M. R. Mathias - Wardstone 01 - The Sword and the Dragon

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M. R. Mathias - Wardstone 01 - The Sword and the Dragon


     The Sword and the Dragon

    Copyright 2008 by M. R. Mathias

    This ebook is licensed for your personal enjoyment only. This ebook may not be re-sold or givenaway to other people. If you would like to share this book with another person, please purchasean additional copy for each person. If you are reading this book and did not purchase it, or itwas not purchased for your use only, then please return to mrmathias.com and purchase your owncopy. Thank you for respecting the hard work of this author.

    Author’s Note:

    I would like to thank Cliff Ball for help with the initial edit, Derek Prior for the muchneeded proofread/edit, and author and photoshop guru Curt Schimmel, webmaster of www.dragon-city.org and www.photoshop-dragon.com, for the great work on the cover image.?

    If you enjoy this read, please tell a friend or blog a review.

    Enjoy,?????? M.R. Mathias

    This is for my mother and my father.




     Chapter 1

    Gerard Skyler used his free arm to wipe the sweat from his brow before it had a chance to dripinto his eyes. Scaling the towering, nesting cliff for the second time was far harder than hehad expected it to be. No one had attempted the climb two days in a row before. His body wasstill sore and raw from yesterday’s climb, but he could not afford to stop and rest. He wasmore than three hundred feet above a rocky canyon floor. A fall would undoubtedly be fatal. Thelast thing he needed at the moment was burning eyes and blurred vision.

    A few dozen feet above him, was the wide, flat shelf they called the “Lip.” Once he wasthere, he could lie down, stretch out his aching body, and relax his muscles before continuingup into the nesting shelves to gather the precious hawkling eggs he sought.

    Why the blasted birds nested so high on the cliff, and so late in the spring, he could neverdetermine. All of the other avian species he knew had hatched their young and headed northalready. Why he was foolishly climbing the cliff a second time was another question he keptasking himself. He already knew the answer though: he was doing it for his older brother,Hyden.

    Gerard’s free hand reached up and slid snugly into a small gap above him. As he pulled hisweight up, the hold suddenly crumbled. Dust and scree rained down on his upturned face.Luckily, his mouth was closed and he hadn’t moved his feet from their points of purchase yet.He didn’t slip, but he had to contend with his racing heart and the sandy grit that wascollecting on his face.

    “Damn it all, Hyden! You owe me a dozen pairs of boots now,” he muttered.

    He shook his head, trying to face downward so that some of the crud might fall away. Then hestuck out his bottom lip and blew up at his eyes, shaking his head awkwardly. The thought ofhow silly he looked at that moment almost made him laugh. He had to fight to contain it. Havingmixed with his sweat, most of the grainy dirt had turned to mud. He finally used the thumb andindex finger of his free hand to rub his eyelids. Eventually, he cleared his vision and thenreached up for a different handhold. This one held his weight.

    Far below, Hyden Skyler paced the canyon floor, looking up nervously at his younger brother’sprogress. He was supposed to be the one making this climb. Gerard had already made his own.Their father and uncles had decided that Hyden should stay on the ground this year.? He was theSkyler clan’s best hope to win the coveted Summer’s Day archery competition, their best hopeto come along in a generation.

    Hyden had argued vehemently against not being allowed to claim a rightful share of the hawklingeggs. His Uncle Condlin had to physically restrain him when they told him that this year’sclimb wasn’t going to happen. Hyden had called them all to the settling circle in his anger,even the Elders.

    “Why can’t I do both?” he had argued.

    The Elders had explained that it was because the archery competition and the egg harvest thisyear were too close together. Not even the most experienced climber could finish his gruelingharvest without a tear or strain. The Elders, who consisted of Hyden’s grandfather, hisfather, and five of his uncles, wanted nothing to happen to him that might affect his abilityto aim. Nothing.

    Like most young men who feel like they’ve been wronged, Hyden had been caught up in themoment. The Elders’ arguments made sense to him now that the heat of his frustration hadcooled, but it had taken a while. Only after long hours of soothing and explaining did hefinally relent. The fact that the prize money from the archery competition was equal to thevalue of more than a dozen hawkling eggs helped him put things in perspective. The idea ofhaving his name etched permanently into the Summer’s Day Spire had its own appeal. Eventually,he decided to comply with the Elders’ wishes and stay on the ground. If he managed to win thecompetition, the honor and respect he would gain, not only in his clan, but also among the men

of the kingdoms, would far exceed the satisfaction of making his egg harvest.

