILD, UNVERSED YET IN POLITICS. The first thing that interested me in the court was a representative from the shm'Ahnmik, a group not allied with my mother, the Tuuli Thea. He was a falcon boy only a few years older than me, twelve to my eight. I was too young to know that my playmate made my mother very nervous, or that he was in the Keep for any reason different from the other children's. Too young to know that he represented an empire older and stronger than our own, without whose support we would never be able to keep our heads above water when fighting the serpiente.

I was just a child, with no responsibilities, no understanding of politics, war or pain. So I

remember the falcon very fondly, as my last memory of childhood. One of my tutors stepped out to speak with my mother in the hallway. "Milady Shardae, have you seen Andreios?" I looked up, hearing the name of my friend despite the tutor's attempt at discretion. "I'm worried that he's gone out to the field... to look for his father."

I was too young to understand death, but I understood that my friend was upset and so I had to find him.

I stood to sneak out before my mother returned. I had known Rei all eight years of my life, since he was three years old and I was newly born. He would listen to me more than anyone else. The falcon tried to stop me from leaving, but he had no authority over me and I refused to listen to reason.

My first breath of death hit me as I flew over the field. Yes, I knew of the war, but I had never seen the carnage up close, smelled the blood before... and in the middle of it all, my friend Rei, hunched protectively over his father's body, crying. I landed at his side.

I hardly had a chance to speak before the serpent appeared. Rei pushed me behind him; they scuffled, and I saw the fangs slice into my friend's skin. Someone else attacked me from behind, but when I fought back, I was struggling with something as harmless as a wool blanket.

I realized suddenly that I was dreaming a scene I relived in my mind almost every night. I had been knocked out; Rei had saved my life. His brush with death had changed him, forcing him to grow up faster. After that day he had made a point of training. He had joined the avian army when he was thirteen and the Royal Flight when he was fifteen, and he had been the captain of that group for three years now.

Despite knowing I was asleep, I could not wake. Lucid dreams had been a curse of mine for years.

I walked the battlegrounds in my mind, through the woods and fields that I had been drawn to ever since Rei's father died. Pain, bloodshed, war. They had stained me that day.

I walked from the dream of Andreios to one of my alistair, the man who had been promised as my protector when we were both barely more than infants. Vasili had frightened me a little when I was a girl; he had seemed so cold and strong. The blood I saw in my dreams, he saw every day as a soldier. Yet I learned to understand him, and then I learned to love him  -  just in time to lose him, like I had lost so many others. I pushed the phantom away and found myself face to face with the garnet eyes of Zane Cobriana, the creature whose kind was responsible for every loss we suffered, every tear I held inside. My breath halted in my lungs; my blood turned to ice. I felt my throat constrict as I tried to scream  -

"Danica, are you all right?"

I opened my eyes to find Rei searching the room for whatever had frightened me. His thick black hair had been hastily pulled back from his face as if he had been roused from sleep. He was not supposed to be on duty until this afternoon, but I was grateful he had been the one to hear me shout.

"Yes," I said, but the trembling in my voice belied my answer.

"Dream?" he asked. Rei was the only one to whom I confided my nightmares. I nodded, sitting up. Morning was here, and if Rei was, too, then there was something important to be done.

Rei cleared his throat. "Your mother wants you to meet her downstairs, as soon as you are ready."

He left me to change, which I did quickly. My mother did not summon me for meaningless trifles.

I stepped outside my room to find the Hawk's Keep swarming with avian soldiers. In addition to Andreios, there were five other guards next to my door alone. Out on the field, I understood this kind of caution. Inside the Keep, it was unheard of.

"My mother isn't hurt?" I asked with alarm, my mind latching on to the worst possible reason for this concern.

"She's safe," Rei answered, though he didn't sound as if he was completely certain. "The rest of the flight is with her."

Of course. "Then why the sudden jump in security?" And, before he could answer, "And who in the world is guarding the outside?"

"There are about two dozen soldiers ringing the courtyard, and another few dozen in the surrounding land," one of the other guards assured me.

"They're good fighters. As for your other question," Rei answered, "we seem to have a visitor, which is why your mother requested your presence in the first place." I had become used to having one or two guards at my sides, occasionally more if I was farther from the Keep on one of the fields. Having this many was unnerving, even though the Royal Flight were trained to work smoothly. They kept out of my way and out of each other's, but the press of their bodies in the hall was oppressive in itself. What kind of visitor required so many members of the royal guard to be in the loftiest halls of the Hawk's Keep? No one so much as got inside unnoticed. To get all the way to my chamber would be impossible.

My alarm jumped again when I realized that the guards who had preceded me had changed shape to descend to the ground floor. As a deterrent to flightless enemies, there were no stairs from the ground to the first floor. Aside from criminals and traitors, even the lowliest sparrow commoner was met in the second-floor reception hall.

"Who is this visitor?" I inquired softly. "Zane Cobriana himself?" Rei did not joke back with me. He waited for me to shift into my second form, hastening what was usually a leisurely, pleasant process so that the hawk who emerged was more than a little ruffled.

My mother was standing with her back to us as we entered the enclosed courtyard. The visitor was seated cross-legged on the ground nearby, with her eyes closed as if she was taking a nap. Four of our guards surrounded her, showing just how afraid we were to have her near our queen.

Even from across the courtyard I could recognize the black hair and fair skin. As I went closer I saw her silky black dress with the white emblem sewn onto the low neckline between her br**sts. On her left hand she wore an onyx signet ring. Either she heard our quiet approach, or she sensed us some other way, for the visitor opened her eyes just then. Suddenly my cool, golden gaze was met directly by her hot flame, the color reminiscent of pure polished rubies. I looked away quickly, a shudder twisting its way up my spine.

"She's here in peace," my mother assured me immediately, but I could hear the "or so she said" in her voice even though she didn't speak it aloud. "Irene, may I introduce my heir and daughter, Danica Shardae? Shardae, this is Irene Cobriana, younger sister to Zane."

My skin chilled just hearing the name, but I answered the introduction politely. What is this creature doing here?

I was willing to comfort Gregory Cobriana on the field, but he had been dying. Seeing Irene, alive and well and dangerous, I felt less charitable.

No doubt the guards had searched her and taken away what weapons they could  -

probably none, if this ruse was meant to gain our trust. But everyone knew you couldn't disarm a Cobriana unless you took its life. Their scarlet eyes alone were a weapon, not to mention their poison, which could kill in less than a minute if they struck in full serpent form, and which would kill more slowly but more painfully if they did so in a less pure form.

Irene Cobriana spoke first, for which I was grateful. If I had opened my mouth, I probably could have caused a war with what I had said, if it had not been too late already.

"We want peace," Irene said softly, not rising. In case she tried to stand, the guards were prepared to kill her instantly. "We're tired of the fighting, and the killing." Someone grumbled; I thought it might be Rei. My mother directed a frosty glare at someone behind me.

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