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King of the Sky

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Tibarn is fifteen. And he has yet to stop growing. He’s broader now too, set apart from his peers by the ability to build himself into the same impressive shape as the queen. No one would dare to speak of any similarity yet – but whenever the queen Ylva stands her guard before the main hall’s entrance and Tibarn passes her by, there’s a small arc of her brow in his direction.

She’s noticed, and doesn’t seem annoyed about it. It is how nature goes.

Some patterns are difficult to spot, others are glaringly obvious. One trip to the caves with the carvings of hawk history and it’s clear as day that every regent that has come before looked just the same as her. Her wingspan stretches about twice that of an average-sized hawk, her talons can splinter rocks and her beak could fell a dragon.

And she’s not going to give up her spot to anyone who cannot match her. Tibarn may not be anywhere close to her might as of now, but he is growing, and he intends to put that to use.

 

Janaff stands with his arms crossed, looking up toward the mountaintop going further than Tibarn can see.

“So, you really need to climb all this, huh?” Janaff asks, while blocking out the sun with his hand. “Is that really necessary?”

“My beorc arms need strength too”, Tibarn answers him. “You said so.”

“I sure did”, Janaff agrees, grimacing toward the sky. “And I know I’m obviously right. But I never said anything about finding the most dangerous place possible and starting there.”

Tibarn taps the cliff wall with his palm, feeling the density and shape of his new challenge. Yes, this he can certainly manage. It will not be easy, but it absolutely promises to be exciting; and as a fifteen-year-old hawk, that’s Tibarn’s main priority.

“Hey, seriously”, Janaff insists. “There’s huge rocks that look a bit loose at the top. The kind of huge that could squash a hawk. I kind of promised your parents you wouldn’t die today, you know?”

“If they fall, I’ll just fly out of the way.”

Janaff frowns and looks like he’s about to keep protesting, but then he shrugs. “Can’t argue with that logic, kid.”

Tibarn doesn’t see himself as a kid (fifteen-year-olds rarely do), but he ignores the slight provocation and arcs his neck instead.

“I think you’re making them up”, he says. “The loose rocks.”

“Who, me?” Janaff lets out a low chuckle. “No, just trust me, I can see them. I fly high and look far – it’s what I do! If I had a piece of silver for every time someone asked me to find stuff for them, I could afford shoes.”

“I suppose I owe you plenty, then. You found my mother’s cap down on the wild cliffs, for starters. I should get you ten shoes.”

“Don’t have enough feet”, Janaff grins. “And there aren’t even that many shoes on this entire island. You’re a funny one, future king.”

“Don’t say it sarcastically”, Tibarn says with an indignant tone. “I’m going to be.”

“Oh sure, sure, you’ve just gotta stop looking like a twig, first.“

Tibarn glares at him, and Janaff grins back, hands in his pockets.

“No scowling, big guy. It’s part of your coaching. You gotta be able to put up with annoying remarks when you’re all high and mighty.”

“Not if I throw the annoying ones into the sea, first”, Tibarn says, and he does feel bad for joking about such a terrible thing. He wouldn’t say it were it anyone else beside him, but Janaff always invites the kinds of quips he can sound smart responding to.

“That’s what they call tyranny”, Janaff says with a pretend-deep nod and a brush of his chin. “Not to tell you how to do royalty, but tyrants tend to make people uncomfortable.”

There’s usually a lot of back and forth whenever Janaff’s concerned, and while Tibarn does his best to keep up, verbal sparring is something he needs to practice more. He thinks for a moment of what he could answer, but is interrupted by Janaff pulling his hands out of his pockets and clapping them twice.

Now who’s stalling?” he asks and makes a shooing motion toward Tibarn. “Chop-chop, we haven’t got all day.”

Tibarn looks down on him (literally, not figuratively), and then back up toward the steep wall. Salt glistens and shatters in the hard winds. Whatever footing is safe in one moment could be gone in the next, he realizes. This is going to take a while.

“There’s no need for you to stand around and wait”, he objects, even though he knows it is useless.

