Hawksong Page 8

The stone was an oval of black onyx, inset in silver, and as I held the piece in my hand, I felt suddenly light-headed. The ring was heavy and larger than I wore  -  designed for a man's hand. It fit loosely on the first finger of my right hand, where it sat in satirical challenge.

I dropped heavily onto the bed, unsettling the beautiful burgundy dress. Without a doubt I knew that this was what Zane Cobriana had pressed into my hand, most likely intended as a symbol of his protection if I ventured into serpiente land. And of course, if this was real, if I wasn't dreaming now  -  and for a moment I hoped wildly that I was

-  I had not been dreaming then. I must have half-woken, roused by his presence. I felt the heat rise in my cheeks as I reexamined my fuzzy memory of that night. I recalled my outrageous behavior and of course the neither brief nor chaste kiss with which Zane had ended the encounter.

He had asked me to come to serpiente land, and I had nodded; what had he thought when I had never appeared?

Dear sky above, he probably thought I had refused his offer to negotiate, his attempt at peace. After the fury with which my guards and family had dragged me out of the Mistari camps, Zane probably thought my nod had simply been a device to get him to leave, and of course he would not dare to return without knowing whether I had informed the Royal Flight of his presence. They would have posted guards on the servant's stair if I had mentioned Zane's nocturnal visits, and if he tried to return they would kill him on sight.

I knew what I would think, were the tables turned. For the sake of all my people, for the safety of the Hawk's Keep, I would be forced to assume the worst: that the serpiente were unwilling to consider an end to the war, and that indeed they were planning to retaliate.

Even if the serpiente had been sincere in their offers of peace, my lack of response would force them to attack before we could.

I could not afford to waste time.

Swiftly, I searched for suitable clothing: something that would not be ruined by a short walk in the woods but that was appropriate for meeting with another monarch. I settled on a soft blouse of woven raw silk the color of dark sage honey, and a pair of slacks of lightly tanned lambskin that would provide adequate warmth against the slight chill of the night. I reached for the boot knife the merchant had given me, but if I was going in peace I would need to go unarmed, as Irene Cobriana had arrived in avian land. Unfortunately, I had no natural defenses to rely on, like a serpent's gaze or venom. I had wings with which to flee and hand-to-hand training that would never match a professional soldier's or guard's. A natural hawk takes its prey with talons and beak, striking too swiftly for resistance, and that is how my kind preferred to fight: from the sky. If I was attacked on the ground, any serpiente opponent would make it a point to keep me there.

Still, I put the knife aside.

There was, as always, a vase of flowers on the table beside my door. Remembering a signal I had developed with Rei when we were both mischievous children and I had constantly been sneaking out of the Keep, I moved the flowers from the doorway to the trunk at the foot of my bed. If he came looking for me, Rei would see the flowers and know I had not been abducted.

He would still worry, but this was the best I could do. There was no way I could ask him to come with me; bringing the Royal Flight would be suicide. Even if Zane had given his guards express orders to let me come with an entire regiment, no loyal guard would allow the cream of the avian army to enter serpiente land. Taking a deep breath to gather my thoughts, I changed shape, luxuriating in the wonderful feeling of sliding from the awkwardly shaped human form into the beautifully streamlined, graceful one of a golden hawk.

Swift wing beats took me over my balcony, and within moments I was gone above the treetops.

I LANDED AND returned to human form several minutes' walking-time south of the serpiente palace. I knew there were archers stationed on the roof of the palace; if I tried to fly closer to the building, I doubted that even Zane's promises of safety would keep them from shooting me down.

Of course, Zane's promises still might not protect me on the ground, if he had even been honest in the first place. By this time, he probably did not think I was going to answer the invitation. If he had posted his loyal guards, the ones he trusted to greet me, he would have done so in the days after he had spoken to me. Now...

The woods were too quiet, and as I moved through them toward the palace, gooseflesh rose on my arms.

