One Dark Night
A flame vent erupted on the cliffs, blasting the darkness like an angry dragon.
Then another. And another. All across the cliffs, among the highest in Fireroot, tongues of fire shot upward, licked the air, then vanished behind veils of ash and smoke. Rotten as sulfurous eggs, blacker even than the black rocks of this ridge, the heavy smoke swirled under cliffs and poured out of crevasses. Fire plants, shaped like ghoulish hands, flickered strangely as they stretched glowing fingers at anything that moved.
But nothing moved on the cliffs. Nothing but smoke, and ash, and spitting flames. Nothing … except two shadowy shapes that crept steadily higher.
It was night, and the two shapes, a pair of burly men, knew well that darkness brought added dangers. Yet this particular night had lasted for months on end, its blackness broken only by the ceaseless fires of the cliffs. For this was the Year of Darkness — a time long dreaded, ever since the Lady of the Lake had made her infamous prophecy that all the stars of Avalon would go dark, and stay dark, for an entire year.
Even so, the fact that night had swallowed all Seven Realms was not the most terrible part of the Dark Prophecy. No, far worse, the Lady had also foretold that in this year of darkness, a child would be born — a child destined to bring the very end of Avalon. The only hope, she had added, would come from someone else, someone she called the true heir of Merlin. Yet who that might be, and how he or she could ever defeat the child of the Dark Prophecy, no one knew.
The man’s pained cry echoed over the cliffs. “Damn lava rocks. Burn me feet, they do.”
“Shuddup, ye blasted fool!” spat his companion, crouching nearby. “Afore ye ruin everthin’.”
The first man, still rubbing his feet through the burned — out soles of his boots, started to reply — when he caught sight of something above them, at the very top of the cliffs. “Look thar,” he whispered, staring at a great tangle of branches, half lit by flames, that seemed to claw at the black sky.
“Up thar. A nest! I told ye we’d find — ” He coughed, choking on a plume of smoke. “A nest.”
The other man shook his head, sending up a cloud of black ash that had settled on his hair. “We ain’t seekin’ no nest, Obba, ye woodenbrain! We’re seekin’ a child. An’ some sort o’ stick, remember?”
“Sure, but thar’s jest the place to find both, I say. Ossyn, if ye wasn’t me dumb liddle brother, I’d chuck ye right off this cliff. A dead flea’s got more brains!”
Ignoring his brother’s growl, he went on. “Look, ol’ White Hands got us here all right, didn’t he? An’ promised us we’d find the child he wants. The one he calls the true heir o’ — “
“I don’t give a dragon’s tooth what he’s called, just as long as White Hands pays us good as he promised. What’s yer point?”
Using the sleeve of his ragged cloak, Obba wiped some sweat from his eyes. “Me point is, think about what White Hands said. On top of the flaming cliffs, you shall find the child. Them’s his exact words. An’ then he says to us: Beware the eagle-mother, who will do anything to protect her young. Don’t that make it clear ‘nuf? The child’s in a nest.”
“Clear as smoke,” his brother retorted, waving away another plume. “Even if that is some eaglechild hidin’ up thar, it could be the wrong one. Could be any ol’ child — or even the Dark child that everyone’s jabberin’ about!”
Obba reached over and grabbed his sleeve. “Use yer brain, will ye? There ain’t hardly any children bein’ born this year—not in any realm, remember? An’ lots o’ those that are born get killed straightaway, fer fear they could really be the Dark one. So if we do finds any child up here, it’s more’n likely the right one.”
His eyes gleamed savagely, reflecting the flames. “Anyways, we don’t really care, do we? If ol’ White Hands wants to pay us fer a child, we brings him a child. An’ if he wants to believe that the true heir is so young — foolhardy, if ye ask me — that’s his own friggin’ folly! Besides, didn’t his liddle entrails readin’ also tell him the child wouldn’t come into power fer seventeen years? That’s plenty o’ time fer us to vanish wid all our coins.”
A slow grin creased Ossyn’s face. “Maybe yer not such a woodenbrain after all.” Suddenly he yelped, as a clump of hot ash blew into his eye. “Ogres’ eyeballs!” he swore. “Whatever we’re paid won’t be ‘nuf.” He swung his fist at the smoky air — and smashed his brother hard on the ear.
