I can't promise that all chapters will be this long, but I do have the entire story blocked out. I'll be posting this around a full schedule of exams and studying, so please enjoy my break from schoolwork.
From Scanra With Love
Chapter One: An Iota of Solace
Veralidaine Sarrasri was not a normal girl by any means, but she was a happy one. The world had started to make sense on her sixteenth birthday, when her ma had finally admitted that Daine was the daughter of a god, and her father's visit on the following Samhain had let her ask all the questions she could have wanted. Her mentor was the bad-tempered male half of the badger gods, and the reason that she could shapeshift so easily that it felt like changing skins. Badger had also taught her that animals could hear her words even when she didn't make a sound, and that she could impose her will on nearly every member of the People.
Now seventeen, Daine made a very comfortable living as the assistant to Hakkon Falconer. In truth, she could have started her own competing business, but she preferred to keep her true talents hidden. In a world gone mostly to the mad, it seemed the best thing to do. So far, Galla had avoided the worst of the wars, but Daine didn't know how much longer that could last.
If it hadn't been for the message-bird, Daine might never have left Snowsdale. She would have stayed on and perhaps married the least skittish of the local boys, or maybe she would have gone to Cría with hawks and horses she had tamed by her own hand. Whatever she might have done, it would have been nothing like the future that the golden eagle brought.
Daine's day in the mews had started normally enough, with greeting each of the birds that Hakkon kept. She started with the smallest of the raptors, the tiny sparrow-hawks that forgot any kind of dignity in favor of nuzzling at her hands. Some would say it was unnatural to see the sharp little beaks preening at her fingers, but they wouldn't know the half of it. The rest of the hawks were next, prouder birds that let her approach them to scratch where the head met the neck, and that left the great eagles. The eagles would never forsake dignity, not even for affection, so she inclined her head to each of them and politely asked if their perches needed any adjusting.
She checked for messages only after her routine was over, and was surprised to find a panting golden eagle on the outside perch. Usually Hakkon would take charge of all such correspondence, but she supposed the man was busy enough. His wife was expecting his first child, and he would be hovering about the outside of his home while Daine's ma saw to a healthy birth.
She removed the letter carefully before offering her gauntleted arm to the eagle. He stepped up very nicely, and made no fuss when she settled him on the largest of the empty perches and tied the jesses with fast knots that would keep the bird solidly in place until she got to know him better. The birds that she trained were never kept with the leather ties bound to their feet, and were free to fly about whenever the fancy struck them. With trained animals, there wasn't much use in changing their routine. They would be back to their own mews soon enough.
The no-ties arrangement still puzzled Hakkon, but he had let Daine have her way since the first bird she trained turned out superior to any of his creatures. Daine's little sparrow-hawk had shown more ferocity than his eagle, and the sparrow-hawk would settle on two of Daine's fingers so neatly that there wasn't a single prick in her skin. Little Song was properly called a peregrine falcon, but both of them preferred sparrow-hawk for Song's delight in catching and eating any bird that she could.
If she hadn't known hawks and eagles as she did, she might have thought that the golden eagle was only aloof in the way that it studied every corner of the mews while avoiding her gaze. Since she spent half of her waking hours with the birds of prey, however, she wasn't so easily fooled. The first time its eyes met hers, she knew that there was nothing natural about that eagle.
Daine didn't let on that she knew just how strange her latest eagle was. She went about her chores as if nothing was unusual. She fed the birds that preferred pieces of hares or pigeons to their natural fare, skinned the animals that her birds had caught for two-legger consumption, and let her guest fare with nothing more than water until Hakkon arrived after lunch with a beaming smile in place.
"A girl!" Hakkon exulted, embracing his favorite assistant tightly. "Gertie Hakkonsra came out nice and easy, your ma said, and I won't keep you long today. I've already checked the message from our eagle. It was the usual nonsense from those what know better, asking if we knew anything about Blayce the Gallan."