    At one hundred paces, Hyden could put three out of five arrows in the Wizard’s Eye. The othertwo arrows would be in the King’s Ring, only because the center of the target wasn’t bigenough to hold them all. Only on rare occasions did an arrow from Hyden’s bow venture out intothe Queen’s Circle,? but it did so only because the wind was blowing, or for some otherextreme reason. Even on the windiest of days, his arrows strayed no farther away from themiddle than that. He was as accurate as a target would allow a human to be. To put four arrowsin the Wizard’s Eye was nearly impossible. The elven archers who had won the competition forthe last four years running had done it though. If Hyden wanted to win this year, he would haveto do it too.

    Hyden’s stubborn arguing over being kept on the ground had paid off in a sense. He hadcontested that the financial loss of not being allowed to harvest his rightful share ofhawkling eggs would be ruinous to his home and family. He pointed out that the Elders couldgive him no guarantee that he would win the archery competition. He was only eighteen wintersold, had no family of his own yet, but he would soon enough, and it was the principle of thematter anyway. By clan law, a large portion of the money generated by the sale of the harvestedhawkling eggs went to the individual who had harvested them. None of the Elders could denyHyden, but then Gerard suddenly volunteered to climb in his stead. The Elders reminded theyounger of the two headstrong young men that a second climb would be very dangerous, and thatall the credit, and the yield of the harvest itself, would be Hyden’s, not his. The Elderswere pleased, though, that Hyden would still be receiving his due without having to climb.

    Hyden had never felt a stronger bond with Gerard; nor had he ever felt more love for him.? Whenhe saw his little brother finally gain the edge of the Lip, he couldn’t help but breathe asigh of relief. He had never felt this much worry, or concern, over Gerard’s safety in hislife. Usually, he was trying to kill him for some reason or another.

    Little Condlin, or maybe Ryal, had helped Gerard up onto the ledge. Hyden couldn’t tell whichof his many cousins it was who was up there. They all looked the same from where he wasstanding, with their sun-darkened skin, their thin frames, and the thick mop of dark hair thatall of the clansmen shared.

    Hyden had been out behind Uncle Condlin’s hut shooting arrows all week, while all the othermembers of the Skyler clan took their turns on the sacred nesting cliff. He wasn’t sure whichof his cousins had made their climbs yet. All he knew was that Gerard had come down yesterdayfrom his harvest with eight unbroken eggs. From what Hyden had heard, it was the best singletake so far this year. Gerard had strutted around with his chest puffed out the whole evening.Uncle Condlin had brought down only seven eggs this year. Hyden and Gerard’s father would havehad seven as well, but an angry hawkling had caused Harrap to drop one in order to protect hiseyes from its razor-sharp talons.

    It was a shameful thing to waste an egg, even when protecting oneself. Their father hadn’tbeen seen since he’d packed his six remaining eggs in a small crate full of “keep moss” twodays ago. He had gone off into the woods seeking absolution. The eggs would be safe until heeventually returned. The keep moss, as the name indicated, would keep the hawkling eggs fromhatching for as long as they were packed in it.

    Gerard and Hyden knew that their father was off in seclusion somewhere seeking forgiveness fromthe clan’s goddess. He hoped that the White Lady would give his father a sign soon. Hyden haddone the same thing last year, after one of his eggs had broken in his pack while he wasclimbing down.

    The hawkling eggs were sacred to the clan, and very expensive to the kingdom folk who hadpurchased them each year at the Summer’s Day Festival. The location of the nesting cliff wasknown only to the Skylers, and though they could have made a king’s fortune by harvesting allthe eggs at once, they didn’t. Each clansman able to climb the cliff was allowed oneopportunity each year to make his harvest, but only if he spent his share of the days in theoff-season attending to the roosts and vacant nesting areas. Loose rock, old nests, and other

    harmful things, such as scorpions and blood ravens, were removed or frightened away so thehawklings would have a safe place to breed and hatch their young each spring.

