Occurs many years after the events of the prologue
| Kestrel kicked a small grey pebble down the dirt path in front of him. Grey light and raindrops filtered through the branches that arched over the path. A miserable day to watch sheep, he thought petulantly. Although really, what was a good day to watch sheep. Because of this year’s crop of thick green grass, the twenty sheep Kestrel’s family charged him with watching had grown fat and lazy. Instead of providing excitement in the form of falling into a thorn covered ditch or being threatened by savage wolves, thus forcing Kestrel to run to their rescue, all the sheep seemed to do was slowly chew their grass and stare at each other with big liquid brown eyes. Oh the things he would do if he only had the chance! He imagined turning the last corner of the dirt path as it opened out onto the grassy field where the sheep grazed and coming upon an enormous savage wolf as it snapped at the hooves of the terrified sheep. Just like the great Christophe DuLac, he would fight off the ferocious beast with his heavy walking stick and pure talent. Better yet – a pack of wolves, driven from the woods by hunger. He would beat off the first three with previously unseen skill and finesse, and the remaining members of the pack would quickly weigh their options, and run back to the woods, bushy tails between their legs with pathetic whimpers of humiliation. Word of his heroism would spread first throughout his village, then through the countryside until the court and King Caleb himself would hear of the courageous young boy who slew a pack of wolves in defense of the sheep his family depended on for a living. The King would send Christophe DuLac himself to seek out Kestrel and bring him to the court, to be train him as a swordsman and fight alongside the great DuLac himself. |
A burst of cold rain shocked Kestrel back into the here and now as he left the shelter of the tree shaded path and arrived on the rolling hills of the grazing pasture. The sheep stood together in sodden white and yellow clumps. The sun drenched heroic dream he had been immersed just moments before was scattered by the harsh wind and the dishearteningly mundane scene before him. Briefly counting the wooly balls huddled against the wind, Kestrel hiked up a small rocky bluff overlooking the field. A further part of his training. After all, a true knight could withstand any weather, for one never knows when and where an enemy may strike. So Kestrel settled himself on an uncomfortable outcropping of rock, facing into the wind, preparing for a long, hard afternoon of braving the elements.
As he stared vaguely down at the flock, he thought of the many different scenarios in which his talent for swordsmanship could be discovered. Any would do really, as long as they all resulted in the same triumphant arrival at court amidst noble lords and ladies and trumpeting heralds. He would then become indispensable to DuLac and the King, battling rogue bands of centaurs and hippocanths for the realm, and becoming legendary in his own right. Was it really so impossible? He could outrun any boy in the village in a race and in wrestling or staff fighting he could consistently defeat boys twice his size. All the villagers said he could be a great knight, and better yet, he knew he could.
Suddenly, down in the valley he could spy a movement in the trees near his flock of sheep. The sound of crashing branches was carried up to Kestrel on the wind to where he sat on his rocky perch. He stood up as nervous energy charged through his legs.
Possibilities flashed through his mind in thrilling succession – it could be a moon bear, a hulking black beast adorned with a crescent of white on its chest, often stained red with blood, giving it the less poetic appellation of the scythe bear. Or a basilisk, its huge scaled feet crashing through the undergrowth and its thin blue crest brushing the treetops. Or better yet, a band of raiders from the nearby mountains of Costoa, wild and masked.
The crashing continued, although it was quickly approaching two oblivious sheep crouched near the patch of trees, and Kestrel began to fly down his rocky crag. Inelegantly scraping his knee through his britches on an unexpected jutting rock, he began to run across the wet grass towards the sheep, still blissfully unaware that anything awaited them except the digestion of weeds. The creature finally burst through the trees and fell on the sheep. Not a bear, not a basilisk, but an old man. Yet he was still attacking the now panicking sheep with a real sword. With wild swings the man was hacking off pieces of wool and sheep, scattering blood and fleece on the wet ground. Kestrel could almost feel fear and confusion sink lead through his shoes, but he ignored it as best he could and closed the distance between him and the man intent on killing his livestock.
“Hey!” Kestrel yelled, hoping that if it was some sort of juvenile prank his presence would be enough to send him off, but to no avail. The man seemed not to hear him at all, spearing through the sheep with a ferocity reflected in his hard, shining eyes.
