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The Red King
Fresh morning air lifted clouds and gulls above the glimmering sea, and drew one young gryfon early from his den. Too early, just before sunrise when forbidden darkness still blanketed the islands.
The sun rose unhurriedly from the sea, and Shard strained against the steep sky, breathing deep, challenging himself to the highest possible dive. The sea spun below him. His mind flickered lightly in the thin air and he shoved down panic. Some would call it too high.
His wings drew in and flapped out sluggishly, feeling separate from his body. He had to bank, to get lower, breathe the deeper air.
Night sparked at the edge of his mind. His dreams flocked up from the night before. Nightmares of the impending initiation hunt.
The hunt! Shard thought wildly. What's the sunmark?
Dreams scattered like crows from Shard's mind. He gave up on grace and tucked his wings to dive. His thoughts collapsed for three breaths as he plummeted on faith toward the sea, blind and gasping. Plenty of sky stretched below him. Plenty of room to fall, to breathe, to regain safe air.
Terrifying chills laced his muscles. The hunt, the hunt haunted him. In his dream he'd been late, missed it completely and faced banishment from the pride. But as Shard fell lower, he realized that the sun still hovered, dipped in the sea, that the dawn rippled softly across the water. Not as much time had passed as he'd thought.
The ocean swelled toward him and Shard shrieked into the morning to warn gulls from his path. He shoved his wings and feathered tail to flare, the hard stop shocking his muscles.
It was never the dive that was dangerous, his nest-father had taught. It was the landing. Shard laughed, raw and breathless, and turned to regain some sky. He angled his tail to help him turn. His tail swept long like a mountain cat's for balance, but feathers lay over the length, and could fan wide at the end to help with flying.
Shard floated higher on gentler, warmer air, still far above land.
Small, bright breezes pushed under his wings and buffeted the soft feathers of his face, bringing him scents from all the islands. He reveled in the damp spring air, still edged with winter in its coldest gusts, and wheeled through the tattered clouds that had left rain the night before. He flew high enough to see the whole cluster of the Silver Isles, bunched like the stamp of a gryfon's hind paw. They stood alone in the cold starland sea.
An eagle scream pierced his thoughts and in the high, thinner air above, it sounded like his name.
Ocean rolled under him. He shouldn't have flown out so far or so high, but Shard only felt truly free up in the wind, and he had to practice high flying to keep up with his larger peers. He peered down at the islands. Today, a hunt on one of those isles would determine his future.
It was his name. And whoever called it sounded worried.
Shard's ears twitched as he tucked his long wings and dove for the nesting cliffs on the dawnward side of the massive Sun Isle. Not the fast, plummeting dive he had planned, to clear his head, but straight and steady.
Shame at his cowardice wriggled. Next time.
This time he knew the voice, and keened a response. A mote of gold circled below him, what looked like a huge fishing eagle. It wasn't.
The broad, bronze-black faces of the nesting cliffs glittered in the low morning light. Shard stretched his talons forward, laughing into the wind that beat back his long, feathered ears and rippled the last of the winter coat on his flanks and hind legs. He aimed for the gold gryfon below him, who was shouting.
"Not yet, Kjorn!" Shard laughed at his gold friend, and before Kjorn realized Shard wasn't slowing, Shard slammed into him from above and sent them both sprawling lock-claw toward the sea.
"Get off!" Head tossing, tail lashing, Kjorn shrieked and tried to pry free.
"Did you see how high I flew?"
"You're a mudding genius. Shard, listen!"
They fell, a tangle of gray and golden feathers, wings flashing and snapping. Salt waves leaped and crashed toward them. Kjorn wrenched free and wheeled away. Shard corrected and glided up beside him.
"Did you forget the sunmark?" Kjorn was a third again Shard's size, gold as the morning and with eyes a rare summer blue.
"No," Shard murmured, gulping a breath. "I had to clear my head."
"That shouldn't have taken long."
Shard laughed and banked to catch Kjorn's wing, but Kjorn shoved higher, avoiding another spar. "The others have gathered already."
"But we weren't going to present until the sun reached middlemark!"
Kjorn stretched his talons. "It was changed. Didn't you hear?"
"No. Is your father there yet?"
"My father the king."
"Your father the king," Shard corrected, perking his ears toward the nesting cliffs as he and Kjorn glided in. Gryfons moved about on different levels of the cliffs, little bits of color waking, stretching deeply, bowing to the morning sun. Shard and Kjorn floated on the buoyant air over the rocks to the highest cliff overlooking the dawnward quarter of the sea.
"No," Kjorn said. "He hasn't come back yet. He flew along the coast at sunrise, to ask Tyr's blessing for the hunt."
"Then I'm not late." Irritation sizzled under his feathers, and worry. Why wouldn't I have heard of the time change? Did someone say something, Mother, or Thyra, and I forgot it?
He shook off worry as they glided in.
Copper Cliff shone like its namesake in the dawn. A flat, grassy round formed the top of a cliff that dropped sharply into the sea, and a tumble of stones from the First Age sat in rough display near the edge. A perfect place for the king of the pride to stand and speak.
