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King of the Sky

Chapter Text

Papers and parchment are scarce in the spiral mountain kingdom of Phoenicis.

History is instead told through stories, performed with the endless ocean as its backdrop, and through carvings on the walls of isolated halls.

There, deep inside the natural caves, the legends of King Hols are told, of how his mighty wings carried both Raven and Hawk across the Begnion sea, to unite them far from the influence of beorc, or ‘humans’ as the beorc arrogantly call themselves. Those images of victory and grandeur surround the walls, but the ceilings tell a different story. They’re filled with carvings that depict a failure that should never be forgotten – the splitting of the two bird tribes.

In modern days, most Hawks think of the split as a feat rather than a failure. Good riddance, not having treacherous Ravens around. However, the tears on the ancient Hawk Queen Arva’s carving shows what a tragedy it must have been, some six hundred years ago.

Those very deepest caves are where the Hawk Children are born. Or hatched. To the shapeshifting Hawks, such a distinction doesn’t matter, and asking about the exact procedure would be terribly rude. And there aren’t many who have either the opportunity or courage to be rude to a Hawk.

As it happened for Tibarn, one of the Hawk Children being born-hatched on a stormy winter evening, there weren’t many other places for him to be.

The tears of Hawk Queen Arva are the first thing he sees. Surrounded by the humidity of a cave and the warmth of feathers, he doesn’t look much farther than the faces of his parents and the beak that nibbles his neck-feathers, but he possesses the sharp senses of a bird laguz already, and the entire cave is within his vision. The complete history of Hawks, told to him within his first seconds in this life. Not that he understands much of it, but he sees it, and a part of him will always remember.

 

To grow up on an isolated island, surrounded by few peers of similar age, a certain amount of adjustments are needed for the hawk children, compared to outsiders. The most glaring example is how the few hawk healers that exist on the island has an entire ward reserved for careless youth.

Children, by their very nature, are explorers, and hawk children are no exception. They’re defined by their exploration of personal limits, of finding the right form to crawl through tight spaces and the right form to spiral down toward the waves without crashing impact (to varying degrees of success). The Youth Ward changes patients every day, and most patients walk out with a grin and a ‘Thanks, I’ll be back!

It would be a nightmare to every other parent on the continent, but Tibarn’s parents never worried much. As both of them are quite frail and easy-minded (by Hawk standards, which is to say, not very frail and easy-minded at all), they didn’t follow their son on any of his wild escapades. Though perhaps that was more Tibarn’s fault – he was certainly one of the most eager explorers.

But he doesn’t throw himself off the edges of cliffs all day. The world of Phoenicis is a rich one, despite the blank exterior of mountains dotted by black caves; there’s a lot of time for a hawk child to simply sit and watch as the wonders of the world is brought to their homes. The Fishers bring fish, sparking color in between their talons, and the Fishers themselves glitter from the myriad of saltwater droplets over their body. The Hunters return from the horizon with prey that does not interest the ravens over on their islands, with bloodstained hands and proud grins. And sometimes, those who call themselves Merchants appear after mingling with the people beyond Phoenicis borders. The Merchants certainly are a favorite, with all their beorc oddities that adorns their feathers for every child to gawk at.

The hawks usually only trade with the ravens, and the ravens, in turn, trade with the beorc. Hawks and beorc rarely communicate directly, only when they absolutely have to.  Which is to say, on particularly cold winters.

Fabric is the most valuable thing imaginable to the kingdom of Phoenicis, because the bare-boned landscape does not offer many means for the hawks to create their own. If it were only a luxury item, it’d be different, but fabrics are crucial for survival. When the hawks take to their featherless forms, they become just as sensitive to the cold as the beorc they look so similar to. Granted, they still have their large wings protruding from their backs, and it makes for a good windshield, if anything – but that isn’t enough.

Thus, the Merchant trade is regarded very highly. In general, hawks have very little care for the concept of gold (which is theorized to be the main cause for the split between them and the ravens, who are quite fond of it). Only the Merchants and the current Hawk Regent ever deepened their knowledge of financial rules. Food didn’t cost anything, after all. Neither did living in their own cave. It was only to the markets that the ordinary hawk families brought their spare coins. And even if they didn’t have any coins that year, they still brought their families, because wandering the markets was a joy whether they bought something or not.

