David B. Coe

Author of Fantasy Novels and the Occasional Short Story

Children of Amarid, Chapters 1 & 2

Chapter 1

He awoke with first light, rose, and dressed quietly.  He kissed his wife, who stirred slightly before turning over and going back to sleep, and then he stepped noiselessly to the next room where his son slept.  Gerek smiled when he saw the boy, still asleep, sprawled ridiculously in his bed with his small feet resting on the pillow and his head leaning against the wall.  He sat down on the bed by his son and shook the boy gently.

"Kori.  Kori," he called softly.  "I'm going to the island to get some shan leaf.  Do you want to come along?  Or do you want to sleep some more."

The boy turned over and yawned, his eyes still closed.  "I want to go with you," he replied sleepily.

"All right," Gerek continued in the same hushed tone.  "Then you have to get up now."

"Okay," Kori answered, although his eyes remained closed.

His father laughed quietly.  "Okay," he repeated.

A moment later, the boy opened his eyes and yawned again.  His father helped him out of bed, dressed him, and led him by the hand out to the common room.

"Do you want something to eat now, or do you want to wait until we get back?" Gerek whispered.

The boy considered the question for a moment, his face, still puffy from sleep, wearing a thoughtful expression.  "I think I'm hungry now," he said at last.  His father held a finger to his lips indicating that he should speak quietly.  "Can I have a piece of sweet bread?" Kori continued in a whisper.

Gerek nodded and stepped lightly into the pantry.  He returned with two pieces of the soft bread, one that he gave to his son, and one that he bit into himself.  When they finished eating, both man and boy donned heavy, brown overshirts and silently left the house.

The early morning air felt cool and damp, and the briny scent of the nearby harbor lay heavily over the village.  The sky was azure, and the first rays of sunlight cast elongated shadows in front of them as Gerek and Kori crossed through the village and down to the shore.  When they reached the waterfront they walked among the small, wooden boats which sat on the sandy beach until they found the dugout Gerek had fashioned the previous spring.  In the boat lay three wooden paddles, two of them full sized, and one of them, clearly intended for Kori, half the size of the others.  Kori removed his paddle and one of the larger ones, struggling slightly with the latter, and his father pushed the dugout along the sand until it glided onto the glass-like surface of the harbor.  There, he held it still until Kori climbed in and moved to the front.  Then Gerek took his place at the stern and began to paddle away from the shore. 

A fine mist, rising slowly from the water's surface, parted and swirled past the sides of the dugout as it glided toward a large, wooded island half a mile from the shore.  The island's forest was mottled with numerous shades of green, its leaves still young with the spring.  Thin strands of steam curled over the trees of the island like fingers on some ghostly hand, and, beyond the island, in the distance, a thick fog lay like a blanket over the pale, green rise of the Lower Horn.  In the prow of the little boat, Kori paddled, smoothly shifting the oar from side to side the way his father had taught him.  Gerek smiled and shook his head.  It's not possible, he thought to himself, watching the boy, that he can already be five years old.  Where do the years go?

"You're paddling well, Kori," he called.  "We'll have you sitting back here and steering soon."

Kori turned to look at his father, smiling broadly, his face lit as much by pride as by the sun coming up behind them.  Then he faced forward again and began to paddle with even more determination than before.  Again, Gerek smiled.

When they reached the island, the man steered the boat around to a small beach at the south end, hopped out of the dugout, and pushed it up onto the shore.  Kori climbed out of the boat and, together, he and his father moved into the forest.

A narrow, worn path, one the man and boy had taken before, wound among the maples, oaks, elms, and aspens, climbing steeply away from the beach before leveling off several hundred feet into the wood.  Sunlight slanted through the trees, casting shafts of alternating light and shadow through the smoke-like mist that permeated the forest.  The drum of a woodpecker echoed through the woods, and a thrush sang repeatedly from a hidden perch.

Gerek and Kori began searching along the lush floor of the wood for the tiny, velvet-blue shan leaves for which they had come.  One usually smelled shan before seeing it.  It grew low to the ground, snaking inconspicuously among the leaf litter and other shrubs.  But it had a distinctive sweet, cool fragrance that was more than matched by its flavor.  Many in the western part of Tobyn-Ser used the dried leaves as a seasoning, and some even chewed the leaves as they found them.  In higher concentrations, steamed shan had medicinal value, and, in all forms, it was a popular and precious market item.  Gerek planned to trade most of what they found this morning, with an Abboriji trader, who had promised to deliver in return several yards of a fabric that Shayla had admired.  They could never have afforded such material simply on what they earned from Gerek's fishing and Shayla's basketry.  Gerek had told Shayla as much.  But, with this shan. . . .  Gerek smiled to himself; he could not wait to see the expression on Shayla's face.

He and Kori moved through the forest gradually, filling their sacks with leaves, the boy covering the area to the right of the path, Gerek harvesting the leaves to the left of it.  After nearly an hour, Gerek returned to the trail and called to his son.

"How are you doing, Kori?"

"Fine," the boy called back.  A moment later he stood breathlessly in front of his father.  "Look how much I got!"  Kori opened his sack which was nearly full of the blue leaves.  Their aroma seemed to fill the forest.

"That's great," Gerek said, lifting the boy into his arms, "but let's leave a few for the others, okay?"

"Okay.  I'm hungry anyway."

"Again?" the man asked with mock amazement.

The boy nodded and laughed.

Gerek eased Kori down to the ground and they began to make their way back through the forest toward the boat.  They had only taken a few steps, however, when Gerek heard something moving in the woods behind them.  He turned and saw, through the branches and the mist, a distant figure approaching slowly.  The stranger was tall and lean, and he moved among the trees with an easy grace.  He wore a hooded cloak of deep, forest green, and carried a long staff on top of which was mounted a glowing, crimson stone.  And on his shoulder sat a great, dark bird.

Gerek grinned, feeling his pulse quicken as it always did when he saw one of Amarid's Children.  It seemed funny in a way that, even now, even though he was a father with a five year-old son, the sight of a mage could affect him so.

"What is it, Papa?"

It took Gerek a moment to respond.  "It's a Child of Amarid," he said at last, still gazing at the approaching figure.  He did not recognize the man, and he had never seen a hawk or owl as large or as dark as the one this mage carried.

"Is it Master Niall?" Kori asked excitedly.  "I can't see him!"

Gerek picked up his son again and pointed.  "See?  There he is, although I don't think it's Niall, not unless he's gotten a new bird." 

"You mean it's another one?" Kori asked, his voice rising and his eyes growing wide.  "Is this one a Hawk-Mage or an Owl-Mage?"

"Hawk-Mage or Owl-Master," Gerek corrected, and then, looking back at the mage, who was drawing closer, he shrugged. "I'm not sure," he told the boy, still unable to recognize the strange bird on the figure's shoulder.  In truth, Gerek knew little about the hawks or owls to which the Children of Amarid bound themselves, and from which they drew their powers and healing abilities.  He knew Amarid's Hawk, but most people did.  And, usually, he could distinguish a hawk from an owl.  But beyond that, he could not tell one bird from another.  He did know, however, how unusual it was to see a mage other than the one who served this portion of the land.  There were only a few dozen mages in all of Tobyn-Ser, most of them serving specific areas.  Niall, who served the Lower Horn and the shore of South Shelter, visited Sern and the other coastal villages twice a year -- more often if the people had need.  He had been doing so for as long as Gerek remembered, first as a Hawk-Mage, and, in more recent years, as an Owl-Master.  The mage had been a close friend of Shayla's father, and he had come to Gerek and Shayla's wedding.  He was a familiar figure in Gerek's life, and still, every time Gerek saw the beautiful bird Niall carried, and the long green cloak that betokened the mage's membership in the Order, Gerek could not suppress the excitement bordering on giddiness that overcame him.  And this was not Niall.  Gerek could not remember the last time he had seen a mage other than the silver-haired Owl-Master; Kori, he knew, had never seen one.