Obba howled, then punched him back in the gut. “Ye clumsy troll! Any pay’s too small wid all yer foolishness.” He slumped against a cracked boulder, tugging the hunting bow on his shoulder. “But we won’t get paid nothin’ if we don’t — ehhhh!”
He leaped away from the boulder just as three fiery fingers pinched his rear end. Tripping, he sprawled and sent some loose rocks clattering down the cliff. He landed hard — right on his scorched bottom.
“Owww,” he cried, flipping back over onto his knees. “Ye fried me friggin’ bacon!” Obba clutched his sore rear end with one hand, while shaking a blackened fist at the fire plant that had singed him so badly. And so rudely. “Ye cursed plant! I’ll — “
“Shush,” hissed Ossyn suddenly, pointing at the next above.
A rustle — then a pair of enormous wings slapped the air. Spanning nearly three men’s height, the wings rose out of the nest, glowing orange from the fires below. Upward on the swells they rose, bearing the feather-covered body of an eaglewoman. As she flew, her feathery legs — and sharp talons — hung low, while her head, which kept its human form, turned toward the cliffs. Beneath streaming locks of silver hair, her fierce eyes flashed.
The eaglewoman raised one wing. Instantly she veered away, following the ridgeline. A screeching cry — part human and part eagle, loud enough to freeze the two men’s hearts — struck the cliffs. She sailed behind the rocky rim and vanished into the night.
At last, the brothers breathed again. They traded relieve glances. Then, hit by the same idea, they started scurrying up the cliff toward the nest — although Obba did pause to glare at a certain fire plant. It just sputtered noisily, almost like a wicked chuckle.
Higher and higher the two men climbed. Several minutes later, they reached the top, a long ridge of steep cliffs broken only by a few pinnacles of rock. And by one enormous nest, a mass of broken branches and twisted trunks that the eaglefolk had carried all the way from the lowland forests in their powerful talons. With a wary glance at the sky, they jumped down inside.
Soft, downy feathers broke their fall. Some were as small as their hands; others were longer than their outstretched arms. The feathers lay everywhere — along with heaps of gray droppings and broken bits of shell. Plus hundreds and hundreds of bones, all picked clean by sharp beaks, all gleaming red from the cliff-fires.
And one thing more. There, at the far side of the nest, lay a small, naked boy. Warmed by the smoky fumes from the vents, he needed no covers beyond the pair of large feathers that lay upon his chest. Though he looked like a human child of five or six, he had only just hatched. That was clear from the temporary freckles that covered his entire body below his neck, marking the places where, as an adult, he would be able to sprout feathers at will. Unlike his hooked nose, hairy forearms, and sharply pointed toenails, those freckles would soon disappear.
“Get him!” whispered Obba, seizing his bow. “I’ll watch for danger.”
“Ye mean the mother?” Ossyn shoved his brother jokingly. “Or them fire plants?”
“Move it,” growled Obba. But just in case, before he looked skyward, he glanced behind himself for any sign of flames.
Meanwhile, his brother untied a cloth sack from around his waist. A plume of smoke blew past, but he stifled his cough. Stealthily, he crept across the nest, until he stood right over the eagleboy. His smirk faded as he gazed down at the child. “Do you really think he’ll pay us all that coin fer jest a scrawny liddle birdboy?”
“Do it, will ye?” Obba whispered urgently. He was watching the billowing plumes of smoke overhead, aiming his arrow at every new movement.
His brother nodded. Swiftly, he grabbed the sleeping child by the ankle, lifted him high, and plunged him into the sack.
But not before the boy awoke. With eagle-fast reflexes, he swung out his arm and caught hold of the sack’s rim. Twisting, he freed one leg, let out a shrieking cry, and slashed sharp toenails across his attacker’s face.
“Ghaaaa!” Ossyn howled in pain. His hand flew to his cheek, already starting to drip with blood. He dropped the sack.
Almost before he hit the nest, the eagleboy wriggled free. His yellow-rimmed eyes flashed angrily, and he jumped to his feet. His mouth opened to shriek again.