    During the harvest, it was forbidden to leave fewer than two eggs in a nest, so much of theclimbing a man did—sometimes his whole harvest—was fruitless. The hawklings were fiercehunters, and their wingspan, from tip to tip, could be as wide as a man is tall. Sometimes, anangry bird would attack and maim, or even dislodge, a climber. Many a member of the Skyler clanhad met their death on the rocky canyon floor.

    Hyden didn’t expect much from Gerard. The lower nests would all be down to two eggs by now,and the climb took such a toll on a man’s body that Hyden didn’t think Gerard could pushhimself into the higher reaches today. Two or three eggs would suffice. He had told Gerard asmuch this morning as they broke camp. Hyden would wait until all the other eggs had been sold,and then would drive up his price. The money from two eggs would sustain him through thewinter. Three would provide him not only what he needed, but also what he wanted.

    “I’ll get you half a dozen at least,” Gerard had bragged. “You’ll win that competitiontoo. And when you do, you owe me a new pair of Valleyan horsehide boots and a wizard’s hat.”

    Hyden laughed, thinking about his brother’s simple desires. Gerard’s immaturity still showeditself often. He was just a year younger than Hyden. At least the new boots were a reasonableand responsible request. Gerard could buy himself a wagon full of wizard’s hats and a dozenpair of boots with what he would earn for his own eight eggs. After the Elders took out theclan’s share, Gerard would still have a small fortune.

    Hyden found a rock, sat in the shadow thrown by the midmorning sun, and munched on a piece ofdried venison. Gerard would rest awhile on the Lip before continuing up into the nestingshelves. The cliff face would be warming quickly now. It would grow as hot as a skillet in themorning sun, but only for a short while. The sun would swiftly put the cliff in its memory, andfor the better part of the day, its face would be cooling in its own shadow.

    Movement from above caught Hyden’s eye. A long, green ribbon on a crooked stick, poked up intothe air from the edge of the Lip. There wasn’t enough wind to make it do more than flutterlazily. It disappeared as quickly as it had shown itself, and then one of his cousins began thelong climb up to make his harvest. Hyden could tell by the bright green color of the climber’sheaddress, that it was one of Uncle Condlin’s sons. He knew that Gerard’s headdress was red,with blue highlights. That was the only headdress that he cared to see.

    The bright, ornamental hats were worn more to deter the fierce birds than for any other reason,yet each branch of the clan had its own colors and designs. Hyden’s was made of light wire,and shaped like an open-winged bird, with red and gold ribbons tied about the frame. Gerard’swas similar, but with red and blue ribbons fastened to it. The headdresses made it appear thata brightly colored bird was already on the climber’s head. They were a distraction at best,and they usually ended up on the canyon floor long before the climber came down. Hyden hatedwearing one, especially when the wind was up. He usually threw his off after a while, but onetime, an angry hawkling had torn it off his head for him, and nearly caused him to fall to hisdeath.

    It was rumored that his Great Uncle Jachen’s fatal fall had been caused solely bycomplications with his headdress, but it was still considered an ill omen to start up from theLip without one. Two of Hyden’s cousins had attempted to climb after the wind had blown theirsoff the ledge a few years ago. Both boys perished that day, thus reinforcing the ancientsuperstition.

    It wasn’t long before Hyden saw his own red and gold headdress starting up the cliff. It madehim smile. Gerard must have taken it from his pack earlier at the camp. Hyden hadn’t expectedGerard to wear his headdress. He was proud that his little brother was honoring him by wearingit for this climb. His heart swelled with emotion, and he decided on the spot that he would buyGerard a wizard’s hat, a wizard’s robe, and even a magic wand at the fair, even if he didn’twin the archery competition. It didn’t even bother him when Gerard later let the awkwardheadgear fall away and tumble down the canyon.

    It became clear that the cousin making the climb ahead of Gerard was Little Condlin. Little Conwas chubby; slow, and deliberate in his moves. He climbed more sideways than upward, as if hewas trying to cover the entire width of the cliff. He never extended his reach, and he alwaysused caution. Gerard, on the other hand, was quick like a lizard, and before long he was a fewhundred feet above the Lip.