"What do we have here, Ailbhe?" I jumped at the sound of the voice, and turned just in time to see a fair-haired woman step out of the forest shadows behind me. Her white-blond hair was tied back in a loose braid, and her slender body was sheathed in smooth leather that laced down her back and both legs, tanned and darkened in a pattern so as to make her nearly invisible in the forest. Knives rode in sheaths on her thighs and at her mid-back, and a stiletto was bound in her hair. She also carried a stave as long as she was tall, the end of which was tapered and affixed to a silver blade. I recognized her as one of the guards from the Mistari palace and saw her eyes narrow as she recognized me.

Before I could move, I felt the sharpness of a blade at my mid-back. "What are you doing so far away from your flight, little bird?" a male voice inquired from behind me. The woman stepped forward and nodded toward a wide tree nearby; a light prodding from the blade pressed against my skin moved me against the wood.

"Turn around," the woman commanded, and I did as ordered. The guard behind me wore a similar outfit to the first, altered to fit his gender, which I knew was the traditional uniform for the serpiente equivalent of the Royal Flight. He had the same striking white-blond hair as the woman, and features that suggested they were related.

"I'm trying to reach Zane Cobriana," I attempted to say as I turned. "He  -  " The woman pressed the tip of her blade against my throat. "Quiet, hawk. Ailbhe, search her."

The man moved forward, and I tensed as he skimmed his hands over my body. The search was thorough; had I attempted to hide a weapon, it would have been found. As it was, the man seemed dissatisfied to find me unarmed. He ran his fingers through my hair as if I might have hidden a knife there, frowning at the feel of the feathers that grew at the nape of my neck. As he passed his palms over my chest, he found the pouch I wore underneath my clothing. I had hidden Zane's signet ring within it in order to avoid awkward questions in case I ran into another avian on my way here. The guard tucked the pouch into the bag he had slung across his back without looking into it. I opened my mouth in another attempt to explain myself, but the woman shot me a glare that stilled my breath.

She spun her stave and struck me in the backs of the knees, smacking the joint with enough force to bruise. I tumbled to the ground, teeth set against the moment of pain, and the serpent addressed her fellow. "Ailbhe," she ordered, "tie her wrists." To me she added, "I'm tempted to kill you here, but Zane would be cross if I didn't let him interrogate you first."

With my wrists bound behind me, I was led by the two guards to the serpiente palace. Another pair eyed us dubiously at the front gate and followed my guards in. Four guards for one unarmed hawk?

I remembered how Irene Cobriana had been treated when she had visited the Hawk's Keep, and realized that I was receiving the serpiente equivalent of that treatment. Did I really seem so dangerous to them?

I was led along winding paths I would never remember later. Finally we turned into a larger hall, but before I could take stock of my surroundings, one of the staves struck me in the back, knocking the wind from my lungs and sending me stumbling to my knees. Only Ailbhe's stave, positioned carefully in front of me, kept me from tumbling to my face on the mosaic floor.

Despite abused knees that protested the action, I attempted to stand, only to be struck again, this time across the shoulder. I bit my lip against the pain, trying to keep my chin up and my expression calm even though every cell of my being was screaming at me that I was deep in the serpents' nest and not likely to get out alive.

"Fetch Zane," the woman ordered one of the two guards who had tagged along at the doorway. He nodded and left the room without a sound.

She spun the stave menacingly, and I returned my gaze to the golden, copper and red marble that made up the snakeskin pattern of the floor. A few moments later the door opened, and the guard nodded sharply to one of the others to take her place as she went to greet Zane at the doorway.

Her "greeting" included sliding her arms around his waist and kissing him thoroughly enough that my blush overcame the ashen paleness of my terror; no one but me seemed surprised at the display.

Zane stepped easily into the hall, his hand lingering on the woman's waist with affection for a moment as he stepped away. "Adelina, what on earth is important enough to  -  " He saw me, and instantly fury rose in his eyes; I flinched, waiting for another blow.

