First Light – Chapter 2

Written By: Paul Toth - May• 11•14

Prilya blinked against the mid-morning sun. Even when filtered through dense sheaves of greenery, sunshine in the High Wright Pierce stung like a footman’s dart. She stood astride a dirt path that wound eastward—a dusty, gray-brown intruder skulking beneath verdant boughs. Cypress and baobab clustered around her, and sparrow hawks chirped overhead.

A-ye-ch-chi. A-ye-ch-chi.

She flexed bare toes, and loam seeped between them, warm and loose. Prilya wore neither hat nor shoes. Nothing but a rough linen dress, interrupted just below the knees, stood between her and an intermittent breeze. It was the sort of peasant garb she’d worn as little girl. With a loose fit and durable fabric, the garment had been perfect for exploring, and she’d spent a half-dozen summers darting amongst the groves, ridges, and soaring buttes that formed the borders of her ancestral hold.

Prilya smiled, basking in memories.

How mother hated those dresses. “Let her wear the clothing of a common girl, and run wild like a common girl, and she’ll grow up common.”

To mother, common was the worst of all epithets.

Father, lord of home and hearth, had laughed when she said this sort of thing, pressing his lips against mother’s forehead and giving her bottom a pinch when he thought Prilya wasn’t looking. “We can’t cage the wind, my love. And would we truly want to? We’ve two proper daughters to play the harp and dance the gavotte. Let that be enough.”

A creek burbled to one side, and Prilya strode toward it. The canopy in this part of the Pierce was too thick for undergrowth to thrive, so the going was easy. Mossy froths bunched about her ankles, and she advanced at a steady pace, pausing every once in a while to pat the gnarled trunk of a cypress.

A few minutes later, she stepped into a glade—a narrow oval of greenery clustered around a pond the size of a village inn. A natural granite redoubt hunched to the south, and the creek tumbled over its shoulders, feeding the basin below. A clean, light spray bathed the air, wetting Prilya’s cheek.

“Greetings, poppet.” The words took the form of abrupt sing-song tones decorated with tweets and clicks.

Skyborne.

Prilya swiveled toward the voice, smiling. A great feathered figure, more man than hawk, crouched atop a baobab. At the end of his wings were long, black, gracefully articulated talons that flexed and gripped like hands. A blue woolen band encircled his head, and a bandolier—host to a brace of daggers—hugged his chest.

Dol’en-sey. War chief of the Pierce Skyborne, first of his name.

She called out. “Wind-pater, it’s you!” Prilya followed up with a rapid succession of warbles and chirps. I thank the tides of the sky that swept you toward me, and the forbearance of the Lord of Storms, who allowed you passage. Blessed be.

Dol loosed a low, huffing laugh-squawk. “Only three months in the lowlands, and your chir grows rusty. You sound like a water buffalo, earth-daughter.”

She snorted, and her smile widened. “Buffalo? Well, your chir sounds really tired. How many grandchicks are swarming around your aerie now, anyway? Twenty? Thirty? I bet they never leave you alone.” She spread her arms. “Now, will you swoop down and give your earth-daughter a hug, or do I have to shimmy up to you like an ape?” Prilya bent, letting her arms swing loose from the elbows. She scratched her armpits with her fingers and made hooting sounds.

Dol’s tail feathers drooped, and his voice became somber. “All in good time. Do you remember how you came to be here?”

Prilya ran her front teeth across her lower lip. She felt her forehead crinkle. How had she come home? Just that morning, she’d entered the imperial seat, riding through the city gates beside her mistress. The high priestess had been in a fine mood, pointing out one landmark after another. When they drew up next to the manse in which the priestess had spent her childhood, the oddest look had come across the great lady’s face. She leaned toward Prilya and gave her a peck on the cheek, and Prilya grew flush with a mixture of pride and embarrassment. It was the sort of affectionate gesture one bestowed on a toddling child.

After that…

She shook her head. They’d gone to the cathedral, hadn’t they? Her head filled with fog.

“I… I’m not sure, wind-pater. I broke my morning fast a thousand leagues from here.” Her voice trailed off, becoming a mumble, then a whisper.