    The cliff itself was well over a thousand feet high. It looked to Hyden like Gerard was tryingto climb to the very top of it. As far as Hyden knew, that had never been done before. An areanot too far above Gerard’s current location was so thick with the nesting birds, that the grayand brown stone seemed to be striped black with them. It was obvious now that Gerard had beencompletely serious when he’d bragged that he would bring back half a dozen eggs. Hyden hopedthat his brother wouldn’t put himself in a bad spot up there while trying to show off for him.At the moment, Gerard was as high up into the nests as Hyden had ever been in his life.

    Gerard could see something glinting and shining. It was a few dozen feet to his right, a littlebelow him, and sitting in an old broken nest on the other side of a wide vertical fissure. Hecouldn’t tell what it was, but it was metallic and golden. For some reason, there were nohawklings screeching at him or making sweeps at his intrusion in this area. He wasn’t payingattention to the hawklings’ activities any more though. Whatever that thing was in the nest,it was commanding his attention and causing him to lose concentration on his climb. He alreadyhad five eggs for Hyden nestled in his padded shoulder bag. He was determined to have the sixthhe had boasted of, but five, he knew, would please his brother immensely. He also knew that heneeded to start back down soon, so as not to be caught on the wall after sunset. Climbing downin the dark was impossible, but that blasted shiny thing was fiercely calling out to hiscuriosity.

    His mind began filling with visions of jeweled riches and praise from his clansmen and Elders.He had to reach it. He wouldn’t be climbing here again until late summer, or just beforewinter set in. It might not be there then. If he didn’t get it now, he might not be able tofind it again, even if it stayed exactly where it was.

    He cleared his head by shaking it, and then tried to spot a way to surpass the open gap betweenhim and the prize. If he just climbed a few dozen feet higher, he could reach across a narrowplace in the fissure, and then he could climb back down to the thing. It was risky, but he toldhimself that he could do it.

    As he started up toward the niche, the sun passed over the ridge, sending the whole of thecliff face into shadow. It took him longer than he thought it would, but he finally reached theplace where he could stretch across the span of open space. He positioned himself on a tinyledge, and when he leaned into the cliff, he could stand with all his weight on his feet,leaving both of his hands free.

    His palms were wet and slimy from the numerous patches of excriment he’d encountered in thishigher, more heavily nested area. He shook his arms at his sides, letting the blood flow backinto them while waiting for the muck to dry. A warning began to sound in the back of his mind,telling him that he should already be headed back down, but he chose to ignore it. He hadgathered another egg on the way up to the niche, so he now had the full half-dozen he’dpromised Hyden. All he had to do now was reach the little treasure that was beckoning him. Oncehe had it, he could start down.

    After a few moments, he rubbed his hands on his hips briskly. The crusting stuff on thempowdered and fell away. He then took turns scuffing the toes of his old boots on the ledgeuntil they gripped with ample traction. He found a good handhold with his left hand, not toofar above him, and stretched his body out to the right, reaching across the gap as far as hecould. He was still at least two feet shy. He harrumphed in frustration and pulled his bodyweight back over the little ledge.

    He repositioned himself so that his handhold was lower. This would allow him to reach farther.He tried again but found that his right foot was still some inches away from a safe purchase onthe other side. As he started to retract himself this time, his left foothold slipped a

    fraction. His heart fluttered up through his chest like a startled bird. He almost fell, butinstinct, and common sense, took control. After a few deep, calming breaths, he gingerlystarted easing his weight back over.

    He would have to give up the prize and make his way down. It was the only sensible thing to do.If he started to hurry down now, he could still reach the canyon floor by nightfall. Hydenwould be happy to take the six eggs, and the Elders, along with the rest of the clan members,would praise his efforts and his skill as a climber.

    A quick glance back over at the object caused him to change his mind. He was here, and hedidn’t want to waste the chance the Goddess had granted him. He would retrieve it, whatever itwas.

    Gerard squinted. In the shaded light, the object finally revealed itself to him. It was a ring.Golden and shiny, it had a fat, yellow gem mounted on it, and it looked extremely valuable. Herolled his neck across his shoulders. It would be his, he decided. He could reach it and stillget down before dark. If not, he could even sleep on the Lip if he had to.