Just then a heavy fist slammed into the eagleboy’s head. He reeled, lost his balance, and fell into a heap amid the feathers.
“So thar,” spat Obba, rubbing his fist. “He’ll sleep plenty good now.” He rounded angrily on his younger brother. “Look what ye did, ye clumsy troll! Quick now, stuff him in yer sack. Afore the mother comes flyin’ back.”
Cursing, Ossyn jammed the unconscious boy into the sack. He slung it over his shoulder, then halted. “Wait, now. What about the stick? White Hands said there’d be some kind o’ stick, right here wid the child.”
Obba picked up a branch and hurled it at him. “Ye bloody fool! This whole blasted nest is made o’ sticks! Hundreds an hundreds o’ sticks. Jest grab one an’ shove it in the bag. Afore I shove it in yer ear.”
“But what if it’s not the right — “
A loud screech sliced through the night. Both men froze.
“Hush, ye fool. I still got two arrows.” Obba crouched down against the wall of the nest. He nocked an arrow, its point of black obsidian gleaming dully in the light of the flame vents. Slowly, he pulled the bowstring taut, waiting for the huge wings to come into range. Sweat dribbled down his brow, stinging his eyes. But still he waited.
“Shoot, will ye?”
He let fly. The arrow whizzed up into the smoky sky and disappeared. The eaglewoman veered, screeched louder than before, and plunged straight at them.
“Bloody dark! Can’t see to aim.”
“Quick, out o’ the nest! Maybe we can — “
A sudden gust of wind blew them backward, as a great shadow darkened the night and talons slashed like daggers above their heads. Ossyn screamed as one talon sliced his arm. He staggered backward, dropping the sack on the downy branches. Blood gushed from his torn limb.
The eaglewoman, eyes ablaze, swooped down upon him. Her wide wings flapped so that she hung just above this man who had dared to try to steal her child. Whimpering, Ossyn looked up into those golden orbs and saw no mercy there. With a wild screech that rattled the very timbers of the nest, she raised her talons
Flipped suddenly onto her side, thrown over by the force of the black-tipped arrow that had just slammed into her ribs. Her lower wing dragged across the branches, sweeping up Ossyn’s cowering body. Together, they rolled across the nest, burst through the rim, and tumbled down onto the rocks below. Their shrieks echoed, pulsing in the air.
Then … silence. Only the hiss and sputter of flame vents rose from the cliffs.
On wobbly legs, Obba dropped his bow and stepped over to the edge. Looking down into the blackness below, he shook his head. “Ye clumsy fool …” He stayed there a long moment, resting his chin on a barkless branch. At last he turned toward the sack that held the limp body of the eagleboy. And slowly, he grinned.
“Well, well, me liddle brother. Guess I’ll jest have to spend yer share o’ the pay.”
He bent to pick up the sack, then stopped. Remembering Ossyn’s point about the stick, he grabbed a straight, sturdy branch from the floor of the nest and thrust it in with the eagleboy. Then he swung the sack over his shoulder, climbed over the side, and skidded down the wall of interwoven branches. Finally, his boots thudded against solid rock.
Obba stood on top of the cliffs, checking warily for flame vents. And, even more, those pesky fire plants! Then he spied what he wanted — a spiral-shaped tower of rocks on the ridge of cliffs — and off he strode.
Now fer the easy part, he told himself. No more crawling or climbing! All he needed to do was follow the ridgeline to that tower. Why, he could almost just ignore the putrid flame vents … and pretend he was out for an evening stroll. Like some village elder, maybe. An elder who would soon be very, very rich.
So why not emjoy himself a bit? He stopped, dropped the sack, and uncorked a small tin flask. Firebrew, the locals called it. With good reason! He took a sizable swig, feeling the burn go right down his gullet. And then another.
Aye, that’s better.
He burped and grinned again, this time a bit crookedly. Peering down at the sack on the rocks, he thought it might have stirred a little. One swift kick with his boot took care of that. The boy inside groaned, and the sack lay still as stone.