 

When Tibarn is ten years old, he’s way taller than the three other Hawk Children his age, and the winter is a cold one. The winds are never warm on Phoenicis no matter the season, but with winter’s angry howls, the waves scale the cliffs all the way to the top of the lowest mountains. And that cools everything down.

Those two facts added to the one fact that Tibarn needed something new to keep him warm in his beorc form. Staying in his hawk form to keep warm could have been an option, if nature was different, but no laguz can stay shifted in any shape for too long – a few days is fine, but for an entire season? The itch to change form would be unbearable.

Currently, Tibarn walks with bare feet and gray pants that are too small, and no shirt to speak of except if he wrapped his wings around himself like a coat – which did a number on his balance and he wasn’t overly fond of tripping and falling on his face. His mother calls him proud, but in Tibarn’s own mind it was more about keeping his face unscarred and less about pride.

Either way, the market is coming up. And Tibarn’s family have some gold to spend on it, this year.

 

The Queen Ylva has the power to have the markets come to her first, but since the wares she’d be interested in is beyond anything a common Hawk could ever afford, there’s no point in pushing her people out of the way. There are undoubtfully some perks with being the Royal Protector of the Hawks, but at her core Ylva is Hawk first and Queen second. She walks among her people with worn shoes, scarred arms and a scowling face – and where she is, there is order. Where she is, there is safety from beorc and ravens and all other who would try to scam them, use them, or hang their wings on their walls.

Only the strongest Hawks could ever become a regent and Protector. Clever hawks and empathic hawks and artistic hawks and diplomatic hawks are there to back the regent up, should they lack in any of those aspects; but what makes a leader is their muscle, and their ability to crack enemy necks. That’s just the way of things, on Phoenicis.

 

Tibarn’s father is the one taking him to the market in one of the high caves. They use their laguz form to fight the wind, but as soon as they get inside they shift back into the beorc shape. There’s no point in trying out clothes without the form that needs them.

There are three stalls, and maybe forty whole people, inside the cave. That’s a lot on both accounts. Most fabrics could be gone already, but no hawk would ever purchase anything more than they need (why would one doom another to freezing for such a frivolous reason?) so there was still hope for Tibarn.

A parent with their fresh hatchling moves out of the way, having purchased a gray blanket to wrap their child in. The hatchling stares at Tibarn with wide eyes, looking as innocent as only a hatchling can, then proceeds to sneeze on him just as they pass each other by.

Tibarn doesn’t fault them for it, it is a cold winter. And he thinks, if there aren’t enough fabrics to go around, then he supposes he can manage without; he’s far bulkier than a hatchling, after all. It could be either selflessness or boastfulness that makes him think that, but he doesn’t care for the difference.

The market stall they stop by is low enough for Tibarn to rest his arms on if he stands on tiptoes. So naturally, he does.

His father lifts a scarf, a red one with black stripes, big enough to cover Tibarn head to toe, and for a moment he watches it with wonder—but that’s how long it manages to capture his attention, before he sees the coat that was hidden behind it.

Tibarn has seen green before – the trees are painted with green inside the carved caves, and there are some spruces sticking out from the harsh mountains every so often – but never like this. This is a radiant green, bright enough to shine, and dark enough to seethe a sense of power and might. It is a green that feels alive, and Tibarn loves it. Such a rare thing.

The merchant is amused by his awe, and leans over the table too. There are specks of blue in his light brown feathers.

“Be a careful lad”, the merchant grins. “This coat is worth more than twice your weight in silvers.”

“I like it”, Tibarn admits, blunt as he is.

The merchant only laughs. “I’m sure you do! I’m sure you do! But you need to become a king before you could wear something like this, little guy.”

Tibarn is not used to either being laughed at or being called little, so his only idea of what to say and do is to stand on tiptoes even higher, look the merchant in the eye and say; “Then watch me.”

 

The scarf means Tibarn’s family has to part will all their savings. But it seems a reasonable investment, his father says, considering that it is a very big scarf and that Tibarn will likely keep on growing. And, when the cold night creeps upon them, they can roost beneath it, all three of them, for an extra level of warmth. All in all, a good piece of fabric. And it is Tibarn’s.