"Greetings, Child of Amarid," Gerek called out formally.  "We are honored by this meeting."

Gerek's salutation brought no response, and, he noticed, even as the figure came closer, the hood of the cloak continued to conceal the mage's face.  Slowly, not understanding why it happened, Gerek felt his excitement begin to give way to something else.  Amarid's Children were the most honored men and women in Tobyn-Ser.  They roamed the land serving and protecting its people, healing them when they were ill or wounded, and guiding them in times of trouble.  In the absence of a centralized government binding together the land's cities, towns, and villages, the Order, in an uneasy alliance with the Sons and Daughters of the Gods, functioned as Tobyn-Ser's leadership, guarding the people from outside threats and settling disputes among different communities.  They were as much a part of the land as the Seaside Mountains that rose majestically from the coastline just to the east of Sern; they were nearly as important to Tobyn-Ser's people as Arick, Duclea, and the other Gods.  The feathers the mages left as tokens of their service were prizes to be cherished; indeed, even finding a feather in the woods or on a beach was considered to be good luck.  Gifts from Amarid they were called.  As a child, Gerek had longed to join the Order himself, and Kori already spoke of it as well.  Any man or woman who donned a forest green cloak and bore a mage's staff, even a stranger, was a friend, and a protector.  And yet. . . .

And yet now, confronted with this silent, hooded figure and the strange, black bird, Gerek suddenly, inexplicably, felt vulnerable and afraid.  Within him, everything he had learned as a child, everything he, in turn, had taught Kori, battled with an overpowering, instinctive urge to flee.  Battled, and lost.

Still holding Kori in his arms, he turned and began to walk quickly down the path, toward the safety of the boat.

"Can't we stay and talk to him?" Kori asked, gazing back over his father's shoulder, his words jarred with each of his father's steps.

Gerek did not answer, concentrating instead on keeping his footing and avoiding the roots and rocks that cluttered the trail.

"I want to see his bird!" Kori said, his tone becoming more insistent and plaintive.  "Why are we leaving?"  Then Kori's tone changed utterly, and there was fear in his whispered words.  "Papa, I think he's coming after us!"

Gerek whirled and saw the figure, its benign, leisurely bearing gone, striding purposefully and menacingly toward them.  Still, Gerek could not discern the cloaked face, nor could he identify the strange bird.  He began to run.  Kori clung tightly to his neck and bounced in his arms.  Twice they nearly fell, but both times Gerek righted himself and maintained his grip on his son.  He knew without looking that the figure was pursuing them, gaining on them with each step.  And then, just as they reached the descent to the beach, Kori screamed.

"His bird!"

Gerek stopped and swung around again, his breath coming in ragged gasps.  The huge, black creature was already in flight, overtaking them with sickening speed.  Gerek put Kori on the ground and picked up a short, heavy stick from beside the path.

"Kori!  Run to the boat!  Don't wait for me!  Just paddle home as fast as you can!"

"But Papa. . . ."

"MOVE!!" Gerek exploded.

He saw Kori begin to back away, the child's eyes locked on the approaching creature, the expression on his young face a mix of fascination and horror.  And then Gerek was aware of nothing but himself and the great bird.

As the creature reached him, Gerek leveled a ferocious blow at its head, but, at the last moment, with extraordinary agility, the bird wheeled off to the side.  The force of his swing threw the man off balance momentarily, but he recovered quickly and spun around to face the hovering hawk with the stick held in front of him.  He could see now that the bird was unlike any he had ever seen before.  Its feathers were unnaturally stiff and glossy.  Its knifelike talons and sharply hooked beak seemed strange somehow, far more threatening than those of any other hawk he had encountered, although even they were not as alien as the bird's bright, glimmering eyes.  These were golden in color, and, impossibly, horribly, they appeared to have no pupils.

The creature hovered in front of Gerek for another moment and then it suddenly rose up above him and dropped toward his head, its talons outstretched.  Gerek dove to his left, rolled, and sprang to his feet just in time to raise the stick and block a swooping blow from the bird's fisted talon.  The bird moved with incredible speed, swooping again while Gerek still recovered from the force of the last attack.  Again Gerek dove away, this time rolling to the far side of a tree where he was able to gain a moment's rest.  He scrambled to his feet and, keeping his back to the tree and holding his stick before him, stepped around into the clearing.  He expected an immediate assault from the creature, but the great bird was nowhere in sight.  Instinctively Gerek looked up, guarding his head with the stick and his arms, but the hawk was not above him.  He looked over to where Kori still stood and, as he did so, Kori screamed and pointed.  From behind another tree, the hawk rushed at Gerek's head, its beak open and its talons poised to strike.  Gerek, caught off guard by the attack and impeded by the tree he had tried to use as protection, wrenched himself desperately to the side and flung the stick toward the bird.  The creature veered off to avoid it, but caught Gerek's left arm, just below the elbow, with one of its razor claws.  Gerek gasped in pain and blood began to soak through his overshirt.  He heard Kori start to sob.  He tried to flex his hand, but the hawk's talon had sliced through his tendons, leaving him with little strength or control in his fingers.  Keeping his injured arm close to his body, Gerek grabbed another fallen branch to use as a weapon and watched as the hawk glided back toward where he stood.

He readied himself for another attack, but, instead, the bird merely hovered above him, just barely out of reach, seeming to sense that Gerek was weakening and toying with him, feigning attacks and gliding from side to side.  And with each passing moment, the sleeve of Gerek's overshirt grew heavier with blood.  With his injured hand, he clawed repeatedly at the perspiration that stung his eyes, but Gerek could do nothing about the fatigue and pain.  He was growing light-headed; he could barely stand, much less fight.

And then, as suddenly as it had begun, it ended.  His strength failing, Gerek gathered himself for one last assault on his foe.  Hoping to lure the great bird within striking distance, he lowered his good arm as if too tired to maintain his defensive posture.  The hawk swooped in close to Gerek's head and the man swung his stick with all the force he could muster.  It nearly worked.  Maybe, if he had been able to use both arms. . . .

Maybe.  But he was hurt, and the creature was so quick; so unnaturally quick.  Gerek missed.  And the power of his swing threw him off balance, leaving his back exposed to the bird.  He felt the creature's talons raking his shoulders and back, and he fell to the ground.  He tried to stand again, but the hawk pounced on him and tore at his neck with its beak.  He tried to scream to Kori; to implore the boy to run, but he could not tell if he made himself heard.

