Birds of a Feather

A moving and particulate shadow swept across the ground and Iain glanced up, shading his eyes against the early angle of the sun. The geese called out a greeting, as if acknowledging his attention and the young man smiled as he watched the large flock arrow overhead in their precise formation, the leader calling out, the flanking birds answering all the way down the line. At a signal not understood by men, the formation halted and the geese fell from the sky, a grey cloud of descending feathers that settled along the bank of the river in a cacophony of chatter and flapping and splashing.

"The heralds of winter," his father remarked quietly.

Iain turned his attention from the river in order to smile at his father. "I've not seen geese for two years." It seemed a little thing, not witnessing the seasonal progression of the magnificent birds, but it was another reminder that he'd been gone, away.

"What birds did you see at sea then?"

"Well, the gulls, of course, they follow the ship out a fair way out, terns too. There is a bird called an albatross..." he didn't know how much his father really knew about birds, except perhaps what he observed. Rafi was the reader of the family, she'd have known more than all of them, he supposed.

"There's a poem about one of those, right?"

"I think there is; Rafi would now," Iain replied and they exchanged a grin. "Elias, the captain's son? He told me about a bird he hoped to see on the other side of the world, or maybe way down south." Elias had had many such stories of things he wanted to see one day. "He called it a penguin. Funny word that." He'd shown Iain a picture of one, a sketchy thing at the corner of one of his fictional maps (those that charted the imagined and unexplored). It had been a squat bird with absurd little wings. "They can't fly, can you imagine that? A bird that can't fly? They swim." Iain felt pretty sure the bird was as fictional as the map, but he'd never said so. Everyone was entitled to their dreams.

His father grunted at the idea of a bird that couldn't fly. They had paused to watch the geese and Iain turned to look at the flock and observed the pecking order. As in any group of beings, there were the fringe dwellers, the loud and abrasive hecklers, the small groupings, the friends, and the leaders. He watched them shuffling in and about one another, some deciding to alight on the water in hopes of a fish, others grooming themselves by the bank. A few birds seemed to be doing what the humans did – they stood by and quietly observed.

"When will you go to Highever, son?"

Somewhat startled, Iain turned to look at his father again.

Callum met his gaze and continued to speak quietly. "You've been here two weeks now and you've not even written your sister." He nodded towards the birds. "Won't be long before the snow."

Iain scowled and looked away. Obviously his mother and father had been talking. This was what happened when he avoided his mother's questions long enough, she pestered his father with them and then his father pestered him.

In the absence of a reply, his father moved on to the observation stage of their conversation. "Do you plan to cast aside twelve years of training?" This would have been his father's own question, not one put forth by his mother.

Iain ran his fingers over the gnarled knuckles of his left hand, worrying at them slightly. "I don't know, dad." He glanced quickly at the older man before returning his attention to the geese. He couldn't tell his father he was afraid to return to Highever; Callum was a war hero, he'd not understand. "I thought, maybe I'd just stay here a while." I feel safe here. He shrugged in an attempt to ward of a dejected posture. "I'm sure Highever is getting along fine without me."

"Don't you want to see Sera?"

Letting go of his twisted knuckles, Iain fiddled instead with the scar on his face. "She doesn't need me to look out for her anymore, dad."

"She'll always need you, Iain." His father's face took on a familiar stern aspect. "And you made a commitment to the Couslands."

Here we go, the honor and loyalty speech.

The force of his resentment surprised Iain. He'd not felt it before, but he did now, towards his father and the Couslands. He knew his ill feeling was misplaced, neither Callum nor Bryce Cousland had beaten him down to the ground and dragged him off to a dungeon, but it simmered below his discomfort anyway. "I had a commitment to the teyrn, and he's dead." Iain flinched at his own words and turned back towards the road.

"Iain..."

He looked over at his father and saw only sympathy on the man's face. Somehow, that just seemed worse.

"Son, it's not your fault."

"I know that." He did, reasonably he did. Emotion did not always follow reason, however.

"Did you fight well?"

Frowning, Iain shook his head and answered, "I don't know. I fought hard." He'd given everything he had.

Pursing his lips slightly, Callum asked, "Did you remember your training?"

"It saved my life, twice at least."

The questions continued: had fallen sooner than he should have, done all he could to save the teyrn and teyrna, felt shame at his capture?

Iain did not bristle at any of them, he'd asked them of himself, many, many times. He answered as honestly as he could. He'd fallen sooner than he wanted to, he'd grieved for the teyrn and teyrna and often wondered if he could have done something different, something more (though what could one man, young and half trained do against an army?), and yes, he felt shame at his capture.

"And yet you lived," his father said softly at the last.

Not sure if his father meant he should have died, either though remorse or because of his failure to make a difference, Iain could only bow his head in response, the shame he had admitted to increasing twofold and enveloping him in an all too familiar clasp.

"We can never go back, son, only forward. But we can look back and learn. Even in the last battle I fought I knew my errors as I made them, I looked back and felt remorse. The two most important things will never change though. I did my best and I'm still here. I can look back because I am alive." His father's arm dropped over his shoulder and Iain looked up to see what he yearned for, approval. "You lived, Iain. You fought back and you survived, there and afterwards."

Iain didn't trust himself to speak at that point; he simply nodded and hoped his shoulders weren't noticeably trembling beneath the weight of his father's arm.

"Now you have to do the hardest part."

"What's that?" Iain asked after a moment.

"Keep going."

Snorting softly with a mixture of amusement and grim acceptance, Iain glanced at the dirt and pebbles that marked the edge of the road. That's what I've been doing, he answered silently. Then he looked over at the geese again and envied their freedom. In order to keep going, they just needed to lift of the ground and take to the air. They followed a course though, one they could not change. Every fall they winged their way north towards the warmer climes and every spring they flew back south, the loud trumpet of their call announcing days of warmth and sunshine. Their path never varied. They always stopped here, along the river, and they always spent a day or so on the Douglas' pond. Iain briefly wondered what a goose would do if he captured it and carried it west instead of north, if he took it out of its flock and to a different land. Would it join another gaggle? Would it become lost? Or would it return home and take its place in the precise formation once more?

"Come on, that wood won't cut itself." His father's arm tightened around his shoulder for a moment, then urged him forward before dropping, and Iain fell into step beside the older man, lifting his eyes away from the geese and towards their destination, the sawmill.