Daine paled as Hakkon belatedly caught himself. "I'm sorry, lass," he said sincerely. "I always forget… it was a close thing, that, and I've never been so glad to see you."
"Do you have a return message for them, Hakkon?" she asked, pulling herself together. This wasn't the time to remember her first time changing her shape. "If you do, it should wait. The poor eagle was panting like it had run a great race when it arrived, and it feels underweight to me."
"I don't feel right about a strange bird left here, when I…"
"When you want to be home with Tiell?" Daine supplied. "It's fine, Hakkon, I promise. I don't want him alone with my birds, either, so I'll take him home to nurse him for the night."
"I'll have the reply ready by morning, then," Hakkon agreed cheerfully. "Tiell knows as much as I do, and we can say well enough to keep trouble like the king's men out of Snowsdale. We won't mention your part in anything, Daine, you have my word."
Daine wished he wouldn't say so much in front of the bird. The golden eagle was listening to them, though it didn't seem to realize she had more than a spot of nursing in mind.
The eagle stepped up nicely onto her arm again when she left the mews, and didn't even falter when she hooked the jess-straps down tight enough that he'd not be able to savage her with his talons. She was sure that the eagle was male, at least, which was more than most people could know from a first glance. He was settled nicely on her glove, which meant that someone had trained him a little, and that was all the assurance she needed to walk through town with an unhooded bird.
The villagers barely noticed that Daine had a massive eagle perched on her arm, after she'd spent four years working with Hakkon Falconer and his brood. It was only three years back that he'd entirely given up on his pursuit of Sarra Beneksra to marry Tiell Jolansra. Most of the village folk still gave Daine a wide berth, but as always she had the People to console her. The two-leggers might not like her, but all of their dogs wanted her approval, and their horses wanted her compliments and cosseting.
By the time Daine had reached the outskirts of Snowsdale, she was in a far better mood about her mysterious eagle. It had both eyes, so she could be sure it wasn't the mage that had caught her up in his Gift so tight she thought she'd never see the daylight again. This raptor would be the most interesting thing to happen to her on Beltane in forever, as no man or boy from the village would think of her as someone for a romance. For all that animals trained by her could be worth their weight in tinker's trinkets, she was too strange to be someone's wife. Some of them thought she was a changeling-child, and they were mostly right. No child of Weiryn's would ever fit entirely with mortals, it seemed, but she did well enough with her ma, her grandda, and her usually-absent father.
Weiryn could only visit twice a year, on the days when even minor gods could walk among the mortals, but he made those visits count. Daine felt very confident about her safety as she let her eagle settle himself onto the perch of her own personal mew. She kept one perch about of each size in the case of a sick bird, but the only permanent feature was the small perch that Song would use when the sparrow-hawk wasn't off on the hunt.
Daine secured the thickest of her leather jesses in place while humming to herself, a habit that drew no reaction from the visitor. There wasn't any kind of motion until she produced a standard hood. The flinch was very small, but not the kind of motion that a real eagle would make. She stepped back out of range from wings, beak, or talon before speaking.
"I know you're not really a bird, you know," Daine informed the eagle. "I wouldn't recommend changing back with that leather tied 'round your legs, neither."
Daine nearly dropped the hood when she heard a reply from the bird, for all that she knew it had been an accident. He had clearly just cursed at some unseen person named 'George.'
"Well, hello there," Daine breathed, fascinated despite herself. "I know you can talk, now, and I've never talked to a shapeshifted mage before." The reaction to that was total silence, which was all the answer that she needed. "Most of'em can't find a way to have me listen, but I suppose you've a lot of magic. The other birds could see your Gift, you know."
I mean no harm, the bird thought hesitantly.
"I know, bird, or I'd've called my pa to deal with you instead of lettin' Hakkon keep taking peeks. What's your name, anyway?" Daine waited, not surprised when no answer was coming. "I'll call you something silly, you know. What about Flutter?"