***

Kori had watched with helpless fury as his father fought the horrible bird.  He began to cry when he saw the creature cut his father's arm, and he screamed with terror when Gerek fell to the ground with the angry red gashes across his back.  For the second time that day, he heard his father tell him to run, and this time he did.  With all the speed he could muster, he dashed down the path toward the beach, never once looking back, and unaware that he still clutched the small sack of shan leaves in his hand.  Soon he could hear the water lapping on the beach, and, through the clearing at the end of the forest he could see the little dugout.  But just as he reached the bottom of the trail, he felt something hit him heavily from behind and he pitched forward onto the hot, white sand of the beach.  He looked up over his shoulder and saw a huge, black shape descending on him, blotting out the sun.

***

 The cloaked figure had stood on the fringes of the clearing watching the battle in detached silence.  The outcome, he knew, had never been in doubt, although he would grant that the man had fought courageously.  He had, however, forgotten all about the child.  When the man screamed, and the boy started to run, he feared for a moment that the child might get away.  But then he saw how his minion soared after the boy, and he smiled within the dark hood, chiding himself for ever doubting.  He walked to the bloodied body of the man to be sure that he was dead.  Again, he smiled at the efficiency of his bird, and he started down the trail toward the water.

He found the boy lying face down on the beach, blood from the gash on his neck darkening the white sand.  The figure held out his arm and the black bird glided to it and hopped delicately to his shoulder.  Then he knelt beside the body of the boy and reached into his cloak.  Pulling out a single black feather, he tucked it carefully into a tear in the back of the boy's shirt, where it was clearly visible, but anchored against the wind.  The figure started to rise, but then, almost as an afterthought, he reached into the sack that lay beside the boy, removed a small blue leaf, and put it in his mouth.  Then he stood, and, with the black creature still on his shoulder, he walked casually back into the forest.


Chapter 2

"Looks like spring's going to be late this year," Jaryd's mother remarked, pushing a lock of her grey-streaked hair back from her face and watching the rain drip off the roof just outside the kitchen window.  "I can't remember the last time we had this much rain so late."

"One of the traders told me that everything's already in bloom south of here," her husband replied, spooning himself a second portion of hot cereal and returning to his seat.  "It's just the Upper Horn and us that's still got winter."

Drina nodded and smoothed back her hair again.  "Over a month since the Feast of Arick and it's still raining.  We may have rain on Jaryd's birthday this year."

Jaryd smiled and shook his head.  "You realize, of course, that you two have this exact same conversation every year."  His parents looked at him in feigned disbelief.  "It's true," he protested, "and don't look at me like that.  You've been saying the same thing since I was a kid; it always rains on my birthday.  I've never seen two people learn so little over such a long period of time."

"Ah," his brother broke in, "the school master has spoken."

His father snorted with mock disdain, and his mother turned to her elder son.  "Royden, you settle this:  who's right, your brother or us?"

Royden rose from his place at the table and put his empty plate in a bucket of soapy water.  Jaryd remarked to himself, as he often had before, how much like their father Royden looked.  While Jaryd was lean and wiry like his mother, with her straight brown hair and grey-blue eyes, Royden and Bernel had the same stocky, muscular build, and the same reddish-blond hair -- although their father had somewhat less of it, and what was left was flecked with grey.  Both had wide-set brown eyes, and a broad, open smile that Royden flashed now at their mother.  "I'm not getting involved in this," he told her.

"Wise man," said Bernel, grinning.

Royden put on an overshirt and cap, and moved toward the door.  "I'm heading over to the smithy, Papa.  I need to finish up those wagon wheels for Hadrian.  What should I start on after that?"

Bernel thought a moment.  "I guess Jorrin's tools are next.  But I'll be along soon, and I'll let you know for sure."

Royden nodded and looked over at Jaryd.  "You teaching today, or will I see you at the shop?"

"I'm teaching this morning," Jaryd replied, "but I'll be in this afternoon to do some real work."  With this last comment he looked sidelong at his father who snorted again.

Royden laughed and opened the door.

"Where do you think you're going?" Drina growled.

Royden closed the door, gave a sheepish look to Jaryd and his father, and leaned over to kiss his mother on the cheek.  "Sorry, Mom," he said opening the door again.  "Bye, Mom."

The door closed and Jaryd rose from the table.  "I should probably get going, too.  Don't want to keep the kids waiting."  He put his dish in the water bucket and then turned to Drina.  "You know, Mom, I told Royden that I'd be at the shop, but if you need my help with the tilling, I can just as easily go to the field after school, can't I Papa?"

Bernel nodded, but Drina declined the offer with a wave of her hand.  "Thank you, Jaryd, but I'll be fine on my own.  Besides," she added with a crooked grin, "there's just so much I can do right now with this unusual weather we're having."

Jaryd laughed and kissed his mother.  Even with the silver in her hair, her face was still youthful, like Jaryd's, and her hands were hard and tanned from working the fields year-round.  She rarely required any help with the farming, but Jaryd always offered.  He stepped into an adjacent room and reemerged a minute later wearing his overshirt and cap and carrying a pile of worn books.  "I'll see you both later," he called over his shoulder as he stepped out into the cool rain.

He walked toward the schoolhouse as quickly as he could, holding his books close to his body in a futile effort to keep them dry.  And, as usual, the people he passed in the town center stopped and stared as he walked past.

***

They had started staring almost a year ago, when word of Jaryd's dreams spread through the town.  The first dream had come on a stormy night late in the previous winter.  He dreamt of water -- cold, turbulent water that swept over him and dragged him downward away from light and air into blackness.  He had awakened gasping for breath and shivering.  His brother, roused from his slumber on the other side of the dark room, asked him if he was all right, and Jaryd, thinking it only a bad dream, told Royden that he was fine, that he had just had a nightmare.  The next day, however, a missing boy, the woodcrafter's son, was found drowned in the river that flowed past the town.

Jaryd tried to convince himself that this had been nothing but a disturbing coincidence, and he spoke to no one of his vision.  But, a month later, he had another nightmare, this one even more vivid and frightening than the first.  He dreamt of a raging fire that spiraled wildly into a night sky.  Its searing heat scorched his hands and face, and scalded his lungs when he tried to scream.  This time, Jaryd awoke to find one of Royden's shirts burning and his brother frantically trying to stamp out the flames.  Jaryd was soaked with perspiration; his breath was coming in ragged gasps, and his heart was pounding.

After extinguishing the blaze, Royden lit a candle and sat at the foot of Jaryd's bed.  He was breathing hard, his dark eyes fixed on Jaryd, and his features pale and grim.  He sat staring at his brother for a long time before he spoke.

"What in Arick's name is going on, Jaryd?" he finally asked in an urgent whisper.  "First you have that nightmare last month that has you thrashing in your bed like a wild man, and now this.  What's going on?"

Jaryd tried to calm himself, to ease his pulse and slow his breathing to normal.  But he was far more frightened than Royden looked.  "Tell me what happened tonight," he demanded, his voice trembling.

"What do you mean 'what happened tonight'?!  You lit my shirt on f--"

"Tell me what happened!  What did I say, what did I do?"

Something in Jaryd's tone stopped Royden and imposed on him the calm Jaryd had sought for himself.

"You were tossing a lot," Royden began slowly, "like you couldn't get comfortable.  And then you started to talk --"

"What did I say?"

Royden shook his head.  "I couldn't make it out.  I heard the word 'fire,' but the rest of it was just babble.  And then you cried out, just a sound, it wasn't a word.  The next thing I know my shirt's on fire.  What's going on Jaryd?" he asked again.

Jaryd took a deep breath.  "That nightmare I had last month wasn't just a nightmare."

"I don't understand."