    He looked at the other side of the fissure and studied it intently. He took in the subtleties,the nooks, the crannies, and the shape of the stone. Then, he sucked in a deep breath, resolvedhimself, and leapt for it.

    Hyden was pacing nervously. His cousin was almost back down to the Lip, but Gerard was stillway up in the heart of the nesting shelves. To Hyden, he seemed to be frozen in place next to awide vertical split in the rock. As it was, Hyden figured that Gerard would have to sleep onthe Lip this night. Hyden wasn’t sure that his brother could even climb that far back down bynightfall. He was about to pull his hair out with worry.

    “It’s my fault,” he told himself aloud. He knew that no one had ever made it down the cliffface in the dark, and it looked as if Gerard was running out of time. “I should’ve never letyou climb for me. Damn the bravado, Gerard! Just get yourself down before it’s too late.”

    Hyden stopped pacing and stared up anxiously, as his brother stretched across the gap for thesecond time. He thought his heart had stopped beating in his chest, until he saw his brothershudder and slip. Then, his heart exploded like a pounding skin drum.

    “Oh Gerard, don’t fall,” Hyden pleaded to no one that could hear him. “Take a breath, andsteady yourself. That’s it! Now quit fooling around and get down here before the darknesstakes you!”

    Hyden’s neck muscles were raw and sore from looking up all day, but he couldn’t look away.Gerard seemed to have regained his composure, and Hyden assumed he was about to start backdown. A few seconds later, when Gerard leapt into the open air, across the fissure from oneside of it to the other, Hyden was certain that his heart really had exploded. So violent wasthe thunderclap that went blasting through his chest, that even he felt the strange andhorrifying sensation of falling.

     Chapter 2

    Of the two brothers, Gerard had the better landing. His lead foot stuck perfectly into thecrevice he had intended, and his fingers grabbed true in a little crack on the far side of thefissure. He paused only a moment to catch his breath, as if he hadn’t just jumped across a gapof empty space more than seven hundred feet off the ground. Almost casually, he looked down atthe little gleaming prize and started after it. It was his.

    Hyden didn’t fare as well. He had been looking up at Gerard while pacing. At the same momenthis brother had leapt, Hyden’s feet had found a shin-high boulder and his momentum sent himsprawling. He was so transfixed by Gerard’s leap that he didn’t even look down as he fell. Itwas probably for the best, because he didn’t have to see the pile of jagged rocks into whichhis head slammed. When he next opened his eyes, it was almost completely dark outside. Bloodhad leaked from the gash in the side of his head and formed a matted clot in his long blackhair. He wasn’t quite sure where he was or what was happening.

“Hyden?” a familiar voice asked sheepishly. “I thought you’d never come around.”

    Through his pain, Hyden’s world began coming back to him. It was Little Condlin who had spokento him. His fingers found the split lump over his ear, and a sharp pain shot through him whenhe touched it. As he caught his breath, Gerard’s leap flashed through his mind.

    “Gerard!” he croaked in a panic while trying to climb back to his feet. “Where is Ger—?”

    “He’s nearly down from the Lip,” Little Condlin said, not understanding Hyden’s worry. Hehadn’t seen Gerard risk his life like a fool jumping from hold to hold. He took Hyden by thearm and helped him to his feet.

    Hyden winced as the world swam back into focus. It took him a few minutes, but eventually, hesteadied himself. In the near darkness, he found the boulder he had eaten lunch on and satdown.

    “Gerard’s really almost down?” he asked.

    “Aye,” Little Condlin grinned. “He’s as good a climber as you are; maybe even better.” Hetried to suppress an adolescent mirth, but it was impossible. “What befell you down here?”With that, he burst into laughter.

    Hyden snarled menacingly at the fourteen-year-old boy’s wit. It was enough to make LittleCondlin’s glee vanish instantly. The boy quickly averted his attention to a dark pile of rocksat his feet.

    A few moments passed in silence, but Hyden finally spoke.

    “How was your harvest?” he asked.

    Little Condlin’s eyes lit up. He was bursting to tell someone of his good fortune this year.“Five eggs, Hyden!” he held an excited hand up, all his fingers extended and wiggling.“Five!”

