Saturday, 2 June 2018

Episode III - III Thrown from the Nest (Shard II)

On Authroc's Wing

Thrown from the Nest
(Shard II)

I wished only to stretch my wings, and I find you slipping from me. Qathalla’s words rushed into Leiros’ mind with flashes of images and intense emotions. You have taken on the role of mother to these chicks. You have thrust them from the nest to earn their wings. Qathalla turned its great wings downward and then pushed back to attain more speed as it rushed mere feet above the crashing waters of the river.

Leiros looked from side to side and noticed that Qathalla was taking them into the heart of the City of Veils, built into the sides of the great canyon. He could see the first few riverfront buildings whipping by, and felt the tug on him as the great bird soared around a hard bend in the canyon. The clusters of buildings and houses grew more elaborate as they whipped by at a frenzied pace. Within a few moments, they would be nearing the great bridges near the core of the city, and the shadow cast by the overhanging great hall of the Elder Circle.

I don’t know what dark thoughts tore you away from me, but I refuse to allow it again. Qathalla’s emotions grew stronger and the authroc gave out an audible screech to let loose its demands. No more day-dreaming, my companion. You must remain awake!

Leiros didn’t need to see or react to what was about to happen, he already felt it through the keen emotional bond between him and the great bird. He moved quickly to throw his left rein far off to the side and coil the right rein around his right arm. He let his feet out of the harness and threw himself hard to the right and over the body of his soul-mount.

His legs dangled in the air a mere foot above the frothing waves of the river while he carried his momentum around to grab the flapping left rein in his hand. He struggled against gravity that pulled tightly on his arms and hands. With a groan, he steadied himself and threw his feet up to swing toward Qathalla’s chest.

As soon as he impacted the bird’s chest, he could feel the impact of Alsira Thaenat’s lowest bridge against Qathalla’s back. The bird thumped against the ancient rock once and then a second time much softer. Qathalla gave out another ear-piercing screech and beamed emotions of mirth to Leiros’ mind. If he had remained upon the saddle, the great bird would have ensured that his head would be caved in by the rushing bridge’s edge, or he would have every bone in his body crushed beneath the bridge during the first impact. Qathalla’s Ruffled or torn-out feathers from the impact began to burn in the air, looking like a rain of ash and flame. Distant sounds of shouts or curses echoed up from the many startled people using the bridge as they heard the screech and saw the great bird rise up from beneath it.

Are you awake now? Qathalla flapped its great wings to ascend a few feet higher and then lobbed over to allow Leiros to swing back into his saddle. Your chicks are waiting to be taught how to fly and to fight. You must guide them properly, so their companions don’t get hurt. You promised me.

“Yes, I know.” Leiros took hold of the saddle and nestled into the harness once more. “I can’t do my job if you kill me.” He spoke aloud, but he knew his words would be carried away on the wind. As he spoke he used his telepathic bond with Qathalla to send the words straight to the bird’s mind.

Qathalla gave a few more hard flaps of its wings and soared higher into the air. The half-orb roofed outcropping of the Elder Circle soon descended past them as they tore up and over the rim of the canyon. The brilliance of the afternoon suns caused him to blink a few times as he got used to the searing light.

When he had finished introducing himself to the students and giving them their last instructions, he had promised Qathalla that none of the other authrocs would be harmed during the final tests. Some teachers were fond of severe tests during the Authvokan challenges, but Leiros would not be like that this day. Qathalla seemed overly worried and furrowed its feathers several times when Leiros tried to mount him and give the last instructions to the students. Something had spooked it, just as the introductions had spooked Leiros in his own way.

“I must be alert, you’re right to scold me. Don’t worry, you’ve now woken me up, my friend.” Leiros leaned into Qathalla’s back as they made their way back to the air around the great mesas. “You wanted to stretch your wings, and I wanted to stretch my mind, that’s all. It won’t happen again.” Leiros nodded and let one of his gloved hands run along the immense black and ember feathers of the great bird. “I will watch after my students, and you must watch after the other authrocs.”

Qathalla gave another screech in affirmation and swooped upward to meet the other authrocs soaring through the skies.

* * *

“Well, Master Leiros, these are… Uhh…” Brother Telomai choked on his words as he stepped forward from Leiros’ side. “These are the students ready for their final tests with their Authrocs.” He turned to smile sheepishly and let his arm glide through the air as if placing all of the waiting faces on display. A small breeze lifted an errant shock of his brown hair to blow about his face. Once he dropped his arm, his green eyes darted to the ground while his mouth pursed as he chastised himself softly for tripping over his words.

“You’ve got twelve of ‘em to contend with.” Brother Hestras now stepped forward from Leiros’ other side and looked down to him with a stern look. The weather-worn wrinkles of age and sorrow furrowed as if devouring his features. “You think you can handle this lot?” The same breeze couldn’t tease any of the older brother’s hair as his head was cleanly shaven, but it did tug at the bristling and unruly gray hair of his brow.