"I dreamt that I was drowning," Jaryd explained, his voice sounding thin and small to his own ears.  "And the next day they found Arley."

"That's just a coincidence," Royden said, trying to sound convincing.

"Well," Jaryd continued, "I guess we'll find out.  Tonight I dreamt of fire, and this dream felt even more real than the other one."

Royden remained silent for a moment.  "What about my shirt?"

"I'm sorry about your shirt, Royden," Jaryd said with regret.  "I can get you a new one."

"No," Royden shook his head and gave a small laugh.  "That's not what I was asking.  I meant, how did it catch on fire?  You sound like you think you lit it."

"I did," Jaryd said with sudden certainty.

"How?"

"I don't know."

"Then how do you know that you did it?"

Jaryd shook his head.  "I'm not sure of that either.  I just know that I did.  I also know that, at least for now, I don't want to tell anyone about this, not even Mom and Papa."

Royden did not respond, and Jaryd held his breath.  He did not want to have to explain himself.  He was not even sure that he could.  He knew that his visions would frighten his mother, and he did not want that.  He wasn't really sure how his father would react, although, as he would later discover, he had cause to fear Bernel's response as well.  But his plea for Royden's silence was prompted by more than just these concerns.  He was, at the moment, afraid of himself.  He felt like a freak, a monster of some sort, and he had no explanation for what had happened.  Until he did, he wanted his dreams to remain a secret.  After a moment, Royden stood up.  "Well, I guess if we want to avoid any questions we'll have to hide what's left of this shirt and air out the room."

Jaryd smiled with unfeigned relief.  "Thanks, Royden."

"Don't thank me," Royden responded, his expression still bleak.  "I'm not sure enough of why I'm going along with this to deserve your thanks."

His smile fading, Jaryd opened the window and then helped Royden clean up the charred remains of the shirt.  They did not speak the rest of that night, nor did they mention it the next day.  Royden did have to lie about the smell of smoke in their room, telling their parents over breakfast that he and Jaryd had fallen asleep with a candle burning, and that the candle had burnt all the way down and singed a cloth.  And as their mother bustled around the kitchen and scolded the boys for their carelessness, Royden fixed Jaryd with an icy glare.  That evening though, matters turned far more serious.

Jaryd had been on edge all day, constantly reliving his dream and wondering if this one, like the last, would prove prophetic.  The answer came just after nightfall.  As the brothers and their parents sat eating dinner, they heard alarm bells start to ring in the town center.

"Must be a fire," their father said, jumping to his feet.  "We'd better get going."

Neither Royden nor Jaryd moved.  They sat staring across the table at one another, both of them pale.

"Come on, boys!" their mother urged with impatience.  Bernel had gathered their overshirts and now threw them to his sons as he opened the door.  Royden and Jaryd followed their parents out into the night.  In the distance, through the trees, they could see the flames.  Above the town, the sky was heavy with a dark, billowing smoke that glowed balefully with the yellow-orange glare of the fire.

"Looks like a big one," Bernel observed somberly, running a hand through his thinning hair.  "We'd better hurry."  He and Drina began to run toward the town center, leaving Royden and Jaryd by the house.

"You're going to have to tell them!" Royden asserted, his voice tense and challenging.  "We can't keep this a secret!  Not now; not after this!"

"I'll tell them when I'm ready, and when I know what it is I'm telling them about!" Jaryd responded with equal intensity.

Royden shook his head, the fear manifest on his open face.  "Jaryd, this is serious, this is--"

"Royden!  I of all people know just how serious this is!  You gave me your word that you would remain silent, and I'm holding you to it!"

Royden held Jaryd's angry gaze a moment longer.  Then he turned toward the town center and the fiery glow of the night sky.  "I hope you know what you're doing," he said, his voice now drained of emotion, "for the sake of us all."  Without another word, Royden began to run toward the fire, and Jaryd followed, still trembling with emotion, and harboring an uncertainty that would have terrified his brother.

When Jaryd reached the town center he found three shops engulfed in a fierce blaze, and the entire town forming a bucket brigade between the river and fire.  He joined the effort and, for much of the night, the people of Accalia fought the flames with grave determination.  Several were so overcome with heat and smoke that they had to be carried back to their homes.  But, despite the townspeople's struggle, all three of the shops, as well as a fourth, burned to the ground.

For a while after the fire, Jaryd's dreams stopped.  And, although the visions had frightened him, waiting for the next one proved far worse.  He grew to dread sleep and fear dreams, but he hungered to know whence the two visions had come.  Mostly, though, he wanted to understand what had happened so that he could explain it all to Royden and to his parents.  Following their angry exchange the night of the fire, the two brothers had grown distant.  For the first time in Jaryd's life he felt that he could not turn to Royden for guidance.  His older brother had made his feelings all too clear; Jaryd would find no comfort there. 

So he waited.  Winter relinquished its icy grip, giving way to the rains, and still no more visions came.  Then, soon after the rains ended, on a clear, moonlit night, Jaryd dreamt again.  In a nightmare far more vivid and horrifying even than his vision of the fire, Jaryd saw the town assailed by mounted bandits with scarred, begrimed faces, wearing leather jerkins and brandishing huge, curved blades, lances, and clubs.  They razed Accalia's homes and storefronts, and then began to murder the townsmen and rape and kill the townswomen.  Jaryd watched as his father was decapitated by the sweeping blade of a scimitar.  He saw Royden fall with a spear in his broad chest, blood flowering from the wound.  He watched his mother, with several other women, being chased by two men on horseback.  And he saw himself, standing transfixed, observing it all.  Then, as he watched, the dream-Jaryd, his youthful face distorted with rage, opened his mouth in a desperate scream and raised a strange staff from which leapt a killing sapphire flame that enveloped and obliterated the men chasing his mother.  The dream-Jaryd then threw his fire at the other bandits, destroying them utterly, and saving what remained of the village.

Once again, Jaryd awoke soaked in perspiration and gasping for breath.  A candle cast its light across the room, and Royden sat beside Jaryd, his expression somber, but his wide-set eyes betraying his concern.

Jaryd lay still for a moment, watching the light of the candle dance along the wall beside him, and allowing his breathing to slow to normal.  Then he turned his head and smiled wanly at Royden.  "Woke you again, eh?" he asked with an effort.  "I'm sorry," he added when his brother nodded.

"You have another dream?"

This time it was Jaryd's turn to nod.  He sat up and drank some water from a cup on his nightstand.  "I'm ready to tell people now," he said, brushing a sweat-dampened lock of hair from his forehead.  "I have to:  there are bandits coming."

"Soon?" Royden asked, tension creeping into his voice.

"Soon.  I think dusk.  At least, that's what it looked like."  Jaryd described his dream, although he left out what he had seen himself do.  He needed to think about the implications of that part of his vision before he discussed it with anyone.

By the time Jaryd finished telling Royden about the dream, the first soft glimmer of dawn had begun to illuminate the bedroom window.  Royden and Jaryd dressed and went to their parents' room, where they woke Bernel and Drina and told them of Jaryd's vision, and of those that had come before.  The blacksmith and his wife listened in silence, and, even after the brothers had finished their story, their parents said nothing for a long time.  Drina sat very still in the bed, staring down at her sun-darkened hands, and occasionally pushing her hair back from her face in a characteristic gesture.  Bernel, who had moved to the window as Jaryd described the dreams, stood motionless, his face silhouetted against the early morning light, and his expression unreadable.