Again he took up the load. Strange, walking seemed a bit trickier now — as if some little tremors were making the rocks wiggle under his feet. No cause for worry, though. As long as he kept his distance from the steep edge of the cliffs, he’d be fine.
Now he could see the flecks of green flame at the base of the spiral tower. Just like White Hands had said. That old schemer sure did have this whole thing figured — the cliffs, the child, even the eaglewoman. Obba nodded grimly, patting the strap of his empty quiver. And he recalled the final instructions: Just bring the child through the portal of green flames, say the chant, and let my power guide you home.
A pair of sizzling fingers sprang out of a crack and clutched at his boot. Obba sidestepped, nearly tripping. Those tremors again! The whole ridge seemed to wobble under his feet. With a glance at the spiral tower, he wondered how it stayed upright in all this swaying.
Ah, but he had other things to think about now. More important things, like his payment. He could almost feel the heft of those coins, hear them clinking in his palm — his share as well as Ossyn’s. Ha! An’ he called me woodenbrain.
All of a sudden he stopped short. There was the tower, all right, just ahead. Looking taller than he’d guessed — as tall as a full-grown oak tree. And it seemed more rickety than ever. But what was that? Moving in front of the green flames?
Obba blinked. Someone else was there!
He stared at the figure, dark as the smoky night, as it moved closer to the spiral tower of rocks. When it approached the flickering green flames at the tower’s base, he could see at last what it was.
A woman! Young. Peasant stock, by the looks of her shredded robe and scraggly red hair. Obba smacked his lips. Now things were really looking up! Maybe he’d have a bit of fun before heading back through the portal with his prize.
Quietly, he slunk closer, ducking behind a blackened boulder. He studied his prey. She was facing the green flames, with her back to him. Probably warming her hands. Suddenly he roared and charged straight at the poor woman. Startled, she screamed and whirled around, nearly losing the bundled infant she held in her arms.
Just a few paces away, he halted. With a lopsided leer, he dropped his sack, which hit the ground with a thud. Then, arms open wide, he rasped, “C’mere, me liddle flower.” His crooked teeth glowed green. “Time fer gettin’ warm on this cold night.”
She shook her wild red mane. “Go away!” she cried in the Common Tongue, though with an accent that Obba hadn’t heard before. “Before you meet the greater cold of death.”
“So yer a bold one, eh? Jest how I likes me flowers.”
He moved closer, knowing that she was trapped between him and the tower. Even if she did know that the green fire was really a portal, she wasn’t likely to try to escape that way, unless she knew the special chant to protect a baby. By the wizard’s beard, this was going to be easy!
She scowled at him savagely. “Come no closer, man! Or I shall … I shall …”
“Shall what, me blossom?” For the first time, he noticed her eyes: fiery orange, upturned at the corners. Flamelon eyes. So, she isn’t human at all. Jest one o’ them fire-people.
“Now c’mere, afore ye gets me angry.” He stooped to grab a rock. “So I don’t have to hurt yer little one.”
“No!” She clutched her bundle more tightly.
Obba advanced on her. “Time for pickin’ flowers, heh heh.”
“Go away, I said!” Trembling, she raised her left hand, as her fingertips began to glow like fire coals. Bright orange they turned, sizzling and crackling with growing heat, preparing to hurl a firebolt into the very heart of her attacker. Her arm straightened, her fingers pointed, when —
Obba’s rock flew into her forearm, cracking her bones. She cried out in pain as the glow faded from her fingers. Stumbling backward, she fell, dropping her baby on the ground. She crawled toward the shrieking bundle.
But Obba got there first. He lifted the infant high in the air, out of her reach. His eyes burned like flame vents. “Now, now there. Lemme jest quiet yer liddle one.”
“Stop!” Still on the ground, she kicked at him. But he just stepped aside, chuckling, as the baby in his hands wailed loudly.
Obba planted his feet, ready to smash this noisy creature against the rocks of the ridge. “Yer goin’ to crack right open now, jest like an egg.”
His arms tensed. He started to throw.
At that instant, something hard rammed into him. Not a rock — but a head. The head of the eagleboy!
Obba staggered backward and fell hard against the tower. The baby slipped from his grasp. Springing, the woman caught her son and rolled aside.