Shard and Kjorn angled toward the broad sloping meadow that stretched deeper inland from the cliff, and landed together. Kjorn thumped hard on the rocky peat, Shard a falcon's touch beside him.
Kjorn eyed his landing and ruffled. "Are you prepared? I thought we were going to spar this morning."
Shard folded his wings and dipped his head. "I had to fly," he murmured. The rush of flight seeped out of him and anxiousness slithered back in its place. Exile didn't hover over Kjorn's head if he did poorly on the initiation hunt, only embarrassment. Shard could lose everything. "I'm prepared." I hope.
He remained one of the few males in the pride not friend or kin to Sverin, the king. Since he had come of age, he could only stay if he proved himself useful and loyal. "But I'm worried," he said, softly so only Kjorn and the wind would hear.
"I'm with you, brother," Kjorn stared him in the eye, "whatever happens. I told my father I wouldn't hunt without you."
Shard perked his ears, and stretched out a gray wing. Kjorn fluffed happily and extended his own golden wing to eclipse it. "Wind under me when the air is still."
Shard took up the wingbrother pledge. "Wind over me when I fly too high."
"Brother by choice."
"Brother by vow."
"By my wings," they said together, "You will never fly alone."
"After the hunt," Kjorn said, folding his wing, "you'll show me how you flew so high, and that fast dive"
"If I'm still here," Shard tried to joke.
Kjorn bumped at Shard's ear with his beak. "Go."
Shard bounded up the slope toward the king's rocks. He didn't see the king yet, but three other young males waited in a line below them. A coppery male several years Shard's junior, almost too young to hunt, looked relieved to see him trot up. He and Shard exchanged a nervous look, but before Shard remembered his name, the young gryfon looked away and whispered to the gryfon ahead of him, also copper-brown.
"Is it true that the king killed three wolves on his initiation hunt?"
"No," drawled an answer before the older copper could speak. All three looked to the green gryphon who stood first in line.
A year Shard's junior, bright emerald, his name was Halvden. A son of the Conquering. Shard flattened his ears. All three gryfons ahead of him were bigger, even the youngest, for half their breeding was of Sverin the king's pride, called the Aesir, from across the Windland Sea. Of all the young gryfons in the pride, only Shard's blood was fully of the Silver Isles. Of the smaller, conquered pride, called the Vanir.
Halvden continued, carelessly using the king's full name. "Sverin's initiation came when he and his father conquered the Silver Isles. We might take a great beast," he said with a knowing glint, "but the king took a kingdom. Hello, Shard."
Shard tensed his wings. Everyone knew Halvden was a braggart. It was why Shard avoided him most of the time. But there was no avoiding this. "Fair winds, Halvden."
Halvden turned fully, as if he couldn't care less when the king arrived, to face Shard and the other two gryfons. "Fair winds, son-of-Sigrun." The word cut. His mother's name. No one knew his father's. "I saw you flying. Were you hoping Sverin would be so impressed that he would allow you to skip the hunt? Or that your nest-father would excuse you on account of your disadvantage?"
Heat burned under Shard's feathers. "I hunt as well as you."
"Yes, the field mice of Sun Isle live in terror of you." Halvden flicked his tail, idly fanning the feathers at the end to show off the colors. He even had a handsome tail, Shard thought in dismay.
A breeze picked up between them. The cool weedy scent of the Nightrun river drifted to them and Shard tried to let it calm him.
"Quail and mice," Halvden continued when Shard didn't rise to his first insult. "I heard that old Caj and your nest-sister spotted a boar on Star Island. That beast would strip your feathers to line its den before you could take to the sky."
"I wouldn't fly." Shard bristled, raising the longer hackle feathers behind his ears and down his neck.
"Have you ever seen such a beast?"
Halvden flared his wings, advancing a step. The younger gryfon in front of Shard crouched back and spread his wings a little in deference, stepping out from between them. The older copper gryfon didn't move to interfere, and Haldven raised his head higher than Shard's.
"The only reason you're here is because the prince begged"
"Prove that!" Shard crouched, ready to leap and fight. Against Halvden, he knew he would probably lose.
"Enough," rumbled the older, copper gryfon, stepping forward so his shadow fell over Shard. He stood as tall as Halvden, though he looked older. "Prove yourself on the hunt, Halvden. Not here."
Halvden paused, sizing up the older gryfon. He seemed familiar to Shard, though he couldn't place why.
Halvden perked his ears in mock attentiveness. "I don't think I should follow the advice of your family"
"The king comes," said the older gryfon. Halvden blinked and spun as they all perked ears toward the king's rocks. The king glided in from his morning flight, massive wings flaring, stirring the grass as he landed on the top of his rocks.
The largest of the pride, Sverin son-of-Per looked every bit a king. He wore gold, crusted with emerald and sparkling catseye, around his neck, and golden bands clamped to his forelegs just above the spread of black talons. Tokens from Sverin's grandfather's war with dragons in the farthest arctic lands across the sea. The dawn outlined his copper flanks, throwing sheen across the scarlet feathers of his shoulders and the deep crimson of his face.
Shard and the others bowed. Other gryfons in the distance paused their morning business to watch the judgments.