She heard the eagle sigh. Numair. Numair Salmalín, the bird replied, shifting pointedly against the leather binding his feet. This isn't necessary, miss.
"Mayhap not, but I've not the first notion who you are, and I'll let my ma have a look with eyebright," Daine said. He was polite enough, at least, which convinced her that it was worth the risk to move within range of wings and beak. "I'm convinced enough to get you a meal. Do you like your rabbit cooked or raw?"
That was how Daine ended up spending her Beltane afternoon cooking rabbit for a shapeshifted hawk that hadn't quite admitted that he was a mage. She left the roughage off, for all that it was good for birds of prey, as humans didn't appreciate fur and bones as a rule. When she laid out strips of cooked rabbit meat beside the water, he fell to eating as if he hadn't had a bite for days.
Daine frowned, her mothering instincts fully awakened. Someone hadn't been looking after the eagle properly, and with his instincts all in line, the mage had been in the form for more than a day.
The last time she'd seen a mage in bird form, it hadn't gone well for her. There was a reason she had staged her confrontation with her da at hand, in case the badger couldn't help her again just when she needed him. She loved the badger, she really did, but sometimes it felt like he didn't quite know how to love a mostly-mortal back.
She rubbed her totem for luck. The rough clay statuette of a person might not look like much, but it was her constant lifeline. It hung on a leather cord that always stayed around her neck, next to the silver badger claw from her cranky mentor. The third little charm on her necklace gave her dad fits to see, but her ma was a midwife, and said that all girls of age should have a charm against accidental pregnancies. Daine hadn't had the chance to test hers out yet, but she doubted any man in Snowsdale would dare try for her.
With the hawk settled and in no danger, Daine left to cook dinner for the rest of the family. Her grandda spent most of his time napping by the fire, now, but when he was awake he was the same as always. Her ma would be hungry after a full day of coaching Tiell through what to do with her first baby, and her da was always hungry. When her parents were back, then she'd figure out what to do about her guest the golden eagle.
Her parents came back only an hour to sunset, as she'd expected, and Daine didn't blush to notice that her ma's hair was tousled and her father's breeches were uneven. There was no need to hide such things away from her. "Stew's ready, but we need to eat fair quickly. I've a bird out in my shed, and I'll eat badger's claw if he's natural."
Her ma hugged Daine hard enough that it almost hurt while her da's bow came to his hand. "No!" Daine said, reaching to steady her father's wrist. As always, she was fascinated by the streaks of green that showed through her da's perpetual tan. Somehow, that had always surprised her more than the antlers coming from his curled brown hair and the far-away look in his eyes. "I promise, Da, so far he's been very well-behaved. I saw him through my magic, and he's nothing like…" Her voice failed her thinking of the mage with a ruby in place of his left eye. Inar Hadensra might not be able to set foot on her ma's property without every animal screaming warnings, but just thinking about him still could drive her to shivering.
Her da set his bow down to embrace her from the back, leaving the seventeen-year-old safely caught between her parents. She relaxed into their hold, but wouldn't let herself shed any more tears over what had happened with old ruby-eye. "I saw the eagle Gift through my magic. It's even more than Inar's, but he's still there. Song's been watching him all the day, and when she went to her perch, she told me he's still looking calm for all that I jessed him."
Her ma and da stepped away as one. "Stew can wait," her da said, running a hand down the smooth wood of his bow. "We'll see to this bird of yours." Daine had his keen eyes and steady hands, and his knack for archery. She'd never beat the hunting god at his game with bows and slings, but she was good enough to win money off challenging newcomers to Snowsdale fool enough to bet against the dreamy-eyed girl with the softly curling brown hair and the storm-blue eyes.
She had the curls from her da and ma both, perhaps explaining why Daine's hair was thick enough to break most hairties. Her ma was the most beautiful woman in the village, with her blue eyes and the hair that curled away from her delicate features, and it had taken the village's men years to realize that Sarralyn Beneksra would never consent to marry any of them. No one but Daine and her grandda knew that Sarra was being true to her sometime-husband, which was quite enough for Sarra.