“And forsake my duty as the future Royal Advisor?” Janaff scoffs. “I take this seriously, and with all your big words, you’d better take it seriously as well! Just… promise to not die on me, here.”

Tibarn cannot help grinning. He’s fifteen, and just like most teens his age, he feels invincible. For all he knows, he is. Why would he hesitate to prove it?

“Don’t worry.” He elbows Janaff in the shoulder. “Dying’s not my thing.”

 

---

 

The years roll by, like the waves far below.

As Tibarn nears twenty-five, he stops keeping count of his age. He sleeps and eats together with the rest of the hawks inside the great caves when winter takes its toll. He wanders the market with his father when the wind season is over. He writes in the ancient language to the best of his ability when the rain pours over them, but that’s all the sitting around he ever does. The rest of his time, he spends outside of Phoenicis.

Hawk society is built as one great support chain. Each adult hawk usually finds their place in it on their own. Those who prefer the calm of the caves become advisors, artists, builders, healers, teachers and menders (a craft held in incredibly high regard, considering the value of fabrics). Those who want to brave the sea becomes messengers, merchants, fishers, hunters and explorers.

Those who for some reason cannot do either have an equally important place; they may be elderly or injured or not perfectly suited for a craft, and thus they do what they can to add to their community, like assembling market stalls or collecting pigments for painting or telling stories in the dark of winter.

Everyone has a place and a purpose, and overseeing them all is the Protector. The idea to also refer to the Protector as royalty comes from the Ravens and Herons, whose close connection to the beorc makes them prefer this moniker for simple transfer between laguz and beorc cultures. But whatever they’re called, a Protector has the same purpose across different Bird Tribes – they devote their lives to the survival of their people.

Until Tibarn even has a chance to compete for that role, he must devote his time to something else. He knows how to hunt, and during his later teen years, he reveled in the excitement of roaming the Raven tribe’s weirdly flat shores in search of deer, until the day he simply didn’t cross the ocean all the way.

He stayed behind when the rest of the hunters went on toward the Kilvas kingdom, and looking back, he couldn’t really say why. The thought of leaving the sea simply didn’t appeal to him anymore. The challenge of the open sea called to him, and he heeded it.

And on the ocean he stays for the years to come.

He’s snapped up the essence of his father’s work; how to spot fish moving beneath the surface, how to plunge at the right angles, and how to carry them home. Feather-deep in saltwater whenever he returns to Phoenicis, he is proud to call himself a fisher.

 

Though as time passes, there’s something increasingly odd about coming home. He’s no longer invisible.

Every time he enters the caves people turn their heads and whisper things he cannot hear but knows is about him. Judging by their faces it’s nothing about him that’s bad, but when he tries to decipher them, he’d say they’re… concerned. It isn’t until the queen notifies him that he understands why.

“Fisher”, the queen Ylva calls to him, watching him with narrow eyes as he passes her by. “If you carry that much and a wave strikes you, you will sink and drown. I can’t be there to pull your sorry feathers out. So, watch it.”

It is definitely strange to be called out by the queen directly, so Tibarn only nods his acknowledgement without protest.

He’s gradually increased the amount of fish he can carry over the years, and he’d barely noticed it’s become almost twice his weight until the queen pointed it out. He keeps carrying the same load, though. It’s not that much. Not to him. People will get used to it, he’s sure.

 

One more year goes past, and Tibarn braves winter storms when there isn’t enough food to go around. No one protests. He supposes that means people have indeed gotten used to his antics.

It’s a sunny winter’s day when a five-year-old hawk girl named Viria challenges him to a fist-fight, because he looks ‘big and mean’.

Tibarn gets punched in the knee by this fledgling that day. He pretends to fall over, clutching his knee. Viria looks horrified at first. Then, once she realizes he’s playing along with her, she crosses her arms and lifts her chin.

“I won”, she says.

“You sure did”, Tibarn answers with a wide grin.