The eagleboy, his cheek swollen and bruised, screeched angrily. Heedless of his much smaller size, all he wanted was to attack this man who had taken him from the nest on this terrible night. He braced himself to pounce — when a sudden rumble from above made him freeze.
The tower of rocks swayed, buckled, and split apart. All at once, the entire top section came tumbling down. Rocks larger than Obba himself fell toward the people below. There was no time to cry out, let alone escape. The eagleboy held his breath; the woman on the ground squeezed her baby for the last time.
Something pricked the eagleboy’s shoulder. A talon! It closed on his shoulder, grasping him firmly without slicing his skin. He looked up anxiously, relieved to see his mother’s face again.
But it wasn’t his mother! In a blur, as the boulders came cascading down, he saw a powerful eagleman swoop just above him. One talon held his shoulder, while the other grabbed the huddled woman and her child. The eagleman’s great wings carried them to safety, whooshing like the wind.
With a great, grinding crash, the spiral tower collapsed. Shards of stone and clouds of soot exploded into the sky, merging with the plumes of smoke. The rescued people escaped by the breadth of a single fether. Obba wasn’t so fortunate: His dying, anguished thought was of all those precious coins he would never get to see.
The eagleman veered, flapped once, then set them down on a broad, flat stone at the edge of the cliffs. He landed a few paces away. For a moment he just gazed at them, his golden eyes aglow—not from the flickering fires all around, but from a far stranger fire within.
The eagleboy and the woman stared back at him in silence, their faces full of wonder. Even the small baby fell hushed.
All of a sudden the eagleman’s body began to shimmer. His huge wings faded, then shrank into arms. The feathers on his chest swiftly melted away. The eagleboy shrieked in surprise, while the woman’s astonished eyes opened wide.
Before them now stood a man. Indeed, a very old man. His tangled, white beard fell below his waist; his ancient eyes seemed to be laughing and crying at the same time; his nose seemed almost as hooked as an eagle’s beak. He wore a long robe of azure blue, flecked with runes that shimmered like mist in morning light. Upon his head sat a miserable, half-crushed hat, whose pointed tip leaned to one side.
The woman gasped, bringing her hand to her mouth. “I know you,” she muttered. “You are —”
Instantly he raised his hand in warning. “Speak no more, my dear. Not here.” His dark eyes roamed over the ridge, hovering briefly on the smoking pile of rubble—all that remained of the spiral tower of rocks. “Eyes may be watching, ears may be listening. Even now.”
He leaned toward her, one of his hands twirling strands of his beard. “You know me, yes. And you know that I have come all the way here for good reason. To save the life of someone most precious — not just to me, but to the entire world of Avalon.”
His eyes, suddenly sorrowful, moved to the eagleboy. “Take care of him, will you, good woman? Protect him even as you will protect your own son. For he has lost his own mother on this dreadful night.”
The eagleboy winced at these words. His whole body trembled, but still he tried to stand up straight. Gently, the woman placed her hand on his shoulder. He shook it off, without even turning to look at her. Rather, he kept his yellow-rimmed eyes focused on the old man.
Doffing his misshapen hat, the elder bent down on one knee. His long, hooked nose almost touched the eagleboy’s. “Your name is Scree, is it not?”
Stiffly, he nodded.
“You are destined to play a great role in this world, my lad. A very great role. There isn’t much I can do to help you, I’m afraid. But at least I can give you this.”
Deftly, he plucked a single white hair from his beard. He held it in the palm of his hand, where it fluttered in the night air. Then he cocked his head ever so slightly — and the hair suddenly changed color, darkening to reddish brown. At the same time, it thickened and lengthened until it resembled a stick of wood with a knotted top.
And it kept right on growing. Thicker and longer it grew, right before the amazed eagleboy, until it was a full-size staff, gnarled and twisted along its whole length. Strange runes carved on its sides glowed mysteriously. The old man paused a moment to study the staff, turning it slowly in his hand. Then, with a sigh, he tapped its knotted top. The runes shimmered and vanished completely.
“Your staff.” He took the eagleboy’s small hand and placed it on the wood below the handle. “It has served me well, over many long years. And now, I hope, it will serve you.”
