My mother, Lady Nacola Shardae, was like a bronze statue s she watched the pyre consume her child on Mourner's Rock. Firelight gave a copper cast to her fait skin, matching the gold of her hair and her dry eyes.
Earlier the Royal Flight had been present; they had flown the body here and built the pyre. But as the fire snapped in its last moments, only the family of the deceased remained. It made brutally plain how few of us were left.
My mother and I held silent vigil until the last ember had turned gray and the wind had whipped the ashes into the sky.
When the silence was broken, my mother's words were even and clear betraying none of the pain or anger that she must have felt. "Shardae you're not to go back to the fields," she commanded to my sister. "I know your view on the subject. I also know you will be queen soon. Your people need you." She turned and looked at me. "And the same goes to you Danica."
Among avians, the heir traditionally became queen when she carried her first child. That did not seem a likely occurrence for my sister anytime soon, bur my mother had decided it was time for power to change hands despite tradition.
"Yes, Mother." My sister replied.
My sister had been preparing to take the throne ever since her Alistair died when she was ten. My mother rarely believed in her methods. I did agreed with them completely most of the time. We both knew going to the fields was dangerous, as was visiting anyone outside the heavily defended Hawk's Keep, but how could she rule our people if she refused to leave the safety of our home? We could not know them if we never faced the world they lived in, and that included the spattered blood of the fields.
My sister, Cecilia and I are very close. We have very similar political views. We both held our tongue. This was not the time to argue.
Our mother left before I did. When she shifted form and spread her wings a black cloud seemed to rise from the cliffs above us, half a dozen ravens and crows guarding her even here. My sister left after that. She unusually dropped her avian composure and gave me a sad, sympathetic look and then she flew off. One of the two guards left with us flew off with her. He seemed to be the guard designated to her, much like Rei is to me.
I hung back a bit, hesitating on the black rock and repeating over and over the words no time for tears. I knew there would be no energy left for living if I grieved too deeply for each loss, bur each funeral was harder to turn from than the last.
Eventually, I forced the creeping sorrow back, until I knew I could stay composed when I faced my people, with no trace of anxiety on my face or grief or anger in my eyes.
As I lingered, a single crow detached from the rock above me. He circled once before returning to his post, assured that I was still here, standing strong.
There was nothing left to do.
As I shifted my tired human form into one with powerful wings and golden-brown feathers, I let out a shriek. Fury, pain, fear; they dissolved into the sky as I pushed myself beyond them with every smack of my wings against the air.
It was late when I returned to the Hawk's Keep, the tower that housed what was left of my family, the highest-ranking soldiers and the most prominent artisans, merchants and speakers of the avian court.
With my mother's command, the seven floors of the Keep had changed from my safe home to my prison. Instead of being a refuge from the blood and pain, the walls were suddenly a trap keeping me from reality.
With Andreios standing near in case of trouble that never occurred inside, I lingered on the first floor, fifteen feet above the ground-level courtyards and training grounds. I watched the last of the merchants pack up their belongings, some grateful to have rooms in the higher levers of the Keep, but most wary of the world they left here.
Market lasted from dawn to dusk. Merchants and storytellers would gather on this floor, along with common people, and during the day the Tuuli Thea and her heirs would go among them and listen for complaints. The artisans had nearly been strangled out of avian society by the war, but my mother had started encouraging the ones who remained to show their wares. The avian market was famous for its craftsmanship, and losing those arts would have been tragic.
Along with crafts, custom weapons and other fine luxuries, stories and gossip could be found at the market. This was where merchants, farmers and anyone else who did not fight heard all the details.
I had seen enough serpiente soldiers fallen beside out own over the years, and now, with the image of Gregory Cobriana branded into my mind, I was reminded once again that they were just as mortal as my own kind. However, fear makes all enemies more dangerous, and the stories told in the marketplace on this night were as sickening as ever.
Parents lamented their dead children. One young man broke down in tears a display of emotion quite unseemly in avian society, as he recalled his father's death. Gossip traveled like a river: how the serpiente fought like the demons that legends said they had taken their power from, how their eyes could killer you if you looked into them long enough, how…
I tried to stop listening.
My people greeted me with polite words, just as they had the day before. Another hawk child was dead, along with a dozen of the Royal Flight, a score of Ravens- another flight, just below my personal guards in rank- and eighteen common soldiers who had joined the fray when they saw their prince fall. So many dead, and nothing had changed.
I turned toward the merchant who had spoken, a metal smith of good reputation. "Can I help you?"
He was wringing his hands, but stopped as soon as I spoke, his gaze dropping. When he looked up again, his face was composed. He held out a package carefully wrapped in soft leather, placing it on the counter for me to see. "My pair bond was among the Ravens who fell yesterday. I had been working on this for her, but if milady Shardae would wear it, I would be honored."
The gift he offered was a slender boot knife, etched with simple yet beautiful symbols of faith and luck.
I accepted the blade, hoping I would never need it, but saying aloud, "It is lovely. I'm sure your pair bond would appreciate that it is not going to waste."
The merchant replied, "Perhaps it might protect you when you go out again."
"Thank you, sir."
"Thank you, milady."
I turned from him with a sigh that I was careful not to let him hear. It was already too late for either side to win; this was needed to stop. Whatever the cost.
If only I knew how to end it.
I knew the young woman who approached me now from when we had both been children. Eleanor Lyssia was an eternal romantic, with grand dreams that I wished I could make come true. The last time I had heard from her had been a few years before, when she had just been apprenticed by a seamstress.
My smile was genuine as I greeted her warmly. "Eleanor, good evening. What brings you to the Keep?"
"I'm finally allowed to sell my work in the market," she returned brightly. "I was in charge of the shop today." The smile she wore faded to a somber expression. "I wanted to tell you… I heard what happened yesterday. With Gregory Cobriana." She shook her head. "I know none of this is proper to say, but I like to think we were friends when we were children?" I nodded, and she continued, "When I heard what had happened, it gave me hope. If the heir to the throne can put aside the past and just comfort a dying man… perhaps anything is possible."
She looked away, suddenly awkward.
"Thank you Eleanor." The prospect made me want to laugh and to cry; I settled on a tired smile. I did meet her gaze; I hoped she saw my gratitude. "Fly with grace."
"You as well, milady."
We parted ways, and now Andreios moved to my side. As always, he knew when I needed to escape. His presence would dissuade anyone else from approaching before I could do so. I wondered if he had heard Eleanor's Words, but we did not speak before we both shifted from to fly above the market to the higher levels of the Keep.
Andreios stopped at the fifth floor, where his flight was quartered; I continued to the sixth. I passed the door to my brother's room and whispered a final goodbye before I entered my own.