“Hey, you!” At this point Kestrel was almost close enough to reach out and touch the old man if he didn’t mind losing a hand. The man wouldn’t listen to him and he seemed nigh unstoppable with the sword…not that the sheep were putting up much of a fight. They were in such a state of terror that they had forgotten to run and were in a terrified clump in front of the mad swordsman. Kestrel, without more than his walking stick and that was left, forgotten on top of his bluff, realized that he had one chance to knock the man down and unconscious, anything more and the man would cut him down in his unseeing rage. So he flew behind the man and into the woods and, laying hands on the first decent sized rock he could find, leapt out at the man’s defenseless backside, bringing the rock down hard on the back of his head with a horrible thick sound.
He dropped like a stone, releasing his sword to thump dully on the ground. The seven remaining sheep finally scattered to secluded pockets of the valley. Finally, Kestrel looked down at his victim. He was a very thin old man. He hadn’t had the chance to notice before when he was engaged in battle with the sheep, but his face was artfully lined with wrinkles and his grey hair stood in wild tufts about his narrow face. His eyes were closed, but Kestrel cautiously leaned close and could hear the man’s steady breath and breathed an embarrassed sigh of relief. His ragged and nondescript brown clothing hung like sails around the man’s lean frame. Although his didn’t seem to be the leanness of starvation but rather that of athleticism and fitness.
The only thing that might have distinguished him from any other potato farmer on the outskirts of a village was his sword. Kestrel skirted the man’s prostrate body and picked up the sword where it lay. No great judge of swords, Kestrel had nothing to compare the weapon to, but it was very light for its size. Set in the simple hilt of the sword was a round luminescent blue stone, encircled by a ring of an equally bright green one. The image seemed vaguely familiar, but the connection, if there was one, quickly faded as Kestrel was flooded with yet another panicky feeling.
What was he to do now? He had stopped the wild brigand, but he surely couldn’t kill the man with his own sword. What kind of hero would he be if his first kill was an old man, lying unconscious amidst grass and sheep droppings? He would certainly not gain the King’s favor with that. Leaving him here was no good either, for he could either expire quietly in the field or regain consciousness and start attacking the sheep again. No, the only solution was to take him back to his village and bring him to Kestrel’s father, who was one of the town’s chief councilmen. Jaeger was sure to be proud of his son’s work and forgive him for the slaughtered sheep.
Looking about for his remaining livestock and, satisfied that they had returned to their normally calm and dopey selves, Kestrel turned his attention to the prostrate man in front of him. Carefully lifting him around the knees and draping him like a scarf around his neck and shoulders, he picked up the man’s sword in one hand and kept the other hand around the man’s legs where they hung down his chest.
Making his way slowly across the pasture towards the path in the woods from where he had come, he could already feel the muscles in his neck and shoulders stretching and protesting. The brigand balanced around his shoulders had seemed frailer stretched out on the ground, but now that his weight pressed down on him, Kestrel determined that the man was indeed more muscle than bone. And the rain, which had thankfully abated during the whole exciting episode, now swept back into full force, wind driving hard raindrops into his face and eyes. As the rain slowly soaked into his clothing, he heard a brief and quiet groan from the unconscious man. Kestrel came to a stop and stood rigidly still. The man hadn’t moved and no other sounds emanated from behind Kestrel’s head, so he continued walking and picked up his pace, the quicker to get under the shelter of the trees.
Under the green roof of the tree branches, the grey sky was less threatening and the rain much less severe. Slowing his pace a little and carefully readjusting the man’s weight around his shoulders, Kestrel took a deep breath and began thinking on his hero’s reception once he arrived home. He would step through the simple wooden door of his home near the center of his village of Marilow and place the man’s body gently on the padded blue cushions in the main room reserved for guests. His mother would be kneading dough on the wooden table in the center of the room, fading brown hair swept up into a messy knot. Baby Chick would be taking a nap in his small wooden cradle, soft pink hands clutching his yellow blanket. The five year old twins Parula and Pipit would come tumbling in from outdoors, despite the rain, covered in mud and grass. All would look up from what they were doing and stare at Kestrel in awe and come forth with a barrage of questions, to which he would respond confidently and with nonchalance.