"I'll get clothes for him," Sarra said, holding out her hand to the nearby mending basket. Daine's ma might not have enough Gift for the big magics, but Sarra's threads never pulled away, her cooking never burned, and her hands had never failed to bring the mother through the most difficult of births. So when Sarra held her hand out to her mending, the trousers that had been meant for Weiryn came to her, as well as a loincloth and a loose shirt.
Daine's da had preferred only a loincloth for the first several visits, but had reluctantly allowed Sarra to clothe him in trousers for the sake of Daine's grandda. Benek had been very gracious in seeing his only daughter pregnant with a babe at only fifteen years old herself, and with no father in sight, but there were some things he could not tolerate. An antlered man wearing only a loincloth was one of them, so they'd compromised by leaving the shirt out of things.
Weiryn had an arrow in hand when they went to Daine's shed, used to keep animals as they healed and to let her read the few books on animals that could be scavenged so far north of Galla's largest city. Her ma looked far calmer with her clothes in hand, as well as a spool of thread and a little pot of eyebright. Most male mages never though to be careful of a woman with thread, as Daine had seen all too often. Bandits had attacked in force when Daine was only thirteen, and it had taken Daine's arrows and her ma's magic to drive them back.
"Hello, Numair," Daine said after her parents proceeded her into the shed her da had built with his own hands the year before while she asked questions about all she could think to say. From behind her ma, she could see the eyebright paste coating her ma's fingers as she drew a sign around her eyes and dabbed the last of the faint yellow paste on the bird's beak. The eagle made no move to harm the delicate, uncallused fingers within striking distance, perhaps because Daine's da had an arrow nocked to his bow, or perhaps because he wasn't of the mood to harm.
"Go ahead and ask your questions, Daine," her da said roughly, clearly displeased with the entire situation. "So much as I'm tempted to end this now, we'll give him the chance to be a different sort of mage."
The eagle watched them calmly, for all that Weiryn was speaking of killing him. He scarcely looked surprised to see that the man had antlers. I'm not afraid to tell you the truth, Daine, the eagle said. I am called Numair Salmalín, and I'm from Tortall. As the message said, I want to know about Blayce the Gallan.
Daine stepped forward hesitantly. She could feel the truth in the words, and her ma's expression was clear and unworried. Sarra couldn't hear what the bird told her daughter, but she would be able to read any lies.
"I'd druther not talk about him 'til I know a bit more, I think. Can you change back?"
I won't be able to do much else, the eagle—Numair—admitted. If I could impose upon your hospitality, however, I will be happy to comply.
Daine frowned, grasping her father's elbow before he could go for his bow. "Da? What's hospitality mean?"
"It's being nice about welcoming someone into your home. Who is the man, Daine?"
"He's Tortallan, and looking for what people can tell 'bout Blayce the Gallan." Daine did nothing when her ma made the sign against evil. Somehow, she was sure that sign or not, Blayce would remember the Gallan commoner that had escaped his web of magic and lies, and so would the Scanran mage that had helped him in catching her.
Sarra's pretty eyes narrowed. "That's enough of that talk," she said sharply, surprising the bird into startling. "You'll not speak of that beneath my roof unless my daughter chooses, or we'll have eagle to add to stew." Though Daine was taken aback by her mother's atypical threat, her father looked just as angry at the mention.
"Ma!" Daine appealed, pushing her father's bow aside. "Stop threatening him. He's Tortallan, but he's not close enough to friends to make much trouble. Numair was fair exhausted when he came, more'n a messenger ought to be, and a friend would've had him rest before coming with the mention."
Daine studied the eagle again, appeased when her da took the arrow from his string to study the eagle-feathers making the fletching for his bow. You've done this before, Daine said for only the bird to hear. This business with the message. It was folded and folded again, and you were waiting for someone to know of Blayce.