"So, it has come at last, just as he said it would," Drina finally said, more to her husband than to her sons.

"Just as who said it would?" Jaryd asked, looking from his mother to his father.

Bernel turned toward Drina, his broad frame blocking the light.  "I don't wish to discuss this right now," he told her with finality.

"But, Papa--"

"Not now, Jaryd!  There are more important things to deal with.  We need to alert the rest of the town and prepare for the possibility that your vision is genuine."

"Bernel," Jaryd's mother returned gently, "we both know that this is a true seeing.  We've known--"

"Enough, Drina!" Bernel snapped.  He closed his eyes and took a deep breath before continuing in a softer tone.  "We will discuss this later, I promise.  But this is not the time."

Bernel and Drina exchanged a tense look, brown eyes locked on grey.  After a few seconds Drina nodded, assaying a thin smile that looked more like a grimace.

The entire family spent the rest of the day preparing their home and the rest of Accalia for the impending attack.  Royden and Drina remained at the house, boarding the windows and gathering what weapons they owned, while Bernel and Jaryd went to the town center and spoke with as many of the town leaders as they could find.  At first, those they told seemed skeptical, but Bernel offered cryptic assurances that Jaryd's vision carried the weight of prophecy, and, in the end, he managed to convince those in power.

As he hurried back toward home with his father, Jaryd felt a battle waging within himself between the questions that he burned to ask, and his desire to avoid angering his father, who seemed reluctant to speak about what had happened.  Finally, though, unable to contain his curiosity, he broached the topic as gently as he could.

"Papa," he began tentatively, "why were you and Mom so willing to believe me?"

"You're our son," Bernel replied simply.  "If you tell us that you saw these things, we believe you."

Jaryd shook his head.  "No, that's not what I meant.  Why are you so sure that my visions are -- what did Mom call them -- true seeings?"

Bernel said nothing for a moment, and Jaryd wished that he had kept silent.  His father's answer, when it came, however, was mildly, even kindly spoken, although cautiously phrased.  "Our family -- my family -- has a history of similar . . . abilities."

"Abilities?"

Bernel let out a slow breath.  He seemed to regret answering the question at all, but he pressed on.  "Prophetic dreams; the power to predict the future."

"Can you do it?" Jaryd asked with astonishment.

"No, I can't.  But my mother could, and her mother before her.  And others."

"Have you tried?"

Bernel smiled ruefully.  "There was a time when I did, yes.  I don't anymore, though.  Either you have it or you don't."

Jaryd considered this for a moment.  "Who did Mom mean when she said that he told you that this would happen?" he finally asked, chancing one last question.

One too many, it turned out.  "Enough, Jaryd," his father warned, his voice growing colder and more stern.  "As I said before, this is not the time to discuss these matters."

"Sorry, Papa."

For reply, Bernel put his arm around Jaryd's shoulder, and they walked the rest of the way home without speaking.

That evening, when the bandits attacked, they found themselves confronted by an angry crowd of townspeople armed with torches, farm implements, forging tools, and kitchen knives.  The outlaws were killers; they were well-armed and they had the advantage of being on mounts.  But the horde they faced that night fought for their homes and their families.  The battle lasted less than one hour.  The bandits did little damage and captured few goods before being driven off.  When it was over, two of the invaders lay dead.  Only seven of the villagers had been hurt.

In the wake of the attack, and the townspeople's successful defense of their homes, Jaryd became a celebrity.  All had heard of his dream and timely warning, and all recognized that the Sight he possessed marked him as different.  And even now, a year later, as he tried to shield his books from the rain, he paid the price of that difference in the stares of his neighbors and old friends.  Some in the town, giving in to ancient superstitions, came to fear him.  Most, however, considered his Sight a gift and admired him for it.  Even so, it set him apart.  His friends treated him differently now, with respect and deference to be sure, but not with kindness and certainly not with the humor and playfulness that they once had.  His mother and father tried to act normally around him; and usually they did.  But at times, his mother seemed to be in awe of him, making Jaryd feel awkward and sad.  And his father.  His father treated him differently now, too, although not as his mother did.  Instead, Bernel seemed to view Jaryd with a mixture of pride and something else, something Jaryd could not name, but that he thought came close to envy.

Even his new job as a teacher at the school came as a result of his prophecy.  Well, Jaryd thought to himself, smiling inwardly, that isn't entirely true.  He had always been quick to learn, the quickest in all of his classes.  But, at seventeen, he had become the youngest teacher in anyone's memory, and he was smart enough to know why they had chosen him.  So it was in Jaryd's life since the dreams:  he had respect and status, but he had almost no friends.  Indeed, the only one who treated him normally; the only one who wasn't afraid of him, or jealous of him, or awed by him, was Royden.  After Jaryd and Royden told Bernel, Drina, and the rest of the town of Jaryd's dreams, thus ending the tension created by their shared secret, their relationship returned to normal.  It seemed ironic in a way, that at the same time Jaryd became isolated from the rest of Accalia, he regained the love and trust of his best friend.  The two brothers spent nearly all of their free time together, and many in the town came to believe that both of them had the Sight and kept watch over the safety of Accalia.

Jaryd knew that people constantly spoke about him behind his back, and he hated it.  Royden urged him to ignore the gossip and those who spread it, pointing out that there was little he could do to stop them.  But Jaryd remained uncomfortable and often found himself straining to hear what the people he passed on the street were saying.  It was in one of these passing conversations, soon after the battle with the bandits, that he first heard people speculate that he might be one of Amarid's Children.  Just the mention of it made Jaryd's heart race with excitement.  The Children of Amarid, with their spectacular birds and glimmering crystals, had served Tobyn-Ser for nearly a thousand years, protecting its borders and aiding its people.  Jaryd had seen only two of the wandering mages in his lifetime.  One of course was Hawk-Mage Radomil, who had served this part of the land for over two decades, and who had become a fixture in the lives of every man, woman, and child in Accalia.  The rotund, bald mage was unfailingly kind and generous, and Jaryd had grown to love him as he would a second father.  He anticipated the mage's regular visits, and the sight of his graceful, pale hawk, with as much enthusiasm as he did the seasonal festivals of the Gods.

And yet it was the memory of the other mage, the one Jaryd had met only once, that seemed to embody for him the wonder and excitement that he associated with life as a member of the Order.  It had been many years before, when Jaryd had still been just a child, but he remembered the Hawk-Mage's brief visit with a clarity that defied both his youth at the time and the intervening years.  The man had been tall and slender, with hair the color of Bernel's and bright blue eyes.  He had worn the hooded, forest-green cloak of the Order, and had carried a long, wooden staff with intricate carvings and a glowing, orange crystal mounted at the top.  And on the mage's shoulder had sat a magnificent grey falcon with dark, intelligent eyes.  The mage, Jaryd recalled, had been friendly, with a warm smile, and he had spoken with Jaryd for a long time, although, surprisingly, Jaryd could recall nothing of their conversation.  Jaryd also remembered that Drina and Bernel had appeared to know the Hawk-Mage, and that his father and the mage had argued before the cloaked man left.  And he remembered that, from that day forward, he had wanted to wear one of the green cloaks signifying membership in the Order of Mages and Masters.