It’s just good form to lose a play-fight with a five-year-old. Quite the honor to be selected by a child he merely knows the name of. He’s standing out more and more for each day; every whisper, every glance from the queen affirms it.

It is easy to let those sorts of things go to his head, but whenever Janaff enters the picture, Tibarn is pulled back down to reality.

“You think you can take the queen on, then?” he asks, whenever Tibarn preens at the prospect.

And that’s a question easily answered. Tibarn has considered challenging her for her role, but never gone through with it. The Queen far surpasses him; he knows it just by watching as she stretches her graying wings. Every movement is calculated and bursting with strength. She could capture bears like mice.

Tibarn figures he’ll know when he’s ready. Being the Protector of Hawks means a lot more than just willpower and muscle; and if he can’t feel confident he’ll win against the strongest of his own, how could he hope to stand against those from other nations? Say he’d win, through luck or through tenacity; a weak Protector would only bring disaster. He needs to be the strongest he’ll ever be before a Royal Challenge is even on the table.

 

So Tibarn enjoys his life as it is. Most of it is time spent alone on the ocean, the most merciless place he knows. Dark brown feathers dotted by seafoam green rains off his thick coat when the storms come, or floats away after a risky dive. Ancient gods use everything they have to tear the wings off his back. It fits him just fine. Let the gods try. Neither winds nor waves nor time can dent the force of nature that is his beating heart. He’s the master of these waters.

 

Tibarn has seen many, many beorc ships in his days. From afar, he has taken a certain interest in the cleverness of their design. Beorc, he knows, take what they lack and try to replace it or emulate it. They build ships to cross the ocean, their sails stretched wide like the wings they’re born without. They refine and sharpen iron to create swords and uses them to put claws in their soft palms.

If their stubbornness is weakness or strength, Tibarn cannot decide. He’s taught to stay clear of beorc, either way. Beorc may be strange, but according to queen Ylva, they do not lack honor. As long as they’re not provoked, they will not turn aggressive. Peace between laguz and beorc has lasted for many a hundred years.

 

It’s a murky, cloudy day when Tibarn decides he’s spent enough time in southern waters. Two weeks usually leaves his stash nearly full, but there’s some room yet, so he passes by the eastern sea for a day or two before his planned return to Phoenicis.

He rarely sees any other hawk. It depends on where it strikes his fancy to go – if he flies to the eastern ocean, he’s close enough to the Kilvas kingdom to spot the hunters and traders and messengers that swish past high above him, but even that is an occasional sight. He sees more beorc ships than fellow laguz. Beorc lives off the ocean as well, and the horizon is often dotted by small fishing boats.

One of the ships is larger today than usual. Perhaps they’re merchants on their way to Kilvas. Nothing strange about that, but they’re a noisy bunch.

Tibarn keeps his eye on them and stays low. He has developed a gut feeling for when it’s better to stay back; observing in silence is a strength of the hawks – they’d technically make great spies, although if a spy network exists it’s probably a well-kept secret by the queen.

In his peripheral vision, he spots another hawk. A young fellow with dark brown wings that speeds over the skies with a pinpointed focus toward the east. Tibarn supposes the little hawk is a messenger of sorts, travelling between Phoenicis and Kilvas. Someone like that sees more beorc ships than most, so he pays no heed to the noisy merchant ship. He’s a small and fast one, for sure; but that is not enough to dodge the array of arrows and vengeful laughter from below.

 

In all his years, Tibarn has never seen such a thing. The projectiles dig into unsuspecting wings, and Tibarn hears his cry of fear and pain. There’s a shimmer of deep black swirls as the hawk shifts, unable to uphold his laguz form. The wings on his beorc form does not carry him, either. The small figure plummets beneath the waves. Tibarn cannot see if he comes back up.

Tibarn is far from a child, but rarely has he ever felt fury. Indignation, annoyance, hissing anger – those were all different from the cold that spreads from his bones and straight into his heart. He can no longer feel it beating.