He wears it over his neck and shoulders, and it is thus no longer too cold for him to fly in his beorc form outside, not even in a snowstorm. His wings are strong enough to fight the turbulence, his skin hard enough to not feel the sting of icy rain.

So obviously, he has to try it out.

After seeing his father home, he immediately throws himself of the cliff again. Hurricane winds roar at him, and it is almost completely dark, even though it’s daytime. Doesn’t stop Tibarn, though.

He flies, up, up and up. Higher than he’d ever been, on the spiral tops without caves. Where no one lives, where there’s no protection.

He almost smashes his face right into the rocky top when he tries to land, but he manages to put his bare feet down and not slip. He smiles. He’s never been here before, and he thinks for a moment that probably no-one ever has, but that illusion is soon shattered.

Someone with very light brown feathers comes to join him. While this stranger is in hawk form, there is no way to hide the confused scowl he gives Tibarn.

The stranger lands beside him, fluffing his feathers against the wind, before he seems to decide to meet Tibarn in a more polite way – by shifting into beorc form, too. In a way, that is the laguz way to say ‘I pose no threat’, but some laguz shift to beorc form in order to yell more effectively or to pull at someone’s feathers—hawk etiquette is not that simple.

But this hawk looks like he’s not keen on the latter. He’s not far away from the age of thirty, by the looks of him. Which is still young, by hawk standards, but enough to be considered an adult. He has a relaxed face, and it makes him seem a bit childlike. He was kind of intimidating in his bird form, but like this, Tibarn doubts he could look very alarming even if he tried.

“This is a hangout for the big kids”, the stranger says, and something in his voice immediately tells Tibarn that he’s joking.

“I am one”, Tibarn answers, and tilts his head.

The stranger puts his hands up to protect his face from a gust wind that sprays salt water into his face, even though they’re hundreds of wingbeats up in the air.

“You gotta be, I suppose”, he says, wiping his eyes with a wet sleeve. “Fighting the storm takes skill, and here I thought I was special for going up here in winter. But you’re just an overgrown hatchling and got me beat.”

Tibarn squints against the wind, and holds his new cloth tightly wrapped around himself.

“I didn’t go up here because it was too cold for me before”, he says. “But I have more clothes, now, so I thought I’d try it.”

“Oh, nice one”, the stranger nods at him and pulls at his own shirt; also red, but a dimmer kind than Tibarn’s new scarf. “I got this shirt for myself last year. Pure wool, incredible insulation, can recommend.” Then he pauses, and frowns. “Wait. We don’t use clothes when… You mean you flew up here in beorc form?”

“Yes”, Tibarn answers simply. “It wouldn’t be much sport in a transformed state.”

The stranger laughs nervously, then frowns as Tibarn doesn’t laugh with him

“Hold on—“ He lifts a finger, and points it as Tibarn. “You’re serious.”

Tibarn gives him a half shrug. He really can’t see the issue. He’d just been enjoying himself.

“Listen kiddo”, the stranger says with narrow eyes. “I flew up here because my friends betted that I couldn’t do it because no one would be mad enough, and I said I’d prove them wrong—but then you’re here! How old are you? Ten?”

Tibarn squints at him. He doesn’t see what his age has to do with it, but he knows the weight of pride, and this stranger has clearly had his wounded.

The stranger massages his temples, staring down into the screaming void of a winter storm. “Doesn’t matter”, he mumbles. “Honestly, now I’m just concerned with how I should even get back down—“

“I could help, maybe”, Tibarn offers.

The stranger stops, then glares at him with an annoyed squint. “An arrogant fella, aren’t you?”

“Maybe”, Tibarn says, because he’s not sure what that word means, so instead he continues in an attempt to explain; “I’m going to be king, you see. I decided that, today.”

The stranger only blinks, mouth agape, before he pulls his hands through his hair with an exasperated sigh.

“Okay, sure, that makes sense— I mean, you’d better, otherwise my friends will laugh at me for life for being bested by a tiny baby, you hear me? For life!”

He sighs again, then lies down on his back with a defeated sort of ‘oof’.

“Sounds like you should find better friends”, Tibarn says.