I don't mean any trouble for your family, the bird promised, his dizzying eyes meeting hers directly. I have reason to believe that Blayce knows something of Queen Thayet.
Daine's eyes widened. The entire world had heard tell of the queen that had given herself to the enemy to keep her children safe when a Tortallan fief had been besieged, and that the king of Tortall would do everything but give up the war to have her back. "Ma? It's alright. He's looking for the queen, still, and perhaps he'd make trouble for Inar." For once, saying the name didn't frighten her. "He's just as strong, but not… prickly," Daine said, not quite sure how to describe the feeling that being near Inar Hadensra had raised in her.
"Have him swear there aren't friends of his within ten leagues," Weiryn said, moving within striking distance of the eagle.
My only ally in this venture is near Cría. His name is George Cooper, and he is just as dedicated to bringing the queen home to Jon.
Daine looked to her ma. Sarra was now studying the bird like he was one to mend, not one to break, and there hadn't been any lying. That meant that her eagle knew the king well enough to use a short-name, and he'd told her his friend's name to go with his. "Alright, Master Salmalín. We'll have you for the night, at least."
Daine's ma shooed her from the room after Daine had undone the ties keeping the bird to his perch. In an even better sign, Song flew down to Daine's shoulder to delicately work her beak around the edges of Daine's ear. If even Song would trust the newcomer, he was worth trusting.
He is a very calm man under the feathers, Song told her approvingly. Much better feathering than the fake-bird that I scarred for you.
Daine smiled, rubbing at the junction of Song's neck and body, just where the falcon couldn't reach. "Yes, you did." Her stalwart friend had left deep raking scars around the ruby eye, and with nothing more than a bent pinfeather to show for the assault on one of the most powerful mages in the world. "Could you hear him talking?"
I knew he was talking to you, but quiet. There isn't shine-magic in him, only glowing.
From reflex, Daine looked to the copper that followed every nerve and vessel in her body. Queenclaw, the goddess of cats, had let her see magic just the last year, after Daine was caught by Hadensra and the People could do nothing to help her. Even badger's magic hadn't let him get through the protections on her, and the badger god could usually get himself anywhere he wanted to go.
Near to half an hour later, a tall man ducked his head to leave Daine's shed. He was taller than even her father, standing five inches past six feet, and had a deep-tan skin that rivaled her father's green-brown. He also had a nose that reminded her all too much of the eagle's beak, but it was balanced by handsome features and dark, intense eyes that put her to mind of any bird of prey. While Numair came over to her, wearing clothes that must have been mended to fit his size, her parents left for the house. Whatever they had said with Daine gone, her ma and da trusted this man.
Daine didn't know what to say to him, but the tall man bowed to her like she were some kind of noble. "Thank you for your care, Daine."
As usual, Daine spoke before she thought. "That's an odd thing to say for someone tied more'n half the day." She belatedly realized that he might rather think of something else, but he smiled in a quick flash of white teeth.
"Some falconers tie tight enough to leave marks, later on, but you were gentle," he said seriously. "I won't begrudge anyone caution after meeting Inar Hadensra, but I can promise that I have little in common with that man." He dropped that subject instantly when he noticed that her breathing had shallowed. "Did you know that you have the most wild magic I've ever seen at once?"
Daine smiled, charmed despite herself at his honest manner. He certainly wasn't trying to trick her. "It comes of my da. My ma always hoped I'd pick up the Gift from her, but I do well enough with the shine-magic—that's what the People call it, the People being everything not a two-legger."
"The animals?" he asked, his eagle-eyes intent on her. Daine thought she would be trapped in only his eyes, but he looked away before her breath could catch. "I'm sorry. I have a little too much Gift even now, I suppose. Most mages use a gem or a coin to catch attention and hold it, but with the most powerful it's more like a cobra's charm."