"Halvden, son-of-Hallr," rumbled Sverin, wasting no niceties. Halvden stepped forward and mantled, letting his green wings droop from his shoulders and spreading his long flight feathers in a handsome display of respect.
Shard tightened his own plain, gray wings to his sides.
Dull as a sparrow and about as useful. Halvden was right. What have I ever hunted but quail and mice?
Sverin regarded Halvden fondly. "Your father is a great warrior, and a friend. Your mother was wise to choose him. If you prove yourself half the gryfon he is today, I shall be proud to have you in my ranks."
Halvden fluffed and then let his feathers smooth to sleekness with more dignity, dipping his head. "Let's hope I can prove myself by more than half, my Lord." He mantled again and strutted off when the king flicked a wingtip in amused acceptance.
Shard perked his ears again, hopeful and attentive. Halvden had barely needed to say anything. Maybe it won't be so hard. Then the older copper in front of Shard stepped up and mantled.
Sverin's golden eyes cooled.
"Son-of-Vidar," he rumbled.
That was a Silver Isles name. A conquered name. Shard fought the urge to cower and pretended he was made of stone.
"Your father was of the Vanir of the Silver Isles. You've waited long enough to seek this honor."
"I thought it best," said the copper quietly. "To let things calm down."
"I remember your father."
"I don't, my Lord." The copper gryfon's voice remained blank. "My mother is a huntress of your clan. Your father's cousin."
And Shard remembered. Four winters ago, Sverin had banished a gryfon for flying at night, which was forbidden by their bright god, Tyr. Exile at any time meant questionable survival. Exile in winter meant death. The exiled gryfon had been this gryfon's father.
"Why didn't you seek to reconcile with me sooner?" The king's tail lashed. The large copper gryfon lifted his head, ears flattening.
"I wasn't flying at night, my king."
"You're of his blood. You should have sought honor. Apology. Redemption." The king raised his voice; it cracked and rolled down the slope. "Or were you afraid."
"No," snapped the copper, wings lifting in agitation. Shard forced his own feathers to stay smooth, calm, but saw the younger gryfon ahead of him step back, half-cowering.
The king lowered his head, eyes blazing gold. "You are a coward, the son of an oath-breaker, who now seeks to strut up to me and expect a place in this pride. I need strength in my pride. Courage. Loyalty."
"I am loyal!" But he flared his wings and crouched, his voice rising in threat.
"You will not hunt and fly in my ranks, son-of-Vidar. Your blood is poisoned by your father's betrayal and disregard for my law."
Trying to take a breath against his tight throat, Shard then had to stifle a gasp. Refused, before getting a chance to hunt?
The larger copper gryfon stared at the king, eyes wide, the black centers pinpointed in the panic of a witless eagle. "What are you saying, my Lord?"
"Leave this pride. I will not have you."
"My mother, and brother"
"Are better off without you."
Silence stretched taut across the slope and the rocks and for a moment Shard thought the copper gryfon would spring, and challenge the king himself. His copper wings twitched. Then his gaze switched to the younger gryfon behind him. He faced the king, and bowed. Shock rippled up Shard's skin.
"Asas you wish, my Lord. I am not worthy of the pride."
But Sverin no longer heard his words. He had turned his head, looking away toward the sky as if the copper gryfon no longer existed. Shard blinked and looked away too. He heard the younger gryfon ahead of him whisper a name. They must be brothers.
"Fair winds," whispered the older, then shoved off from the ground, wings beating hard to gain sky. Shard ground his beak, not looking. His heart shoved ice through his body and heat roiled in his belly. He wondered, if that was the reception of one half-blood with a dishonored father, what would his be?
Gulls cried above. Shard thought one of them sounded in pain, then realized it was a female gryfon, a gryfess keening sorrow into the morning. Sverin snapped his gaze around and all fell silent again. The younger copper in front of Shard cowered back. Then, for some reason, he glanced to Shard. Shard drew a breath and forced himself to nod encouragingly. He had never seen Sverin banish someone before even giving them a chance to hunt.
"Second son-of-Vidar," the king rumbled.
"My my name is Einarr, my king." The young gryfon's voice trembled. Shard released a breath, willing him to be strong.
"You're young to be seeking glory."
"I seek honor, after " Einarr trailed off. What was there left to say? His father exiled, his brother exiled right before his eyes. Shard stepped forward as if he could give Einarr strength.
"Yes," Sverin murmured. "I imagine you would." He stared down the young gryfon with cool golden eyes. "Your brother could have learned from your brave example." His tail twitched. His gaze didn't waver. The sound of waves breaking against the rocks shoved into the space of silence. "You may hunt. Let us hope you have more of your mother's blood than your father's."
"Thank you, my Lord," breathed Einarr. "My king." He scraped a low bow and turned, sprinting from the king's sight. Shard stared after him. One gryfon banished. Two kept. Why had he thought this would be easy? Flying with Kjorn had made him too confident. The king possessed more ferocity in a single tail feather than Shard had ever felt in his entire body.
Drawing breath, he gathered himself and looked up.
Sverin was staring at him.