“Now you give advice too”, the stranger chuckles to himself. ”You sure are a funny kid. I am Janaff, by the way. You?”

“Tibarn”, he answers.

Janaff gives a series of slow nods, staring out into the stormy evening. As if he’s thinking deeply. Tibarn doesn’t interrupt him, but then he suddenly sits back up.

“Alright then!” Janaff says and rests his hands in his lap, the way adults do when they try to be serious. “Ahem—Tibarn, you’re clearly a wild little bird. I used to be, too, and it almost got me killed a few times. To be fair, I never really stopped doing dumb things, so, uh… Since we’re both here, surrounded by plunges to the death and massacring winds on this lovely day, I could share some of my elder wisdom.”

Tibarn shrugs, trying to say ‘go for it’. He likes lectures that he can apply to real life, but he’s not sure how to respond, here.

“Don’t try to pinch the Queen’s feathers”, Janaff begins. “Even if your friends dare you to. Don’t try to swallow an entire salmon in beorc form, even if your friends tell you to. Don’t tie your wings to your face and attempt to flap them by opening and closing your beak, even if your friends want you to—“ He stops, once again. “…Wait. Now that I list things, I think you got a point about finding better friends. Well, damn.”

Tibarn did have a list on what things he shouldn’t do, because he might be reckless but he isn’t stupid, and he adds every single one of Janaff’s suggestions to the ‘never do’-list. In a way, he’s tempted to, but he notices Janaff has a scar running from beneath his chin and all the way up to his cheek, which could be a result of any of the above. The look of someone who has almost-died.

“You know”, Janaff continues, “if your parents aren’t able to keep up with you—goodness knows mine weren’t—maybe I could help. If you’re serious about the king-thing – which you’d better be, lest I become a laughing stock; then you might need a bit of guidance from someone who’s got the experience. Like a coach, you know? Honestly, it’s because now that I know about this completely mad little kid, I can’t with a good conscience turn away and just let you die of some reckless bravado.”

Janaff pauses, and rests his head in his hand with a grin at Tibarn. “Let’s be real, though. It’s also because I’m stalling. Because I’m really not looking forward to going back down.”

Chapter Text

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!”

Chapter Text

Tibarn inherits his leadership at a special time indeed. Chaos cracks out of its shell like an overeager hatchling following the attack on Ulki, and the risk steadily grows worse.

Not two days pass after the necklace of the Protector is displayed on Tibarn’s chest before three other hawks return with arrows in their tailfeathers. Fishers, hunters, messengers and merchants all live dangerously and the old queen Ylva immediately takes on the duties of a rescuer and patroller, not a single day without her escorting the injured home.

“I quite enjoy the leisure of retirement”, the old queen Ylva says to Tibarn during his first week as king. She isn’t a jester by nature, but that time she smiles at him and rolls her shoulders, cracking both joints and jokes. “And that scar of yours goes well with the Protector’s necklace! I’ve got to say I did well on that one. Pity I didn’t manage to claw your eye out, an eyepatch would’ve boosted your image even more.”

Tibarn only laughs with her, but his mother passes them by and gives Ylva quite a frown.

“Really, Ylva”, she scolds. “Was scarring my boy necessary?”

As he senses her will to do so, Tibarn leans down to let her touch his face and the fresh scarring over his cheek. But he holds no pity for himself; it is an injury to be immensely proud of, so he merely smiles at her.

“It isn’t a real fight unless it marks you, mother.”

“Right he is!” Ylva grins. “Trust me, Antinhe, it’ll work in his favor. Anything to intimidate the raven court is an advantage.”

Her grin fades after that, as though sorting through a number of unpleasant memories. “A tip, young kingling”, she says with a serious frown. “Put off meeting with them for as long as possible. Ravens are a nasty business.”

 

Tibarn heeds her advice. For the years to come, he has enough with just Phoenicis. As much as he wishes to, Tibarn cannot be everywhere at once. Responsibility shouldered, he tries his best to be, but there comes a day when he cannot continue putting out fires without knowing their source. Beorc are unpredictable, but he cannot shake the feeling that there must be a reason for their continued aggression.