"Snakes don't charm their prey." Daine was all too relieved to speak of anything else but being caught in someone's magic. "The animals freeze up because snakes see motion more than anything else, 'cept heat for some of the southern beasties. My lord has a bit of a menagerie, and he let me walk through once when one of the birds took ill."
"I had a friend in Carthak, once, that would give both of his legs to talk to you for an hour," the mage said wistfully. "He studied animals, but without a drop of wild magic to his credit."
Daine frowned, her eyebrows coming together as her forehead creased. Her ma would say she was setting herself up for early wrinkling, for all that Sarra frowned whenever she concentrated and hadn't a wrinkle at all. "Isn't Carthak at war with Tortall?"
The mage sighed. "Carthak, the Copper Islands, and Scanra are all ripping at Tortall's borders, and our latest overture to have some kind of kind word from the Yamani Islands is threatening to fall apart entirely."
"Knowing of Blayce would help?" she asked, letting the nails of her left hand dig into her palm.
He saw, like he seemed to see everything, and caught her fist in both of his big, strong hands. "It may help me find my queen, but I'll not harm you to do so. George and I will get by, as neither of us will give up until we die. The queen was taken under our watch, when we were meant to protect her, and I won't rest until she's safe and until she's home."
There was an echo under those words, one that felt like the gods themselves whispering that his words were true. Daine knew that the man would never lie about that, and she mustered her courage to say something very difficult. "I'll write some of what I know, for your queen's sake," Daine said, letting the words tumble over each other so long as they came out right. "I want Blayce gone, and Stenmun and Inar."
"Stenmun?" he asked gently. He hadn't let go of her hand, but Daine didn't pull away. The calluses and scars on his hands proved that he wasn't the type of mage to leave everything to only his Gift.
"Blayce's man," she replied, surprised that he wouldn't know. "He's tall as you, I think, but built out of more muscles than bones." It was rude, maybe, but the man reminded her almost of a scarecrow with his lanky build. "He has the usual Scanran hair, all pale, and he'll do anything Blayce asks."
"That alone will help, Daine. Thank you."
Somehow, Daine wasn't done, not with those warm eyes looking at her. She found the courage to say words even her ma hadn't heard. "Blayce kills children, Numair, and would've killed me. He's making these terrible metal things with their souls, and he kills the little ones and big ones alike over and over trying to make them work. He's a monster, fully, and I want you to stop him."
"I'll do my best, Daine. In the Goddess's name."
Any man that would swear by the Goddess had Daine's attention. Nearly all men chose Mithros for war and strength. "Inar Hadensra was working for Blayce, and for Maggur Rathhausak. He'd be the one you'll be looking for—Maggur, that is. He's a warlord what keeps hostages from those he takes over, and Blayce said that Maggur wanted all the metal things done and soon." Daine might have said even more, to bleed out the poison that still haunted her nightmares, but her father laid a hand on her shoulder. She hadn't heard him approach, and hadn't realized there were tears in her eyes.
Weiryn glared at the foreign mage, gathering his daughter into his arms. "Enough, mage," he growled, sounding much like the badger god. "I know she's talking of her will, but I'll tell you what needs to be known."
"I didn't realize…"
"Hmph. That's the problem there, mage. You don't realize." Weiryn combed his fingers through Daine's hair, a soothing gesture he wouldn't have done even the year before. He'd felt wild when she first met her, but he'd toned down his godhood to let her feel at ease with him. "Sarra said to come in, as it happens, before the stew's cold."
The meal was friendly, for all that Weiryn's disapproval crackled through the mood of the room, and they shoved all of the room's cushions and several grain-sacks together to create a makeshift cot long enough for their guest.
At near to midnight, Weiryn let Daine kiss his cheek, and kissed her mother goodbye with quite a bit more feeling. It was time for her father to return to the realms of the gods, where he could watch over her but not protect her. If he trusted Numair to stay without him there, it meant that Daine could trust Numair Salmalín with anything, even the time that she'd been kept in a dungeon that only a rat could have escaped.