"Get your hands off her," Zane hissed, moving with the grace I had associated for so long with killing that my heart leapt into my throat and told me death was imminent. However, Zane dragged the guards to the side, tossing each inelegantly away from me. Then his eyes lit on the guard he had ad dressed as Adelina, who was protesting loudly. She was silenced when Zane fixed his hot red gaze on her, cut off as surely as if he had held a blade to her pale throat.

Compared with the warmth with which he had greeted her, his voice made me shiver as he asked flatly, "Did you search her?"

"Yes... my lord." Adelina hesitated before using the formal, as if unused to it but recognizing that this was not a moment in which she should be familiar. "She had nothing."

Zane nodded, apparently unsurprised. "Out."

"Zane  -  "

"Out, Adelina!" Again Zane's anger, even not directed at me, made me recoil... and wince at the sudden spear of pain in my knee as I did so.

Adelina called to the others in the room, and the rest of her group followed when she left. For a moment I savored my surprise; had I told the Royal Flight to leave when Zane or Irene Cobriana was in the room, they would never have obeyed. I jumped as Zane dropped gracefully to his knees in front of me. He drew a knife from his back, and for the second time in as many minutes, I was sure I was going to be killed; instead he reached around me and cut the bonds securing my wrists. The position brought him uncomfortably close. As I remembered the last time I had seen him, when I had assumed myself still trapped inside a dream, I realized that he probably saw no need for formality.

After the ropes fell away and I had turned to rubbing my wrists, Zane asked quietly,

"Did they hurt you?" His voice was soft, but still rang with the danger I had seen moments ago.

"A few bruises," I answered, moving to stand if only to regain a semblance of dignity.

"Nothing I have not  -  "

I bit back a rather unladylike curse as my knees went out from under me; they had stiffened in the last few minutes and were now protesting the blow Adelina had delivered to them. Zane caught me, and as I recoiled from him, it took all his grace to keep us both from falling back to the snakeskin floor.

The flash of anger in his eyes caused me to defend his guards. "They did no more than would be expected," I assured him, thinking again of when Irene had come to the Keep.

"I assume they are your personal guards?"

Zane nodded once, still visibly simmering. "Their leader, Adelina, and her second in command, Ailbhe, are brother and sister  -  two of the fiercest fighters among the palace guards. They are also the last possible people I would have chosen to patrol if I had known you were coming."

"You had no way of knowing," I assured him, attempting to cool his fury. "And your guards had no way of knowing I came peacefully."

Zane said dryly, "You are more generous than I am."

"Ailbhe has the ring you gave to me," I added, my terror having receded enough for me to remember that. "I had no chance to explain to them." Zane's response was sharp. "Adelina had him search you?" Puzzled at the question, I nodded.

Zane drew in a breath, then let it out before he said, "I'll speak to the two of them later. Now you should come sit and rest. You've been hit more than is good for you." Catching my arm as if the movement was natural, he led me to the smooth oaken table that sat at the back of the hall. I remembered that he had offered his arm when Rei and his guards had found him in my room at the Mistari camps as well. Touching in general was rare among my kind, even in such a formal manner. I had gripped Rei's or Vasili's arms some days when grief or war had led me to exhaustion, and that display alone had been frowned upon by most of the court. I had heard that the serpiente were freer with contact, but until now I had never needed to compensate for that particular difference.

Suddenly it occurred to me that I had no idea exactly how far that openness extended. I recalled how Zane's guard had greeted him, and the kisses he had stolen both at the Mistari encampment and in my own room. I had thought at the time that he probably considered me either foolish or wanton not to decidedly protest such an action, but perhaps doing so was so natural to him, and he had not considered how shocking it would be to his avian counterpart.

Slightly soothed by this realization, I settled into the chair Zane offered to me, relaxing my aching body and cataloging my bruises. They were no worse than those I had gained in mischief as a child, or in weapons drills with Rei; the bruises across my shoulders and knees would heal quickly.

"Irene made me wait one more night before I decided you were not going to come," Zane stated as he swung gracefully into the chair opposite where I sat. His anger was slightly better concealed now, but it was still visible in the slick tone of his movements.

Prev Next