The hawks have done nothing to deserve it, that he knows. Ravens are a different matter. When he was young Tibarn had never reflected much on the messengers brought home from Kilvas, but now he realizes the stiffness and distance in their words. Like they’ve always hiding something from them.

He needs to know more than they let him. He asks every merchant and messenger to perk their eyes and ears for every little detail and report back to him or his trusted advisors (which to Janaff’s delight means Janaff—and also Ulki and a dozen others, but none other take more pride in it than Janaff does).

It is an attempt to gain control, but a failed one. With inexperienced eyes and minds, the numerous reports become a web of conflicting and useless information impossible to make distinct from relevant facts.

 

And so Tibarn decides to take the shark by the fin, and finally visit the raven court for himself. He understands the old queen's reluctance - theirs is a king of a small statue and little prowess, but he boasts a crafty mind. Tibarn meets this king in person for the first time in a lofty white mansion adapted to laguz and beorc alike, and he does not like him very much.

“How nice of you to visit, Hawk Protector”, Raven King Naesala smiles at him. “Is this to make your title known to us? Because if so, you are… what is it… five years late? Or seven? I’d heard you’ve had one of your rites of violence, but time flies. Much unlike your brethren, who doesn’t fly much at all. It's very peaceful without that many of you hawks around, I’ll admit.”

Raven ceremony is fundamentally different from hawk culture, and while Tibarn knows this and knows it well, the feigned smiles and pretense through politeness make his skin crawl. This is not a dance he wants to partake in for longer than necessary. He narrows his eyes and cuts right to the point.

”I’ve come to speak with you about the beorc.”

“Blunt and vague at the same time”, Naesala nods disapprovingly. “You’re just like your predecessor, unfortunately. Is she dead?”

“She’s alive enough to haul arrow-pierced hawks out of the ocean”, Tibarn answers without batting an eye. “In not but a few years hawks become beorc targets. I’ve heard witnesses speak of ravens meeting the same fate, is that not so?”

“Oh, indeed”, Naesala agrees, leaning lazily on his wooden throne. “Some losses, some gains. The humans have periods like these, especially when they switch regency. Isn’t that right, Naeluchi?”

Naeluchi, a raven by Naesala’s side with such a shriveled face he had to be over four hundred years old, nods slowly. “That is correct, my lord. Last time was during your mother’s rule.”

Naesala smiles in a way that seems designed to scorn everything around him. “See? There you go, King.”

The dismissal is loud and clear. Tibarn knows he is not welcome, but even if he’s uncomfortable in this adorned hall, he will not leave until he has the answers he needs.

“It is to expect when you meld with humans”, he says, resting his hand on his hip and lifting his chin. “But we stay out of their business. They have no reason to attack us. What did you do to make it so? Have you angered them enough to target all bird laguz?”

“Oh, that’s fresh”, Naesala grunts. “It’s our fault, is it? When in doubt, always blame the Ravens? Mmmm, old hawk-spite on a lovely morning… Just what I needed.”

“We cannot uphold our trade if this continues”, Tibarn says. “I demand you take this seriously.”

“Sounds to me like a loss on your part and not on mine”, Naesala answers simply.  “Now scurry on back off home. Time is gold, and you’re wasting mine.”

 

---

 

Evidently, Tibarn cannot rely on the ravens for answers. To gather the information he needs, he must go to the realm of the beorc himself.

The world of beorc is a bustling and intense one, and while small, they’re dangerous in numbers. That is why, when he now walks among them, Tibarn has to look as little like a laguz as possible. Shifting is out of the question, and he keeps the feathered necklace that is a hawk protector’s crown in his pocket. He wears a white pair of pants with his old scarf as a belt. His feet are still bare, but it does not matter much in the lush green landscape of Begnion. It is rare for Tibarn to feel grass bend beneath his steps, and he enjoys it. Something he does not enjoy is the cloak. It is meant to cover the wings and pointed ears that sets him apart in his beorc form, and he feels trapped.

Janaff is far more comfortable, probably because he’s small and the beorc designs fit him better, and because he’s easily fascinated and difficult to surprise. He looks at their bridges, built over even the thinnest of creeks, and brushes his chin. He looks at their horse carriages and mutters ‘well that makes sense, I suppose’. He nabs a piece of grilled bull with slink fingers, and tastes it.