“Assuredly.” Leiros gave a broad grin to Hestras and turned away from him sharply. He folded his hands behind him and stepped toward the gathered group. “I am Master Leiros. I’ll be taking over for Master Olkva in your teaching. Sadly, it seems I didn’t get to know any of you before this day, so I can’t speak to any of your strengths or weaknesses. We’ll be thrust into this test together, but I promise you that I am a quick learner—”

“You’ve wasted enough of our time.” Leiros was interrupted by a curt female voice from among the students gathered before him. Several of the students looked from Leiros to their number with arrayed states of shock on their faces. Slowly, a young woman pushed her way to the front. “I honestly don’t care who you are. Just do your job and let us get on with it.”

Leiros’ eyebrows shot up and one of his hands unfurled from his back to scratch at his face for a moment. His interest was piqued by this impertinent young woman. His eyes flowed judgmentally over her form as she stepped forward to challenge him. He let his eyes quickly fall to her feet and then slowly move back up to her face. He let his reactions linger, his face becoming more concerned as he went, showing that he was sizing her up and finding her wanting.

The young woman wore immaculately cared-for robes of stark white that seemed immune to the dust and sand whipped up by the Jolashi winds. She had obviously taken pains to enhance the limited wardrobe of the order with gaudy bracelets and a long necklace that draped over her low-cut top. The jewelry she wore seemed to be gold accented with the signature blue-tinted silver from the distant Star-shatter Peaks; a metal that cost as much in blood and lives as it did in Alsiran Talons. She had also taken the effort to embroider blue runes into the sleeves and neck-line trim of her robes. Leiros doubted that this embroidery was done by the long, clean, and softened hands draping limply beneath her crossed arms.

Her face would otherwise be considered pleasant to look at, but there was an added sourness to her features that bled through even the scowl and narrowed eyes she threatened Leiros with. There was something in her eyes that betrayed a rot within her that was bubbling up from the fetid depths of her soul; if she still had one. Those same eyes, hazel with more green than brown, were locked in a threatening challenge with Leiros’ own. Her lips were thin, and her jaw was as sharp as a razor’s edge. She still had a softness near her cheeks, showing some of the baby fat of her youth; a youth no doubt filled with temper tantrums and her always getting her way. Her dirty-blonde hair was tied tightly around her head in thick braids that went right down — almost painfully — to her scalp. Blue ribbons held the tails of her hair in place as they draped over her shoulders and the silken hood of her robes.

“Good, this saves me from having to continue my introduction.” Leiros maintained his composure in the face of this interloper and continued to stare into the young woman’s eyes; not willing to back down from her challenge. He stepped forward and into her personal space. “Could you please tell me specifically whose time I’ve wasted?” Leiros lifted the hand that he had scratched his face with to point at the young woman, then flipped his hand over with his palm up. He did this more to press into her personal space and get a reaction than for any other reason. “Let’s begin with you.”

Those same glassy and rotten orbs began to roll in their sockets as she gave a protracted sigh. She turned her body to the side slightly, giving just enough ground to Leiros to let him know she had a hint of insecurity in the negative attention she was getting from him. She looked over her shoulder as one of her long-fingered hands fell to her side. She snapped her fingers and waited for three shorter young women to crowd in behind her, each younger and less refined than she. Once they arrived, beckoned forth like the hounds they were, they provided security to their master. It was only then that she began to slowly speak.

“I honestly shouldn’t have to introduce myself, but you might as well know the name of the next Grandmaster of this bumpkin little order of yours.” The young woman paused for effect and lifted her chin into the air. “I am Celeste Bhourstark, heir to the county of Haellstrad in the Sapphire Kingdoms. You have heard of that place, haven’t you?” She lowered her chin just enough to hold Leiros’ eyes with her continuing stare of condescension. She looked back to the young women surrounding her and gave a derisive giggle.

“Oh yes, I am quite acquainted with it. I traveled there with Grandmaster Toulam a few years ago—”

“An irrelevant detail.” Celeste interrupted Leiros once more, but she didn’t bother to keep her eyes on him. She darted her gaze to the side as if taking in the distant rocky horizon from atop the highest mesa in the region. She was showing some loss of confidence now that she knew Leiros had been to her homeland but did her best to make up for it with a sense of disgust. “I merely wish to emphasize that among all of the other students here whose time has been wasted, you’re also wasting a lady’s time as well.”

“Oh, so you’re a lady?” Leiros’ tone, as the words came up from him quickly, was more rhetorical than inquisitive. He flared his eyes and lowered his forehead to simulate a sense of incredulity aimed not so much at the young woman’s title as the fact that she was deserving of such. Before she could react with a sneer or words in her defense he pressed on. “I didn’t know we were all in the presence of a lady, let alone the self-proclaimed next Grandmaster of our order. Oh, my.”

Leiros turned to look to Hestras at his side with false awe upon his face. He waited half a moment, seeing the brother’s face still in a scowl. He turned to the other side to see Telomai staring at him with a look of bewilderment and fear. He held his eyes on the younger brother a few moments longer, emphasizing his reluctance to look back that the young woman snarling in front of him. He did so, and bowed into an overdrawn curtsy, letting his eyes trail from the ground back up to Celeste’s face.

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