Recalling this, Jaryd was confronted by another memory, more vivid than the first, and as wondrous as it was daunting:  his vision of himself, wielding a mage's staff and blasting the outlaws with blue fire.  If his dreams did indeed forecast the future, then did it not follow that Jaryd would one day carry such a staff and master the Hawk-Lore?  Just the prospect of such a thing thrilled him to the core.  Yet, the possibility that he might someday join the Order, and the conversations he overheard to this effect, had begun recently to bear a darker side.

Over the past few months, word had reached Accalia, through the news brought by traveling merchants, bards, and musicians, of renegade mages and corruption within the Order.  Rumors from further south spoke of feathers left at the sites of devastating fires and crop destruction, and even on the mutilated bodies of men, women, and children, in a horrible perversion of the Order's tradition of leaving feathers as tokens to indicate a Mage or Master's gifts or service.  Jaryd listened to these stories with a skeptical ear, but, as the rumors persisted and the crimes attributed to the mages worsened, he grew increasingly fearful and despondent, not only for himself, but for all of Tobyn-Ser.

When he reached the school that rainy morning, drenched and carrying an armful of soggy books, most of his students had already arrived.  They had started him off with the youngest children, the four- and five-year-olds who were just beginning their schooling.  And, as he stood in the antechamber and shook off his sodden overshirt, he could hear them shouting and laughing.  He entered the classroom and, immediately, the children fell silent and hastened to their seats.  One of the advantages of being feared, he said to himself, not without humor.

He had already taught them their letters and numbers, and, the previous week, he had started teaching them Tobyn-Ser's history, focusing for much of the time on Amarid's discovery of the Hawk-Lore and his establishment of the Order.  Today's lesson began with the Abboriji invasions, and the Order's successful wars against the northern raiders.  Jaryd told his class of Fordel, Decla, and Glenyse, the only three Eagle-Sages in the land's history, who on three separate occasions, over a span of two hundred and fifty years, led armies of both mages and brave men and women against the mercenaries of Abborij, driving them back across the Strait and thwarting their efforts to conquer Tobyn-Ser.  Three times the lands went to war, and three times the invaders were driven back, until, after the last, Eagle-Sage Glenyse and the leaders of Abborij forged a peace that had lasted for more than four hundred years.  And, inwardly, as he told the tales, Jaryd smiled to see the wonder and awe with which his students listened.  As a youngster, he too had been fascinated with stories of the old wars and the heroics of Amarid's Children.  The morning flew by, and, at midday, he dismissed the students, smiling again at their shouts and laughter as they charged out of the classroom.

The rain had slowed to a fine mist when Jaryd emerged from the schoolhouse and started toward the smithy.  Even from this distance, and through the rush of the river and the sound of water dripping from trees and roofs, Jaryd could make out the familiar, alternating rhythm shaped by the ringing beat of his father's hammer and the heavier thud of Royden's sledge.  He guessed that they were forging Jorrin's tools, and he quickened his pace, knowing that they would need him at the bellows.  Jaryd looked forward to his time in the shop, especially after a few hours of teaching.  He found the physical nature of ironwork a welcome change from his more sedentary job at the school.  Often, he volunteered to do the arduous, less skilled tasks in the shop, like carrying and raking the coke for the fire, and manning the bellows, simply because he enjoyed the labor.

As he crossed through the village, however, moving toward the sound of Bernel and Royden's hammers, he noticed a crowd gathering in the town center, beside the meeting hall.  Several of the people there were pointing down a path that led to the footbridge across the river.  Stopping to cast his eye where their outstretched arms indicated, Jaryd saw someone approaching the bridge on the far bank, and he felt his heart leap within his chest.  The stranger wore a cloak of green and carried a great bird.  Watching the mage walk slowly across the bridge, Jaryd knew that this could not be Radomil; this person was far too tall and slender.  For an instant Jaryd wondered if the Order had sent a second mage to serve this part of the land, but then he saw that, like the mage he recalled from his childhood, this one carried a staff crowned with a gleaming, orange stone.  This mage's bird, however, differed from the one Jaryd remembered.  Rather than a grey falcon, the approaching figure carried a brown owl with a pale, streaked belly, a round face, and bright yellow eyes.  This, then, was an Owl-Master, more powerful and with higher authority within the Order than the Hawk-Mage Jaryd had met as a child.  Jaryd had never seen an Owl-Master before.

As the mage stepped off the footbridge, the crowd grew quiet and tense.  Others in Accalia had also heard the rumors of sinister forces within the Order.  The mass parted, allowing the figure, still hooded and moving slowly, to pass through, but the people watched with obvious apprehension each movement the mage made.  The figure paused in front of the meeting hall and deliberately surveyed the crowd and the town center.  When his gaze fell upon Jaryd, the mage froze momentarily and then threw back his hood, and began striding purposefully to where Jaryd stood.  For his part, Jaryd remained motionless, his heart pounding in his chest, and he watched in amazement as the mage approached him.  As the man drew closer, Jaryd recognized him as the same mage he had met as a child.  The Owl Master's reddish-blond hair was thinner now and peppered with grey.  But his vivid blue eyes and warm smile were just as Jaryd remembered.

"You are Jaryd," the mage said, stopping in front of the young man and placing a hand on his shoulder.  "I'd know you anywhere.  You have your mother's eyes."

"Yes, Child of Amarid," Jaryd replied, remembering to use the formal title, although unable to control the flutter in his voice.

"Do you recall our first meeting?"

Jaryd nodded.  "I remember you.  But not this bird."

"No," the mage agreed, "not this bird.  You would have met Skal, my falcon.  This is Anla."  The mage regarded Jaryd for a moment, the smile fading from his face.  "Do you know who I am, Jaryd?"

Jaryd knew the mage's formal title, Owl-Master, although he did not know his name.  But he also knew that the question went far deeper than that.  And then he thought back to a conversation he had with his father nearly a year before.  "You and I are related, aren't we?  On my father's side?"

The mage narrowed his pale eyes.  "Did he tell you?"

Jaryd gave a small laugh.  "No.  He and I have never spoken of your visit.  But he mentioned once that the Sight runs in his family.  In your family," he added, correcting himself.  "And you look alike."

"We should," the Owl-Master said with a grin.  "My name is Baden; I am your uncle, your father's brother."

Jaryd's expression must have been comical, because Baden began to laugh, although Jaryd thought he saw another emotion flicker in the mage's eyes before giving way to mirth.

"Well," the Owl-Master said, still chuckling, "I would guess from the look on your face that you didn't know that you had an Uncle Baden."  He looked down at the ground.  A smile lingered at the corners of his mouth, but, when he spoke again, a note of sadness had crept into his voice. "I suppose some things don't change.  Even with the passage of all these years; even between brothers."

For a moment longer a cloud seemed to darken Baden's brow.  And then it was gone, leaving the dazzling grin and the cheer in his voice.  "But I have interrupted your day.  You were headed somewhere?"

"Yes," Jaryd said, suddenly aware again of the hammering coming from his father's smithy, and acutely conscious of the crowd of people watching him speak with the Owl-Master.  "I was going to the shop, to help Papa and Royden."

"I see."  Baden took a deep breath and glanced around the town with uncertainty.  Then he seemed to make a decision.  "Well," he breathed, "if I may accompany you, I think it's time for a family reunion."

"Sure," Jaryd answered, shrugging awkwardly.  They began to walk toward the shop.  Jaryd could feel the townspeople's eyes boring into his back, and he wondered if Baden sensed their stares as well.