“Mm, like a very fat seagull”, he hums with that ever-present fascination. “I urge you to try, your kingliness.”

Tibarn is not one to step down from a dare, but he at least has the decency to buy a piece rather than steal it. He finishes it all in one bite (after Ulki declines a taste) and isn’t overly impressed.

“The spices are unnecessary”, he says. “I am not fond of it.”

Janaff jabs him in the abdomen with an elbow and laughs. “You don’t have to sell the image of a brute that hard, okay?”

Ulki is not having nearly such a good time as his friend. He frowns deeper than usual, and cringes at every other noise. A bustling city is not kind to the keen senses that got him into the role of a messenger so young. It’s a good excuse as any to not stop to rest inside the ‘inns’ as the beorc call them, but instead out in the wilderness. That’s the only place Ulki will speak even a single word - when he’s not sleeping from pure exhaustion.

“Once we get to Serenes”, Tibarn promises him, “you’ll get rest from beorc nonsense.”

“Although it’ll be replaced by heron tribe nonsense”, Janaff adds on and drums his fingers on his scarred chin. “Those guys have some tenacity, living right in the middle of beorc lands. The rest of us birds left centuries ago.”

“They couldn’t bring their forest with them, could they?” Ulki mutters, an arm covering his eyes. 

 

---

 

It is just pure luck that sets them so close when the catastrophe arrives. Tibarn had decided they should combine their exploration of beorc lands with a visit to the Herons, their kindred bird tribe, and after one month of combing through cities and listening to strange (and obviously unfounded) rumors of heron violence, they decide to cut their journey short and venture to Serenes immediately. By nightfall, they’re a mere half-hour flight away from the forest border, and since their eyes cannot pierce through the darkness, they rest as usual out in the nameless wilderness.

Ulki awakens first, and he goes so far as to kick Tibarn in the knee to rouse him.

“The screams”, he pants. “Don’t you hear them?”

Tibarn doesn’t, but he smells the smoke, and Janaff, bleary-eyed, squints toward the east.

“Fire”, he says, and that is all they need to hear.

Tibarn transforms in the same motion as he begins to run, his companions right behind him, with their sharp cries cutting through the air even as it grows thick with smog.

Not a single leaf of Serenes forest is spared from the flames. Gray shapes flap toward the skies in graceful panic, only to be shot down before they reach the crown of trees. And below them, there's a flurry of movement, like an unnatural river of steel.

Humans. Humans with arrows and torches and death.

Tibarn knows little of fear. Time and time again he's defended his hawks from human violence, and never feared for himself, nor does he now. He acts. He plunges, and his talons cut through the branches of the thickest tree. It falls and scatters the frail humans beneath.

“Tibarn!” Janaff calls from above him. “A plan!?”

Tibarn has none. Humans are dangerous because they’re many, that’s been drilled into him by the former queen time and time again; and these humans are many indeed. Like ants they scurry nimbly around the trees, their blades gleaming in the firelight. A hawk army would have picked them out like the insects they were, but three hawks? Not a chance. Yet, Tibarn is the protector – and these herons needed protection or he’d be damned, he can’t leave them—

“Just save ‘em!” he shouts in response.

There’s a heron boy in beorc form right beneath him, and contrary to the numerous corpses around him, he’s alive. He struggles against the hold of three men dragging him away. The boy’s thin, just like all herons, but he kicks and fights back enough for Tibarn to decree that he’s not too hurt. He can be saved.

Tibarn has thought of killing before, and known he had the capacity and responsibility to do so, but never had the need of it. A protector’s first duty toward potential foes coming too close is to intimidate, which is usually enough, but Tibarn has known that it wouldn't always be, that the day would come when he'd have to take a life. He's been ready for it since the moment he arose victorious from the royal challenge.

He lands on the first human beside the heron boy, and Tibarn's weight alone is enough to kill. He digs his beak into the second, the one that holds an arm across the boy’s chest and a hand pulling at his hair. Both holds are released as the man’s body falls to the ground, the blood camouflaged in the red of his armor.

The third human is dexterous and quick, and holds a knife toward the tiny heron’s chin before Tibarn can dig his talons into his face.