“It’s not important, earth-daughter. It is enough to know that you’re in a peaceful place, far from fear and pain. I come here often and think of you. This glade was one of your favorite places, for a time.”

Prilya’s smile returned. “After you went and banned me from Hell’s Platter, I had to find other places to quest. Bouncing around down Guillemot’s Gullet wasn’t quite as fun as climbing the Spires. Good enough, though! I used to imagine slaying pirates in the Gullet. Then I’d take all their treasure, of course.”

Dol shook his head, beak crooked in way that signified a both resignation and pride. “That gorge is nearly as good a place for an earth child to fall to her death as the Spires. And had you slipped, I wouldn’t have been there to catch you.”

She walked over to the pond, dipping a foot into a gentle back-eddy. The water sloshing her ankle felt cold, but not unpleasantly so. A pair of bluegills swam just a few strides away. Their tails rippled idly, moving just enough to keep them in place. They faced one another, and the oddest sounds came from the fish, as if they were speaking.

“Well,” said Prilya, “I didn’t actually slip from the platter, you know. A gust of wind way too strong for midsummer lifted me right off the edge.” Prilya closed her eyes, once again allowing herself to become lost in the past.

The full sweep of the High Wright stretched before her—dense copses slashed by ravines jagged enough to have been torn by a mad god. Beyond them, the basalt towers flanking her father’s keep stewed in the summer heat. Dust rising from the practice yard told her the men-at-arms were practicing maneuvers, but at such a great distance, she couldn’t make out individual soldiers.

She edged closer to the precipice, running her eyes along the scarp that stretched beneath the mesa on which she stood. The next several minutes were spent trying to spot the approach she’d used to round the backend of the Spires, but mounds of scree blocked the view. Some of the handholds had been no larger than a wine goblet, and at times she’d been left with no place at all to put her feet. She’d been forced to move from one ledge to the next, sinking her fingernails into crevices and hoisting herself aloft. How the cliff monkeys had chattered!

A blast of air scoured the rock face below, knocking birds from their nests and filling the air with grit and pebbles. She tried to draw back, but the updraft caught her anyway, surging beneath her dress and carrying her aloft. A moment of exuberance (I’m flying!) was immediately followed by terror, and a scream burst from her lungs.

She sailed out over the edge of the Platter, limbs churning. Gullies strewn with rows of crooked, sun-blackened boulders yawned far below, ready to maul and tear and grind. She heard a raven’s excited utterance, and for one wild moment, Prilya wondered the bird had laid the eggs she’d sucked dry for her midmorning meal.

The sky gods, they give us her bones, caw caw. The sky gods give us her bones!

Something powerful seized her shoulders, clamping them both in front and behind, and she shrieked again. It felt as if pitchforks were being driven into her flesh. The fall ceased, followed by a halt so abrupt her bones creaked, and then a dizzying ascent began. She thrashed, howling, and her feet danced a wild jig.

“Still yourself, hatchling.” A masculine, strangely pitched voice came from just above her head. It was full of clucks and chirps—almost impossible to understand. “If you free yourself from my talons, it will be the last battle you ever win. I’ll let the rocks have you, blood-and-bone, and they’ll laugh their stony laugh.”

Prilya did as the voice commanded, even though the pain in her shoulders was terrible. The wounds would take weeks to heal, and leave her with six teardrop scars—a trio to each side of her breastbone—she’d wear to the end of her days. Prilya had been too heavy for Dol to carry without bringing the full strength of his hind claws to bear.

A breeze, warm with the smell of gentle woodland decay, caressed her face, and Prilya returned to the present. She reached for the side of her neck and ran her fingertips along the slope of her collarbone. They passed beneath the collar of her dress, and she found the scars—reassuring, almost, in their familiarity.

A moment later, she withdrew her hand, and her attention returned to her surroundings. The glade seemed too perfect, somehow. More like a gorgeous painting than the real world. All the harsh bits—the thorns and biting insects and half-eaten prey—seemed to have been drained away and discarded, like the soupy glop at the bottom of pot of noodles.

She peered at Dol. “Sky-pater, where am I? Truly.”