The beorc would so dare—! They’d aimed to kill a passerby that paid them no mind. And no doubt about its killing intent; arrows are a terror spoken of to frighten young bird tribe children, to warn them of the dangers out in the world. An arrow cannot be intimidated, and it will find the hearts of even the strongest of birds. They’re a death-sentence of beorc design.

An arrow-rain like that would undoubtedly harm Tibarn as well. If the beorc on that ship sees him, he will not fare much better than the young messenger. Tibarn knows this, and thus far the waves conceal him; it is possible for him to turn back to Phoenicis without risk of being spotted.

It is a thought that he acknowledges for a brief second, but by that time he has already begun his ascension from the waves.

The tips of his wings touch the icy surface, the droplets spray behind him with each beat. He is the master of these waters, and he fears no beorc. He cannot turn his back while one of his kind suffers mortal peril.

 

He circles below the keel of the beorc ship, and the loud crew does not notice him. Although another beorc boat is not far away, almost right by where the young hawk must have crashed beneath the surface. It will be harder not to be spotted by that crew, but that’s none of Tibarn’s concern. It's a ship with a lone sail where one man sits alone. He’ll be easily dealt with if necessary.

The fisherman barely notices him either. He’s busy stretching a hook into the water. He pulls something dark and slack over the railing, with drenched feathers that the ocean unwillingly releases. It’s the fallen hawk.

This must be a man cooperating with those in the big ship; one who will cut off the wings of the fallen and sell them for gold—

Tibarn shifts the same moment as he lands. The impact rocks the boat so much, it nearly sinks.

The little fisherman, old and worn, holds a knife in his right hand. Tibarn knows all too well what a knife is – and he storms forth, every step rocking the boat further.

“You’d dare use your pretense at claws to harm my friend”, Tibarn rumbles, ready to tear the head off his shoulders. Even though Tibarn doesn’t technically know this hawk, he is of his people, and thus a friend.

The little man stammers, drops the knife and cowers. “No sir, absolutely not sir— See them cold wet clothes, gotta cut them off so he don’t freeze to death, sir— it’s how we do a freezing human good—I’m just a fisherman tryin’ ta help, sir!”

Tibarn does not listen, and he would have strangled the man if his foot hadn’t cracked the broken end of an arrow-shaft. He looks down at that, and sees the man’s left hand pressing a cloth against the gushing injury between the hawk’s ribs.

Tibarn has never killed anyone before, and his sudden lust to do so leaves with the gust of a new wind.

It is the first time he sees a beorc up close, and is struck just by how odd and pathetic he looks. Yet he’d use his little fishing hook to go out of his way to help a stranger, and a laguz at that.

Tibarn leans away, no longer towering over the fisherman, and drops his stack of fish tied behind his back down on the boat floor.

“Take these”, he gruffs. “I can’t carry both.”

He does not say thank you. He does not think to do so until he is halfway on the way back to Phoenicis, with the young hawk barely breathing against his shoulders, and by then, it is far too late.

 

---

 

The young hawk awakens while Tibarn is still on the island. He’d left him in the ward for reckless children, since those healers had the most experience with trauma. But arrows – none of them have ever healed such injuries before.

The queen is notified, of course. Tibarn personally makes sure.

She stares right through him, as if he’s invisible, and slams her fist into the closest cave wall. Powdered pebbles rains down as her chest heaves.

It doesn’t matter if this aggression was random or circumstantial. The hawks’ way of life will change. With one boerc ship bold enough to act, what’s to say others will not follow?

 

The healers say there isn’t much hope of survival for the young, arrow-pierced hawk. Everyone is assembled in the main cave to be informed of the crisis. There are sobs and murmurs, and the queen stands at the center with a deep scowl.

Tibarn looks toward Janaff beside him. He strokes his chin – thoughtful, but not afraid – and looks back on Tibarn. Then, he gives a slight smile.

“Your scowl looks exactly the same as the queen’s”, he says quietly. “For a second I thought it was you standing in that center. And honestly, that made me feel really safe.”