    “Great!” Hyden said, a little more flatly than he had intended. He was glad for Condlin, buthe was still a little bitter at being cheated out of his own climb. Last year, Little Con hadonly harvested one egg. This was only his second year of harvest, and five eggs was anexcellent yield for a more experienced climber, much less a novice.

    “I did just as father told me to do,” Little Condlin rambled excitedly. “I didn’t try to gohigh like Gerard does. I went way out to the sides.”

    “I saw you,” Hyden said, with a nod of respect.

    Hyden had only gotten three eggs, and had ended up nearly falling over the edge of the Lipduring the descent on his second harvest. The memory made him think about Gerard again. It wasalmost full dark now. He stood up and started toward the base of the cliff to look for hisbrother.

    “What happened to your face, Hyden?” Little Condlin asked. Even though he was at a safedistance, he made sure that his voice carried nothing less than concern in its inflection.

    “I was attacked by big, hairy scufflers,” Hyden deadpanned. His expression didn’t holdthough, and thinking about his earlier folly, he broke into a sarcastic grin, “What do youthink happened?”

    Little Condlin took on a frustrated expression and sighed heavily. He was the fourth of fivebrothers, so he knew where he stood in the pecking order with Hyden and his other cousins. Hehad hoped his successful harvest would have gained him a little more respect. Gauging thedistance between him and his older, faster cousin, he gathered his courage and prepared to runaway. “I think you fell down and busted your fat head.”

    “Aye,” Hyden laughed at the boy’s well-placed caution. “I did. I was looking up, watchingGerard act like a fool, and I wasn’t watching where my feet were leading me.” He made a sillyface, and his cousin relaxed a little bit.

    “Well I have to say, you look quite a bit better than you did before. That bloody knot bringsout your eyes.”

    Hyden burst out laughing at the boy’s boldness. He started to say something about it, but wascut off by a welcome voice.

    “What’s so blasted funny, Hyden?” Gerard said from the darkness, near where the cliff facemet the canyon floor.

    Hyden felt the wave of relief wash over him. It was followed immediately by a flood of anger.“What’s not funny is what you did up there today! You could’ve gotten yourse—”

    His voice stopped cold, and Little Condlin gasped loudly. Gerard had thrust a ring out of thedarkness at them. Even in the starlight, its amber gemstone captured enough illumination tosparkle brightly. It almost appeared as if it were glowing.

    “Where did you find that?” Little Condlin asked, with a voice full of awe.

    “In your sister’s pantaloons,” Gerard replied sarcastically. He was sore, tired, raw inseveral places, and in no mood for silly questions. He looked at Hyden, judging his brother’sanger. “It was high up in an old broken nest by a fissure. The one I jumped across,” he saidin a way that let Hyden know that he knew the risk he had taken, and didn’t want to hearanymore about it. After a moment, he reluctantly handed the ring to his older brother.

    Hyden looked at him oddly. It took him a minute to grasp the meaning of the gesture. Gerard hadbeen climbing for him, not for himself. He was offering him the ring. Hyden refused it with anod.

    “You wanted it bad enough to risk your life for it. It’s yours. You earned it.”

    Gerard cocked his head and studied Hyden some more. To refuse such an offer could be consideredan insult. If Hyden was refusing him out of anger for taking that jump, then he wouldn’t knowwhat to do. Hyden had never insulted him before. He looked deeper, and saw so much love,respect, and relief in his brother’s eyes that there was no room for doubt. Hyden truly didwant him to have the ring. He took it back, and a broad grin spread across his weary face.

    “If you refuse these, then I’m going to kick you where it counts.”

    Gerard unshouldered his pack and thrust it out to Hyden proudly. “Half a dozen, just like Ipromised.”

    Hyden passed the pack to their cousin, and grabbed up Gerard in a big bear hug. Gerard huggedhim back. While his hands were close together, behind Hyden’s back, Gerard slipped the ringonto his finger. After a moment, Hyden held him back by the shoulders and looked him dead inthe eyes.

    “Don’t scare me like that again.” He pointed to the gash on his knotted head. “You almostkilled me.”

    It was too dark even to think about starting back to the harvest lodges. They ended up buildinga fire where Hyden and Gerard had camped the night before. The three of them exchanged stories,and had a great laugh at the fact that Hyden was the only one who hadn’t left the ground, butwas the only one who had fallen.