The powerfully built Skyborne gave her a long look before speaking, twitching from side to side so he could look at her with one eye, then the other. “Between the land into which are born and the one to which we must someday go, there is another place. A bright shadow we visit in dreams. A place of stillness and respite. It has no name—not one I know, anyway.”

She lifted her hands, peering at the backs, then the front. They looked real enough, right down to the bits of soil beneath her fingernails. “So I’m asleep.”

“No. I’m sorry, earth-daughter. Your body lies broken, and the tethers binding your spirit grow loose. You will linger here until the time comes for you to pass to your final rest. I sensed your distress, and had our shaman brew the draught that would take me here. My first-wives will care for my form until I return to it.”

Prilya nodded. She knew she ought to rage and cry and curse Dol for a liar, but the anger faded before it could fully form. She supposed it could no more exist in this place than a soap bubble could endure in a roaring fire. “Oh. Um, how long am I going to be here? Before. Before, you know—“

“Hours. Days, perhaps. But time flows differently here, and a moment can stretch until it feels like a lifetime. I will be with you as long as you wish. We will wander the dales, and chase larks across the hillsides, and speak of whatever we will.”

Prilya started to respond, but found herself distracted by the odd, burbling word-sounds rising from the pond. She looked over at the fish. The bluegills had been joined by a pike. The three fish faced one another, seeming to converse, and the tips of their tails formed a neat triangle. She took a step toward them, and tiny waves lapped her calves. If she leaned close, she thought she might be able to tell what they were saying.

A loud creak came from branch that bore Dol’s weight, drawing her attention back to him. Even in this place, it seemed, his broad, heavily muscled frame was a heavy load to bear. Prilya gave him a long look.

“I can’t get out of here any other way?”

“If you are not too close to death, you might be able to find your way back. The pain would be terrible, though, and returning would not save you. The end would come, just the same, but with a good deal more suffering. I would not have that for you, Poppet.”

Prilya gave her chin an idle scratch. Spend her last moments with sweet old Dol, who she loved more than anyone, or spend them thrashing about in agony. Not much of choice, really.

One of the fish cursed—a word she’d heard her father use a few times, when speaking to recalcitrant peasants—and she kneeled, bending an ear.

“This is about more than a few coastal duchies, you fools,” said the pike. “The High Priestess was the only one who stood a chance against Fit’tak-noir. Once the outlander princes find out she’s dead, they’ll realize there’s no chance of settling things according to imperial law, in the arena. They won’t wait around for diplomatic measures to bear fruit. Ithin and Mattock Isle are spoiling for war, and the others will follow their lead.”

One of the bluegills splashed about, wetting Prilya’s thigh, before responding. “You don’t know that. No, no, you surely don’t. Calmer heads may yet prevail. And in any case, the trial-by-combat laws are as archaic as can be. Barbaric, really. That we should rely on them to keep the peace it’s… well, it’s absurd! Absurd and profane, I say.”

The other bluegill spoke. “No. By Saint Lannit’s scepter, he’s right. Think about it, Father Theus. The Pilaetan Hegemony’s fishing fleet—you’ve heard the news. It now plies the shoals of Ithin’s coastal waters. Blatant provocation. And the Hegemon’s navy lies in wait. Word is, his son has a cooler head. But the old man still rules. Hrumph. Rules, and blusters, and aches for war.” The fish’s next words came out in a bubbly whisper, and Prilya almost had to dip her ear in the water to make them out. “They say he has a disease of the loins. And they say it’s driven him mad. And that he’s profaned the gods so many times the holy magiks are of no use.”

“So where does that leave us, eh? We can delay acknowledging her death, we can, but the truth will be discovered in short order. You know it will! The high priestess, she’s expected to appear at any number of public functions. Oh, and how about the plans—known by all—that she was to make a great show of preparing for the arena. Striding about in that imperious way of hers.  Gathering the greatest knights in the land to fight at her side. Oh, it all sounded grand a week ago, but we were just building ourselves a gilded box. A box to bury ourselves in!”

Prilya squatted beside the fish, admiring the way the sun glinted from their scales. It seemed like they were talking about some rather important things, but it was hard to care, somehow. What had Dol said about chasing larks? He could be wonderfully playful, when he didn’t insist on acting like surly old poop.