"I take it all in your family are well," the mage said casually.

Jaryd nodded.

"Good."  They walked in silence for a few strides, and then Baden surprised him.  "You get used to the stares after a while, Jaryd," he commented in the same relaxed tone.  "With power, and a certain amount of status, come attention and scrutiny.  In time, you grow accustomed to it.  You have to."

Jaryd looked at the mage and, after a moment, nodded.  Again they took a few steps without speaking.  "Do you and Papa like each other?" Jaryd asked.  He winced immediately, knowing how stupid the question probably sounded.

But if Baden thought the question inappropriate, he showed no sign of it.  "I suppose, at some level, we have a certain affection for one another," the Owl-Master began thoughtfully.  "We were always very different; we never spent much time together, even as kids.  He and our father were very close, and I was much closer to our mother than to our father."

"Papa told me that your mother also had the Sight."

"Oh yes, your grandmother had the Sight, and a good deal more.  Lynwen was a powerful Owl-Master in her time."

Jaryd stopped, his expression incredulous.  "Grandma Lynwen was in the Order?!"

Baden smiled and nodded.  "Yes, and so was, Lyris, her mother, my grandmother."

Jaryd shook his head slowly and began to walk again as Baden continued.  "Your father never showed any signs of having the sight or any other manifestations of power, at least none that he mentioned.  And, when I did, we . . . drifted."

Baden had not said it, but it hung palpably in his words.  "Was Papa jealous?"

Baden looked at Jaryd for a long time, the expression on his lean face unreadable.  Finally, the mage shrugged.  "Perhaps."

They had reached the shop, but Jaryd hesitated on the threshold.  "Why are you here?" he asked his uncle.

"That," Baden replied, his eyes gleaming mysteriously, "is a long tale.  For now, let's just say that I'm here for your birthday."

"I don't understand."

"I know.  But this is not the time to discuss it."

Jaryd grinned and pushed the hair out of his eyes.  "I think you and Papa are more alike than you realize."

Baden paused, considering this.  Then he started to nod, a slight smirk tugging at the corners of his mouth.  "Perhaps," he said again, "perhaps."

Baden opened the shop door, and Jaryd followed the Owl-Master inside.

The heat of the shop blasted them like a summer wind as soon as they entered, and the air was heavy with the mingling smells of burnt leather, hot metal, smoke, and perspiration.  The room was dimly and strangely lit, illuminated at one end by the cool, cloud-dampened daylight coming in through the shop's lone window, and at the other by the hot, reddish glow of the hearth.  Iron forged tools and pieces of scrap metal lay in dishevelled piles on the dirty stone floor.  Bernel stood at the fire, his broad, muscular back to the door.  He held a blackened pair of tongs in the flames and he was shouting instructions to Royden, who was out of sight, manning the bellows behind the hearth.  Removing the tongs from the fire and placing the white-hot piece of iron they held on the anvil, Bernel struck the piece several times with his hammer.  Red sparks flew from the metal, some singeing his leather apron, others falling harmlessly to the floor.  He thrust the metal into a trough of water that sat at the base of the hearth, sending a cloud of steam into the air, and then placed it back in the fire.

"I'll be with you in a minute," he called over his shoulder without turning around.  "Jaryd, if that's you, Royden could use a hand with the bellows."

"Hello, Bernel," Baden said evenly, his words carrying over the noise of the bellows.

Bernel straightened at the sound of Baden's voice.  Without turning around, he placed the metal back in the water, sending another burst of steam up into the rafters of the shop, and laid the tongs along the edge of the hearth.  Only then did he turn to greet his brother, his face ruddy and glowing from the heat of the fire.

"Baden.  I guess I should have expected you."

"Maybe.  It's been a long time." 

"You're looking well."  Bernel glanced at the bird on the tall mage's shoulder.  "And I suppose congratulations are in order, Owl-Master."  Neither man had moved toward the other, and their voices carried little warmth, but Jaryd could sense no irony or hostility in his father's words.

Baden allowed himself a smile.  "Thank you, it's been nearly six years now."  The mage looked around the shop and then nodded at Jaryd, and toward Royden, who had emerged from behind the hearth.  "It seems that you've done well for yourself, too.  You and Drina."

"We've been fortunate, yes."  The blacksmith and the mage stood in awkward silence for a moment, and, then Royden cleared his throat purposefully.  "Oh, that's right," Bernel said, sounding somewhat embarrassed.   "Uh . . . I guess you've met Jaryd.  This is Royden, our eldest.  Royden, this . . . this is your Uncle Baden."

Royden stepped forward and embraced Baden in formal greeting, his brown eyes wide, a child's smile on his lips.  "I remember you," he said, stepping back, "from when Jaryd and I were kids.  I didn't know who you were then, but I've never forgotten the excitement of your visit.  It's not everyday that a mage other than Radomil honors our village."

Baden bowed his head slightly.  "Thank you.  I recall meeting you as well.  Even as a boy, you were gracious and kind."

Again, a lull in the conversation left the four of them  standing uncomfortably, looking from one to the other.  The only sounds in the room came from the shifting coals of the fire and from Baden's owl, which sat on the mage's shoulder preening itself.  At last, Bernel turned to his two sons.  "Baden and I have a good deal of catching up to do.  Royden, do you think that you and Jaryd can finish the work for Jorrin?" 

"Yes, we should be able to.  There's not that much left to do."

"Good.  Then your Uncle Baden and I will see you both at dinner."  Bernel removed his apron, put on his overshirt, and gestured for Baden to lead the way outside.  The Owl-Master said nothing, but he smiled warmly at his nephews before stepping out of the shop.

When they had gone, Royden turned to Jaryd and posed the same question Jaryd had intended to ask.  "Did you know?"

A small laugh escaped Jaryd.  "Do you mean did I know that our uncle was a mage, or did I know that Papa even had a brother?"

Royden laughed in turn.  "I guess both.  I wonder why Papa never told us.  Or Mom for that matter."

"That's not all they kept from us."

"What do you mean?"

"Baden and I spoke on the way over here.  Did you know that Grandma Lynwen was an Owl-Master, as was her mother?"

"He told you that?" Royden asked, his eyes widening again.

Jaryd nodded absently, but he was already thinking of something else.  "You told Baden that you recalled his visit.  What do you remember of it?"

Royden thought a moment.  "I remember being excited at seeing a mage.  I remember his bird seemed huge; it was the most beautiful thing I'd ever seen.  And I remember Baden being friendly and talking to me for a long time."

"Do you remember what you talked about?" Jaryd asked with some urgency.

Royden narrowed his eyes.  "No," he answered at last, shaking his head.  "Everything else is clear, but I have no memory of what we talked about."

"Neither do I," Jaryd said pointedly.  "My memories of his visit are almost exactly like yours.  They're remarkably vivid, except for that conversation."

"What do you think it means?"

Jaryd shrugged, brushing back his hair with an impatient gesture.  "I don't know."

They stood without speaking for a long while, as Royden tied on his father's leather apron.  "Did he tell you why he's here?" the older brother asked after some time.

Jaryd gave another slight laugh.  "Sort of.  He told me he'd come for my birthday."

Royden raised his eyebrows.  "Any idea what he meant?"

"None," Jaryd replied, shaking his head.  "None at all."