Tibarn doesn’t falter at the threat. He’s close enough to shift into beorc form, and as part of his wings split into arms, he grabs hold of the human’s wrist. Human bones may be sturdy, but they might as well be hollow beneath Tibarn’s grip; he snaps it without pause, and his other fist rams into the human’s helmet with the same force that staggered the very hawk queen. The noseguard of the human’s helmet is thrust into his skull, and he does not rise.

A dozen more human soldiers have spotted him, and Tibarn cannot take them all on. He knows what needs to be done.

“Retreat”, he bellows into the flames. He cannot see his hawk friends, but he knows they're out there.

He takes the heron boy’s wrists – much gentler than he’d grasped the human’s – and says; “You hold on tight.”

Then he flings him up on his back as he takes the shape of a laguz yet again. He exits the way he came, through the broken branches. Janaff and Ulki pop up from beneath the flames right behind him, each with a slack heron in their claws. Seems they weren’t lucky enough to find one mostly unharmed.

The screams do not let up. They’re all bird tribe, and they call for a protector. Yet Tibarn can salvage nothing more than the scraps of their kin. A civilization more ancient than any other burns mercilessly beneath them, and the fire does not stop spreading.

They fly until they reach their former resting place, and Tibarn lets the boy slide off him.

“Stay here”, he tells his companions, before he turns back. He cannot hear the protests of his fellow hawks. His breath is hurting his lungs, his wings are exhausted and his tongue is slick with human blood, but he will answer those calls.

He penetrates the branches anew. He kills five, then two more, before he hurries back on staggering wings carrying the only heron he's found alive.

It is no use. The girl dies in arms on the way back.

“Thank you”, she says, her voice still clear like a bell even as she presses a hand against the cut in her throat. Then her hand slides off, and she breathes no more.

She joins the thousand, and more are yet to come. When Tibarn returns to his friends, the boy is the only heron sitting upright.

“You crazy bastard”, Janaff pants as his greeting. There’s no anger, no energy behind his words. He’s simply stating a fact.

Tibarn says nothing as he puts the heron girl on the ground. It doesn’t suit her to have hands covered in blood, so Tibarn kneels beside her and dries them off with his scarf and puts them so they rest on her belly. He’s not overly familiar with the culture of Herons, but it feels like the right thing to do.

The survivors that Janaff and Ulki brought are not much better off than she is. One of them is an old man in snow-like robes, now dirtied by ash and soot. The other is a much younger one, with the shaft of a knife sticking out from beneath his sternum. He struggles to breathe. The older heron crawls toward him, wheezing but stubborn, and pats his forehead. Then he starts to sing. Shaky tones in the ancient language of herons, and the dying man lets out a sob.

“Your Majesty”, he whispers, before he joins with the trembling song.

The Herons’ magic lies in to restore, to put at peace, but there are no such things in the words now sung. This is a lament that digs into a grieving heart, a force where every syllable is painful beyond despair.

Tibarn is still kneeling. He cannot bring himself to stand, and his cheeks are wet. He pinches his nose to try and make it stop—it is not just the song, he knows, he would cry regardless, but he needs his eyes to see, he needs his head clear in case the humans find them—

A hand pats his arm. It is Janaff, his face glowing with tears of his own. While Tibarn cannot see Ulki’s face in the darkness, he knows. He puts his arm around Janaff, then Ulki next. Rests upon them, and lets them rest upon him. There is no protection against this grief; not for them, and not for him. But he’s there with them, and they with him.

The song ends, and the young heron with a knife in his chest has joined the rest in death. The old man, the Heron King himself leans above him, deep in prayer.

And the heron boy, the only one who’s unscathed, sits absolutely still. He doesn’t speak or sing.

Nor does he cry.

 

---

 

They spend their journey home terrified over the increasing exhaustion of the heron king. While the silent heron boy merely clings to their backs, the king sags in their talons. Once they reach Phoenicis, he’s far worse. He’s unable to rise from his bed, but he reaches out for the heron boy. ‘My son’, he says. ‘My son, you lived…

He doesn’t speak any further, caught in a deep sleep. The heron prince takes his hand, brings it to his forehead.