Broken from his reverie by a sudden and painful twinge in his shoulder, Kestrel slowed to once again shift the man’s dead weight. As he did so, his gaze was caught by yet another rustling in the bushes. He had only a second to register the movement before the thing burst out of the undergrowth. It was a forest pampa, easily three times the size of a normal house cat, its sleek head and slitted green eyes leading a leanly muscled body, dark brown in color so as to blend seamlessly with its woodland home. And in this case it had succeeded perfectly. Although the great cats were rare so close to the townships near and surrounding the capital, they were not unheard of. Once again, Kestrel was frozen to the dirt path beneath him, his fear seeming to making the air thick. The pampa’s ribs showed through its thick pelt – it had probably been hard put to find prey during the long, cold winter and had not yet discovered the villagers’ flocks of sheep nearby, and was desperately hungry.
Thinking as quickly as his suddenly sluggish brain would allow, Kestrel immediately abandoned the idea of dropping the brigand and leaving him as easy prey for the hungry cat. After all, what kind of hero would he be then? Kestrel began walking in the direction of the village once more, very very slowly, keeping the pampa clearly in his sight and tightening his left hand’s hold over the brigand’s legs. However, the beast was not to be calmed by quiet motions – as soon as it determined its prey was slow and apparently stupid, it flew at Kestrel in a smooth arc of fur and claws. Fear charged through the boy’s spine. But as the Fates would have it, the years that Kestrel had spent playing with bow staffs and wooden swords with his friends in the dirt square of Marilow lead his hand to tighten around the hilt of the forgotten sword in his right hand and swing outward in an unpolished but effective swipe at the animal’s broad chest.
Bright red blood spilled from the wound, which was deeper than Kestrel’s abilities should have made it, but the pampa’s momentum carried it into the bite of the blade. The great cat let loose an eerily human like scream, long and high and keening, and clumsily drew away from the sword. Ferocity and hunger still shone in its jade green eyes, but the sword had fatefully nicked the cord of muscle where the front left leg met the thick chest, making it nearly impossible for it to initiate another such forceful attack. In the rapid movement, the man draped around Kestrel’s shoulders was jolted and nearly slid off with another pained grunt had the pampa not hesitantly abandoned its prey and reluctantly limped to the brush under the trees.
Kestrel stared off for a moment into the clump of trees where the pampa had disappeared, heart still beating frantically, worried that it would suddenly return. Realizing, however, that the best way to avoid the cat if it did would be to keep walking towards the village, Kestrel walked the remainder of the path back to Marilow.
Once again leaving the shelter of the trees, Kestrel was buffeted by wind and rain as he passed through the gates into the township. Far from a welcoming crowd, the town seemed deserted, abandoned. It was lucky for him the town was so empty, as he didn’t know that he wanted to explain the man draped around his shoulders to every gawking passerby. The weather had driven everyone indoors, and the only group remaining outside was a motley band of miscellaneous livestock, pigs, chickens, and goats all foraging for insects and grass in the muddy town square.
Kestrel wearily made his way down the small street at the eastern end of the square, passing the butcher’s, a small pottery store, and several houses before finally reaching his home. Ivy leaves slick with rain twined around the doorway and he could hear Grayer barking somewhere within.
An hour later, the main room of Kestrel’s house was crowded with village councilmen and pushy onlookers, an incessant stream of talk filling their small home to the rafters. His shocked family had met his gaze as he put the unconscious brigand on the cushions by the door. They had listened to his breathless and defiant explanation of the afternoon’s events with varying degrees of shock on their faces, until Chick began crying and the twins wandered across the room to examine the prostrate body with all the gravity that toddlers in their nappies can maintain. His father soon followed them and crouched next to the fallen man. Jaeger gently picked at the man’s tattered clothing, studied his face and finally considered the sword that Kestrel grudgingly offered up to him.
Suddenly Jaeger straightened to his feet with a nervous jolt. Still holding the sword, he rushed to his mother’s side and whispered something fervently into her ear. Her normally docile face went rigid as she glanced from the sword to its owner, who was now groaning and showing signs of regaining consciousness.
Jaeger visibly composed himself and began issuing brusque directions to the family before he rushed from their home. Baby Chick was relegated to his cradle and the twins were charged with getting water from the village well and Kestrel’s mother arranged pillows under the man’s head and covering him carefully with a rough blanket from Kestrel’s parents’ own bed. An unsettling feeling was beginning to take hold in the bottom of Kestrel’s stomach. The man that he had successfully caught threatening their livestock and their livelihood was now being treated as an honored guest. What had happened? Had he done something wrong? Who was this honorable criminal?