Tibarn looks away and does not answer. He still smells like fresh blood and seawater, and he cannot forget the depth of an arrow’s penetration through skin and feathers. He’s so sure that he wasn’t able to save the young hawk, and it weighs on him.

 

It turns out the healers were wrong in their judgement; four days pass, and the young hawk still lives. He was sturdy enough to survive the first hits, and he’s clearly strong enough to survive the aftermath, too.

Once he’s well enough, the young hawk asks to see Tibarn. Tibarn would have visited him either way before his return to the ocean, so that fits him just fine.

He enters the ward, where a pair of twins without each of their front teeth peek up from their beds and stare at him with wide eyes. A tiny girl rests her wings in a corner, and she doesn’t stop staring, either.

Right in the middle of the hall, in one of the beds stuffed with dried heather, the young hawk sits upright. A victim of at least three arrows to the chest and wings, he’s pretty patched up, but he breathes.

He scowls at Tibarn as he closes in. He has an angry aura about him, as if he’s displeased with being disturbed. Tibarn arcs a brow back at him, wondering why the hawk had asked of him to come if all he was going to do was look angry about it.

“I hope living is treating you well”, Tibarn greets him, and realizes what a weird greeting it is – most people would settle for a ‘hello’. Janaff’s constant quips must be rubbing off on him.

The young hawk smiles, yet the scowl remains. Maybe he isn’t displeased at all. Could have fooled anyone with his entire expression sharp as talons. There is no softness anywhere – even his smile is pointed, although it is not unkind. Tibarn guesses this hawk can’t avoid looking intimidating even if he tries. The opposite of Janaff who couldn’t intimidate anyone even if his life depended on it.

“Living is good, yes”, the young hawk greets him back. Tibarn waits for him to continue. He doesn’t.

“Glad to hear it”, Tibarn continues awkwardly, rubbing his chin. “Well, that’s some bad luck, running into the first beorc hostility in a century, young hawk.”

“It’s Ulki“, the young hawk introduces himself. He pauses again, but before it turns awkward, he clears his throat and continues; “I think, for what it is worth, my luck wasn’t all bad. Considering that one out of two possible hawks capable of carrying me through ocean winds was right there when it happened.”

Tibarn needs no prompting to understand that he speaks of the queen, and to once again be placed as her equal in the same sentence makes his thoughts abruptly stop.

“I hardly noticed your weight”, he admits. “A frail old beorc managed to hurl you out of the water – I can’t see how me carrying you is an impressive feat.”

It could have been considered offensive to call Ulki a lightweight – Tibarn wasn’t very good at determining when he was boastful and when he was honest, because the two were usually very closely connected – but Ulki only chuckles quietly.

“You’re the one that brought a whale from a fishing trip, I assume?”

“A small one”, Tibarn corrects him.

“A small one”, Ulki repeats, clearly still amused. “Well, that certainly sparked some attention, but… After this, I know your name, Tibarn, despite you never making my acquaintance – and many others do, too.”

Ulki makes a slight nod toward the rest of the room, and Tibarn looks over his shoulder. The twins and the resting girl are still all looking at him, and not in the usual ‘that’s a big bird’-way, but in a ‘I know him!’-way. It’s not unfamiliar, but this time it feels different.

He makes sure to stand as straight and proud as he can, just like the queen does, and crosses his arms. “You have a funny way of saying thank you.”

“I owe you a life’s debt”, Ulki says. “A simple thank you wouldn’t be enough.”

“I don’t know what to do with a life’s debt”, Tibarn answers honestly. “I’m just a fisher.”

Ulki looks around the room and smiles again. “Times are changing with the beorc. It might be time for the hawks to change as well.”

Tibarn’s wings itch. For the first time in his life, he feels truly ready. And as if Ulki can read exactly what is going on in his mind, he says; “Maybe it’s time to step aside and let others make a career in fishing?”

 

---

 

Tibarn is not yet thirty years old, yet here he stands in the fire-lit pit at the top of the lowest spiral mountain.