    While Little Con boiled some dried beef into a stew, Hyden inspected the eggs his brother hadbrought him. He was pleased beyond words at what he saw. All six of them were safe and soundand nestled in a bed of fresh keep moss. He made up his mind to buy Gerard a whole wizard’scostume—the robe, the hat, and even a staff, if that was what he wanted. He didn’t think itwould be though. Gerard seemed to have matured a great deal since just that morning. Thesparkle of the ring in the firelight, and the tired, serious look on his face made him lookanything but youthful. Hyden saw a man, where only this morning, he’d seen a boy. It was astrange sight to see, because most of the time he didn’t even consider himself an adult yet.

    “Wendlin, Jeryn, and Tylen are the only ones left to harvest now,” Little Con informed them.“They’re camped at the other end of the canyon. They probably think I fell, since I didn’tcome back to camp tonight.”

    “If they thought you fell, they would be out looking for your carcass,” Hyden said matter-of-factly.

“Or dancing a jig,” Gerard added with a laugh.

    “They probably saw you come down,” Hyden reasoned. “Same as I did.”

    “How could you have seen him knot-head,” Gerard smirked. “You were busy kissing rocks.”

    They all laughed heartily at that. Little Condlin dished the stew into Hyden’s and Gerard’sbowls and then waited for one of them to finish. His bowl was back at his brothers’ camp.Hyden had eaten a healthy meal, while Gerard and Little Condlin had been busy climbing, so heonly slurped a few mouthfuls, and then passed his bowl on to his young cousin. Gerard, on theother hand, attacked his meal like a starving dog.

    “Are you going back to the lodges with us in the morning or what?” Hyden asked.

    “Back to Tylen’s camp,” Condlin answered. “Wendlin and Jeryn climb early in the morning.Tylen goes last, since he is the oldest in the clan who’s not on the council.” Little Condlinalways spoke of his brothers proudly, but when he spoke of his oldest brother Tylen, his chestswelled bigger than usual. “Tylen’s gonna break my pap’s record this year.”

    Hyden knew in his heart that Gerard could have brought back a dozen eggs today, if he hadn’tbeen sidetracked at that fissure by the ring. A climb that high up into the thick of thenesting band was rare. Gerard had gone higher than anyone Hyden had ever seen. The weather hadbeen exceptional, and the hawklings themselves were far less aggressive than most years, but hestill wasn’t sure if even he could have climbed as well as his brother had today. He wouldhave never risked that leap, that’s for sure. Another thing he knew for certain was that Tylencould climb like a lizard too. If tomorrow was as perfect a day as today had been, then Tylenreally might have a chance to break Big Condlin’s record. Hyden kept his thoughts to himselfthough, because Little Condlin’s chest and head were already swollen enough.

    As soon as he finished eating, Gerard lay back and went to sleep. Little Condlin wasn’t farbehind him. Hyden took the time after he ate to clean the dried blood from his head. He coveredLittle Condlin with his blanket, and lay down close to the fire. It had been a long andeventful day, and sleep found him quickly.

    The next morning, Little Condlin was anything but quiet as he gathered up his things in thepredawn light. He woke up Hyden and Gerard with eyes full of excitement and pride.? With amouth full of chatter he wasted no time leaving. He was off to his brothers’ camp in the hopesof catching them before they started their climbs. Gerard wanted to throw a rock at him forwaking them for no real reason, but he couldn’t find one that wouldn’t crack his head in halfif it hit him.

    The day started with much moaning and groaning from both brothers. Hyden’s head hurt badly. Itwas not so much the actual wound that bothered him, but a deep inner ache that felt like a hotrock was loose inside his skull. Every little move he made caused the rock to roll around andscald another part of his brain.

    Gerard was no better off. Like burning wires cutting through his muscles, his pain spreadthroughout his shoulders, back and legs. His movements took great effort and came with audiblestrain, but he didn’t dare voice a complaint. He didn’t want to hear Hyden razz him forwhining.

    Hyden managed to boil some water over the fire. At least Little Condlin had built the blaze upbefore he left. Hyden added chicory root and some gum leaf to the pot, and the warm, thicksmell of the brew brought Gerard to the fire with his cup in hand. The dark, flavorful liquidput a little energy into their bodies and helped leech out some of the aches and pains. After afew cups, they felt well enough to break camp and start back to the harvest lodges.