Royden picked up the metal tongs and gestured absently at the shop.  "Well, we're certainly not going to figure anything out in here.  The sooner we finish Jorrin's tools, the sooner we'll see Baden and Papa again."

Jaryd nodded his agreement.  "I'll work the bellows."

The work went slower than they had anticipated, and when they finally left the shop, hungry and tired, night had fallen.  They arrived at their home to find Baden, Bernel, and Drina sitting around the dining table, and Baden's owl perched atop the cupboard, its eyes closed and its feathers slightly ruffled.  Their parents and the Owl-Master fell silent when Jaryd and Royden entered the house.  Empty dishes sat on the table, and the familiar, spicy aroma of their mother's beef stew permeated the house.  

"You get everything finished?" Bernel asked, shifting slightly in his chair.

"Finally, yes," Royden responded.  "I'm still not as fast as you are."

Bernel grinned.  "Give yourself twenty-five years; you'll get the hang of it."

Drina rose from her seat.  "We already ate, but we saved plenty for both of you."  She moved to the fireplace and spooned the stew into two bowls which she then placed in front of her sons.

Jaryd and Royden began to eat, and no one spoke until, after several spoonfuls, Royden glanced around the table at the anxious faces of his parents and uncle.  "So," he said casually, "when is one of you going to stop treating us like five-year-olds and tell us what's happening here?"

Jaryd kept his eyes on his bowl of stew and tried not to laugh.  This, he thought to himself, is why I love Royden so much; why we all do.  Jaryd knew that he could never have said such a thing to his mother and father.  He could not have said it, and his parents would not have tolerated it.  But Royden was different.  Perhaps because he was the older son, perhaps because such honesty and candor were simply part of his nature, he could say almost anything without fear of reproof.  This had been true since their childhood, and Royden had often used his leeway on Jaryd's behalf, as he had just now.

Bernel tried to glare at his son's impertinence.  Tried and failed, his attempt ending in a chuckle and a shake of his head.  "As you can see," he said to Baden facetiously, his tone unable to mask the pride in his dark eyes, "Drina and I enjoy no respect in this house."  He took a deep breath.  "Baden, I believe this is your story to tell."

Baden held his brother's gaze for some time.  At length, a contented smile spread across his lean face and he began to nod slowly.  Jaryd could see that, since their reunion in the shop earlier in the day, possibly in the wordless exchange they had just shared, the mage and his father had reached some sort of understanding.

The Owl-Master looked at Royden and then at Jaryd.  When he began to speak, it was in a voice deeper and richer than Jaryd remembered from the afternoon.  "The magic I wield, that all of us in the Order wield, we call the Hawk-Lore.  But while this power becomes manifest with the binding of mage to bird, it dwells always within the woman or man.  We know not why some possess it and others do not, but sometimes it is passed between generations.  Jaryd will have told you, Royden, of what he learned today; that your grandmother, and her mother before her, were, in their day, powerful Owl-Masters.  When you both were young, I came here to see if I could discern the seeds of this power within either of you."  He had been looking from one of his nephews to the other as he spoke, but now Baden fixed his gaze on Jaryd, and within the blue of the mage's eyes, Jaryd thought he saw the brief flicker of an orange flame.  "I found what I sought in you, Jaryd.  You carry more than just the Sight.  You have the ability within you to be a mage of great strength and skill."  Jaryd sensed a power coursing through the Owl-Master's words, and, not sure how it was possible, he perceived the truth in what Baden had said.  And with that perception came once more, the memory of the vision in which he had seen himself throwing mage-fire at Accalia's attackers.

A strained silence settled over the room.  To be broken, of course, by Royden.  "So, I guess this means I still have to work in the smithy," he stated, in a voice laden with irony.  The humor, so unexpected after what had just been said, dissolved the tension, and left them all laughing.

Then the moment passed, and Baden again looked soberly at Jaryd.  "During my visit, all those years ago, your parents and I agreed, after some . . . discussion," the mage glanced briefly at Bernel, whose face wore a slight smirk, "that we would wait to tell you any of this until you turned eighteen and could decide for yourself what to do with this power.  Your birthday is at hand, Jaryd.  It is time for you to choose what path you will follow."

Jaryd looked from Baden to his father and, finally, to his mother.  All three watched him closely, although with different emotions playing across their features.  The Owl-Master regarded him eagerly, with eyes that appeared to glitter with anticipation, like a hawk preparing to hunt.  His father's look was grave and impenetrable, but his mother's thin face shone with pride and a gentle sadness.  When Jaryd finally spoke, his voice sounded strange and thin after Baden's power-laden words.  "What path I will follow." he repeated.  "I'm not sure that I understand the choices well-enough to make such a decision."

"Simply put," Baden explained, "your choice is between the life I have led, as a mage and a member of the Order, serving the land and its people, and the life you have known here in Accalia, as a teacher and a blacksmith's son."

"And as an object of curiosity," Royden broke in, his words edged with bitterness, "who must endure the stares and gossip of small-minded people.  It seems an easy choice to me, Jaryd.  Go with Baden, and fulfill the promise of your power."

Jaryd turned toward his brother, a sad smile on his face.  "I hear you, Royden.  But it's not as easy as that.  Leaving you and Mom and Papa could never be as easy as that."

"Jaryd's right.  This decision is not as simple as Royden or Baden have made it sound."  All of them turned to Bernel, and Jaryd noted that while his father's voice carried neither the resonance, nor the shadings of power that Baden's did, in this room he commanded the strict attention of all of them.  "Tell me, Baden," Bernel commanded in a hard tone, his wide-set eyes fixed on his brother, "is it not true that even should Jaryd choose to remain here, he may soon find himself bound to a hawk?"

Baden sighed deeply.  "Yes, that is quite possible," he conceded.  "But--"

"And when this binding comes," Bernel continued in a softer voice, his gaze shifting to Jaryd, "will he not need the guidance of those who have experience with the Hawk-Lore and the powers and burdens it carries?"

Jaryd felt his world shift abruptly with his father's words.  He could see, in the raw sadness exposed in Bernel's eyes, the cost of the gift his father had just offered him.  A gift, and an acknowledgement, Jaryd knew, that there had been no real choice; only a single path marked through the years by signs of power that neither he nor his parents could control.  Drina took Bernel's large hand in hers and held it to her lips.  There were tears on her face.

After what seemed a long time, Baden answered quietly.  "Yes, he will need such guidance as we can offer."

Without taking his eyes off his father and mother, and feeling awed by the swiftness with which his life was about to change, Jaryd offered the only response he could.  "In that case, Baden," he said evenly, "I'll go with you."

"Splendid!" Baden exclaimed, a grin spreading across his features, his solemn bearing of a moment before utterly gone.  "You will need a day to pack and settle your affairs here," he began, as much to himself as to Jaryd and the others, "and the day after tomorrow is your birthday, and we can't have you leaving on your birthday.  So we will leave with daylight on the third day."  The Owl-Master rose and moved toward the door that led to the bedrooms, his owl hopping down to his shoulder.  "I'm going to retire for the evening," he said.  "I suggest the rest of you do the same.  We have much to do in the next two days."

"Baden, wait," Jaryd called after the mage, jumping to his feet.  "Where are we going?"

Baden stopped and turned to face his nephew, the vivid blue eyes gleaming once more.  "To Amarid, of course," the Owl-Master explained matter-of-factly, "for the Midsummer Gathering of the Order."