This natural tower has the widest open surface on the island, and it is at least vaguely flat. There’s enough room for the entire elderly population of Phoenicis to sit at a safe distance, while the rest of Phoenicis hover in the skies above.

The Royal Challenge is a spectacle everyone wishes to see. A spectacle meant for two veterans to battle until one stand victorious. The challenge will show the entire tribe who is capable enough for them to call protector. Who they shall turn to in times of need, whom to entrust their survival and legacy.

The queen is two-hundred-and-four years old. Soon one of the elderly herself, but someone has yet to challenge her in Tibarn’s whole lifetime. Perhaps that is why she humors him, and accepts his challenge with grace – she is required to, after all. But at least she has the good nature not to laugh in his face, which he’d almost expected her to do. He’s a hatchling in her eyes.

Standing face to face with her though, perhaps they are equals. Her arms and legs look like they could hurl boulders with ease, her wings capable of splitting skulls; but Tibarn’s are the same.

“Who stands before me?” she shouts, as procedure goes. Her voice is a roar, overpowering the howl of the clashing waves.

“Tibarn”, he introduces himself, his voice a match to hers. “A fisher, and soon a King!”

The Queen scoffs and grins at him. “I hope you have a cold fish ready to put on your bruises once I’m done with your face, youngling. I will not show compassion.”

“I’d be disappointed if you did”, Tibarn answers, and transforms.

The Queen has fought before. Tibarn really hasn’t, but he’s fit to be protector. He’s known this since before he can remember. He wants this, not for himself, but for each pair of wings surrounding the spectacle, stained with saltwater and fueled by endless bravery. He loves every single one of them, and he’ll die to see them safe, without a moment’s hesitation.

The queen’s beak is on his neck almost immediately, but Tibarn is ready for her. He throws his head into hers and nabs at her wing. She backs off.

She’s testing him. Her eyes keenly follow him as he moves closer with a jab of his talons. She dodges and the next thing he knows, her wings smash into him before he can lift his own to defend himself.

Dazed, he attempts to fly, the natural thing to do. But of course she expects that, and plunges on top of him, pinning him to the ground with ease. Her talons dig deep into his face.

He doesn’t cry from the pain. Rather, it spurs him on. He’s known the pain of falling, of climbing and of cruel and vain ocean gods, of winter storms – he’s the master of these waters. No one else.

He shifts back into his beorc form. He’s but a tiny rabbit beneath her talons, and she bends down.

“Is that a surrender?” she asks, pleased.

Tibarn cannot see that well with blood seeping into his left eye, but he hears the sweep of shock through the crowd as his left fist connects with her beak.

His beorc form is not weak, and she learns that too late. She hisses and pins his left arm, but then his right fly right into her eye, and she reins back with a cry.

Tibarn takes the chance without a moment’s hesitation. He plunges onto her head-on, transforming mid-jump. The impact is that of a rolling boulder. His talons tear into her wing, drawing blood.

She can’t hold him back, and falls sprawled on her back. Her talons do not reach him, her beak can’t touch him, so she uses her wings to fight him. There’s a ringing in his head from the repeated assault, but he does not let go. Instead, he meets her directly and manages to dig his beak into her free wing.

Neither of them can move like this. A battle of strength becomes a battle of stamina – and that is one where Tibarn excels. Days, weeks, out on the ocean without the option of resting his wings have more than prepared him for a few minutes of struggling against a giant.

The blood in his face nearly blinds him, but he can sense when his victory has come. The Queen goes slack, her chest heaving and her red eye peering back at Tibarn.

“A good fight”, she says, and despite her injuries, she sounds just as powerful as ever. “But it is over. I yield.”

Tibarn releases her, backing off with a bow of his head. He sees the rest of the hawks mimic him – she may have lost, but she is an excellent warrior worthy of their respect, now and until the day she dies.

The queen transforms to her beorc form, still with heaving breaths, and she covers a gash in her arm.

“He who stands before me is a worthy heir.” Her voice is one with the waves against the cliffs. “Tibarn of Phoenicis will stand as your protector. Behold, your King!”