    While Hyden doused the fire, Gerard was waiting to go. Hyden went to grab the shoulder packthat held the eggs his brother had harvested for him, but stopped suddenly. He heard a soundcoming from inside the bag.

    “Oh no!” he said, thinking that one of the eggs had broken.

    “Are they all right?” Gerard asked with concern. He watched Hyden’s face from where hestood, trying to gauge his brother’s reaction to what he saw as he peered into the bag. Heexpected to see either relief or anguish spread across Hyden’s face, but what he saw was astrange, somewhat confused look. The odd expression slowly morphed into a wide-eyed grin fullof wonder and amazement. The curiosity to know what Hyden was looking at overwhelmed Gerard,and he hurried over to his brother’s side to see for himself.

    Hyden reached into the bag carefully. His cupped hand came out with a squeaking little hawklingchick in it. As Gerard knelt down beside him, Hyden worked a piece of jerked venison from hispack with his free hand. He tore a piece off with his teeth and chewed it vigorously.

    “Do you think it’s the prophesy bird?” Gerard asked, with a look from the bird to hisbrother and back. “Or was it just bad keep moss?”

    “I—mmm—don’t—mmm—know?” Hyden answered as he chewed. Once the venison was softened, hespat a wad of the chewed-up meat into his hand. He dangled the meat over the little graychick’s snapping beak and it gobbled the stuff up greedily. Immediately, it started squawkingfor more. Hyden bit off another piece of the meat, chewed it up, and fed it to the hungry bird.With Gerard’s help, he made a makeshift nest out of his rough spun shirt. Once the littlechick was nestled in, it immediately fell asleep.

    By all rights, it was Hyden’s egg that had hatched, but it was Gerard who had harvested it.Hyden turned to his brother with a serious look on his face.

    “You brought it down from the cliff, but it hatched after you gave it to me. I don’t know ifit could be the legend or not, but if it is, who is the chosen one? Me or you?”

    “The Elders will know,” Gerard said, trying to remember the exact words of the propheticcampfire story. He realized after a moment that it was no use. He had heard the story told adozen different ways.

    The most common version of the legend stated that one day a clansman’s harvest would beblessed by the Goddess in the form of a special egg. Even keep moss wouldn’t keep thissupposedly blessed egg from hatching. The lucky clansman and his hawkling, were supposed tobond, and then go off into the world to do extraordinary things together. They would haveadventures far beyond imagining. They would travel beyond the mountains and across the seas,and their lives would be exciting. They would serve the Goddess abroad, and possibly earn aplace in the heavens at her side.

    After Hyden shouldered the pack with the five remaining eggs in it, he carefully picked up theshirt nest with both hands. Gerard led the way out of the canyon, and as they skirted theforest, he took extra care to make sure no branches or footfalls hindered his brother’s way.The trail wasn’t long, but it was rocky in places and awkward. It was meant to remain hidden,so it took them a while to make the short journey to the harvest lodges.

    They made it to the small group of crude, huts by midmorning. They tried to make it to theirgrandfather’s hut with as little notice as possible, but it was impossible. Tales of Gerard’sleap from the day before had made it back to the lodges already, told by clansmen who had beenwatching the cliff face from afar. A handful of younger boys rushed forth to question Gerardabout it. Because the clan women weren’t allowed at the harvest, the boys who weren’t yet oldenough to climb were starved for attention and ran wild like a pack of scavengers. They wantedto know how well Gerard’s second harvest had gone, and if Gerard and Hyden knew how wellLittle Condlin had done. Gerard shooed them away as best he could, but a few of them spied thehawkling chick in Hyden’s hands and grew overly excited. It took only moments for the tale ofthe gift the Goddess had bestowed upon Gerard, or maybe Hyden, to reach every set of ears atthe lodges.

    Having just heard the news from a group of his grandnephews, Hyden and Gerard’s grandfatherreceived them well. He quickly ushered them through the door to his shabby little hut. He gavean angry scowl to the line of boys that followed, which sent them scurrying every direction butforward. Then he pulled the elk skin door closed and tied it fast.

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