“If there is any hope at all, it lies with this poor girl.” The fish’s tail twitched.

She felt a ghostly hand brush her brow, and let out a yip. “What?”

“Some sensations,” said Dol, “can still reach from there to here. Those that aren’t too unpleasant. Eventually, this will cease.”

Prilya rubbed her forehead, frowning. “I’ve been doing magic since I was burping up breast milk, you know that. I’m used to strange. But that was strange.”

She looked back at the bluegills, whose fishy little faces were somehow managing to look perturbed. One shouted at the other.

“What, do you think I don’t know the cost? By saints and sires, of course I know the cost. How do think my leg withered? Hrumph It happened—recall, if you will—when I prayed the Deep Cant to save Prince Leopold. Surely you haven’t forgotten. If the gods take us… well, if they take us, so be it. The girl must live.”

“Enough!” said the pike, his voice a watery boom. “Until the cardinal arrives, I hold the deciding vote, and I’m casting it now. If we don’t start immediately, the girl may die no matter what we do. Her inner humours have poisoned her blood, and we all know how little time that leaves.”

The fish began to chant. They started out with the standard sacramental harmonies, but were soon weaving vocalizations far more complex than anything she’d heard. Supplications wrapped around words of power layered amongst deep chords that reminded her of watching shooting stars light the night sky. The fish shuddered and bobbed as the force of the cant wracked them from nose to tail, but they never faltered.

Prilya lost interest in the fish. Why did they have to sound like boring old men? Chanting and magic and beseeching the gods no longer mattered, anyway. She wanted to chase larks. The sun now rode low enough in the sky to dapple the water, and the spray from the waterfall took on a vibrant golden glow.

“Oooh,” she said, breathing softly. “Look, wind-pater. Isn’t it beautiful?”

“You need to decide,” said Dol. He sounded sad. “If you wish to stay here, you can, but it will take a conscious effort.”

Prilya waded further in, and her dress floated about her hips like a jellyfish. She dragged her fingertips across the surface of the water, drawing rows of parallel ripples that the sun turned to bright runnels. “The fish want to make me go back, don’t they?”

“They do. But for now, the decision lies with you. If you wait much longer, though, there will be no stopping them.”

Prilya gazed at her old friend. “On the one hand, it’s lovely here. And being with you is wonderful. I almost forgot how much I missed you.” She lifted wet fingers, running them through her hair. “But on the other, I might have important things to do. It’s getting harder and harder to remember, though.” She frowned, searching her memories, and then brightened as a few fragments tumbled into view. “I’m the Favored of seven gods, Dol. Seven. Isn’t it amazing? Everyone is so jealous.”

Dol gave her a long, even look. “Yes. I know, child. It is rare, but not unprecedented. Every individual so Favored has lived a short, unhappy life full of terrible burdens and unrelenting strife.” He blinked. “Except one or two unfortunate enough to live a long life filled with such miseries. But for you, now, it need not be so.”

He extended wings that stretched nearly twelve feet, tip to tip, and leapt into the air. Moments later, he came to rest at Prilya’s side. He extended one of his huge black foreclaws. “If you wish to stay, grasp my talon. You must decide, Poppet. Now.”

Prilya nodded, and it was as if an immense weight rose from her shoulders. “I’m going to stay. I know it’s right thing. I know it. Those fish don’t care about me. They just want to yank me around like one of those puppets with strings. The ones in the street carnivals.” She took a deep breath. “Dol, have I told you how much I love you? You’re the most wonderful, wise old bird ever to save a little girl who got blown off a mesa.”

Dol gave her a curt nod. “I suppose that may be true. And I love you as dearly as my own hatchlings. But Prilya, there is no time.”

He grew closer, and long, brown wing feathers caressed her arm.

She grinned, reaching for her friend, but the fishes’ cant built to roaring climax that shook the whole glade. Most humans couldn’t read Skyborne expressions—the feathers and stiff facial structures made it difficult—but Prilya had more practice than most. When a wave of remorse swept across Dol’s face, she saw it for what it was, and her heart fell.

“Goodbye, Poppet.” Dol’s voice shook, and his eyes grew moist. “I will find you if I can.”

And she was gone.

 

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