The eagleboy’s fingers curled around the staff. Seeing this, the old man’s bushy white brows drew together. “Promise me, now, that you will keep this staff safe. It is precious — more precious than you can imagine.
The boy nodded.
“Good. The word of an eagleboy is worth a hundred wizard’s spells.”
The boy’s shoulders straightened. He took the staff, hefted it, then brought it close to his chest.
The elder’s expression brightened for an instant, then turned somber again. “Are you too young to have heard of the Dark Prophecy?”
He just frowned.
The old man bent even closer and whispered into his ear. Slowly, the eagleboy’s eyebrows arched in amazement. The woman could hear only a few clipped phrases: “For the child … terrible, terrible danger … when, at last, the wizard’s true heir …”
At last, his face grave, the old man arose. He placed on hand behind his hip and straightened his creaky back. “Ah, to be an eagle all the time,” he said wistfully. “Flying is far more pleasurable than standing or strutting about! And better on the back, too!”
Once more he fixed his gaze on the eagleboy. “This is no small task I leave you, my young friend. It will be lonely. And dangerous. And long — as long as seventeen years. But this, at least, I can promise. One day, you shall have great wings of your own. And then you shall fly! High and far, you shall fly.”
One last time he ran his finger down the gnarled staff. Then he turned back to the woman. Bending over her baby, he asked, “A boy?”
“And his name?”
Her cheeks flushed. “Tamwyn.”
“Hmmmm, yes. Tamwyn.” He stroked his beard in thought. “His future is much more clouded, I fear.”
At this, the woman stiffened.
“His name means Dark Flame in the language of your people, does it not?”
Hesitantly, she gave a nod.
The old man sighed. “A fitting name for a night such as this. But I wonder, will it fit the boy as well? Will he bring to Avalon the light of flame or the dark of night?”
He reached toward the infant and placed the tip of his bony finger upon the tiny brow. “Unlike your new brother, you will have no wings of your own. And yet, perhaps … you might find your own way to fly.”
Smiling ever so slightly, he took a step back so that he stood on the very edge of the cliff. In a ringing voice, he said: “Farewell, my good people, I doubt we shall ever meet again.” He paused, viewing them with eagle-bright eyes. “Yet I shall still be with you.”
Once again the woman put her hand on the eagleboy’s shoulder. And this time he let it stay.
“And now I must go. To other worlds, other times.” Just to himself, the old man whispered, “Such is the fate of Olo Eopia.”
“But …” the woman protested. “How will you go? She waved a hand toward the massive pile of rubble that had buried the vent of green flames. “The portal is gone.”
He didn’t seem to hear. Shimmering light glowed all about his body, and he transformed again into a great eagle. Wings spread wide, he leaped into the air and surged upward. Higher and higher he climbed — then suddenly veered back toward the cliffs. With a screeching cry that rolled across the ridge, he plunged toward the smoking stack of rubble.
The eagleboy shrieked in fright, as the woman’s hand squeezed his shoulder.
Just before hitting the rocks, the eagleman tucked his immense wings behind his back. He shot downward, gaining speed. But he did not crash. Instead, he dissolved straight into the stones, leaving only a whoosh of wind … and then silence.
LAND OF BELLS
“Careful, you stupid slug!”
Master Lott planted his fists on his flabby hips, jangling the bells on his belt. He glared up at the young man climbing the ladder. “You’ll drop your load again — for the fifth time today. And you’ll never get to the rooftop at that pace. You addle-brained ass!”
Tamwyn grunted, the only reply he could manage. His mouth felt as dry as a desert lizard’s back. Slowly, he climbed up another rung on the wobbly ladder — hard enough without having to hold a huge bale of thatch on his shoulder. And a hammer and a sack of nails in his hand.
The ladder suddenly shifted, creaking under all the weight. Tamwyn held tight, but glanced down at the worn vine lashings that held the thing together. They looked ready to burst. Just hold on, he pleaded silently. Don’t break on me now. This is my last load. My last bale.
He tried to shake the hair out of his eyes. And my last day as a roof thatcher. That’s a promise.