And once the heron king quiets, the prince’s silence breaks. The prince is bedridden too, as his legs do not carry him yet, but his arms have more than enough power to flail around and his voice is no stranger to shouting. He’s not easily doted on. Many try, but the result is still the same. Tibarn walks to the little healer’s room himself after the first day, to see if there’s any success in having the prince calm down.

“Get away from me!” Tibarn hears the prince hiss before he enters. “Go away, you hag!”

Antinhe, Tibarn’s old mother, is at his bedside trying to clear a rash on his throat.

“Don’t be rude to my mother”, Tibarn gruffs. Maybe not the best thing to say in greeting, all things considered, but she deserves better than that.

The prince zips as soon as he sees Tibarn, and looks away. He doesn’t say ‘sorry’, but it is as good as.

“Oh, leave him be, Tibarn”, his mother sighs. “It’s a good thing you’re here, but the boy needs none of that scary Protector-business.” She rises with a sad smile. “Let him rest, and let me talk to you.”

Tibarn has to take a knee to stand at eye-level with her, and she pats him on the cheek like she always does.

“I suggest you go out there and try to find some greens”, she says, as if sharing a secret told in utmost confidence. “This fella doesn’t eat fish, or meat, or insects. Suppose he’ll be in a better mood once he’s not starving, son.”

Tibarn arches a brow. “Greens, huh?”

The heron prince’s cheeks flush, and he tightens his fists, as if embarrassed by his nature. Tibarn has never felt the same, so he can’t say he understands, but he has been hungry. That’s a simple feeling, with a simple solution.

And that’s the way Tibarn likes it.

 

---

 

Tibarn braves the waves himself; he doesn’t trust the humans further than he can punch their teeth out, and should they lay one other finger on his people now, if a single hawk returns with an arrow in their wings, he will be unable to show restraint. He doesn’t want to send anyone outside Phoenicis, besides himself.

Alone over the waves, his thoughts catch up to him. He's not one to let things haunt him, but the cries from the herons are still fresh in his mind. The hatred of humans bleeding into the once-peaceful Serenes feels thick on his feathers. He wants them all to suffer for what they’ve done. He cares not for politics and guilt, he cares not to try and understand them anymore – every single human carries this sin, and every single human shall pay. If anyone crosses him now, he’ll drown them with his own two hands.

He spends no more than a few minutes pulling carrots from the grounds close to Begnion’s coast, and no one threatens him. There isn’t a human in sight except for a lone toddler, wandering out from a village close by. She doesn’t cross him – how could she? – but she stops and stares at him, sucking on an empty bowl.

“Cawot”, she says.

Tibarn hates her. His heart burns at the sight of her, at her carefree gaze and the memory of smoke and flames and arrows. He could stop her from growing into the rest like her kind, but killing a nestling is unheard of, protector or not.

“Uw”, she says and her brows wrinkle together into a frown of empathy. Young as she is, she still sees his grief.

He cannot harm a nestling, but he cannot stop being furious, either. He doesn’t want pity from a beorc child. He transforms and cries the loudest he can, and that sends her running back to the village with a pathetic wail of her own. Not that it makes him feel much better, but he supposes only time can do that, and he has his doubts about it ever will. 

 

---

 

The prince enters a better mood once he’s gotten a few days’ rest and a meal or two. He’s up and about, but he has yet to leave the healer’s caves. He sits with his feet over the edge of the cave and watches the hawk hatchlings as they giggle and wrestle each other in the air, hairs away from thundering into the spiky cliffs.

Tibarn supposes their hawk ways must look strange to someone so mellow, just as the heron himself looks strange shining of white and gold against the harsh, dark rocks.

While Tibarn is busier than ever, he knows he should at least try to speak to the little prince. What he survived lays heavy on him, there’s no doubt about that. So, Tibarn joins him one of the days that the prince sits on the edge. Pebbles break free beneath him and rain down into the oblivion of the ocean.

“The healers don’t use your name when they speak of you”, Tibarn greets him. “Suppose it is because you don’t have one?”

The prince gives a vague sigh and closes his eyes, angling his face toward the sun. “I have not been in the mood for talking.”

“No one blames you, kid.”

The prince frowns and glares at him. “I’m no kid”, he snarls. “I am Reyson, third prince of Serenes, and I am twenty-two.”

Tibarn would have chuckled at Reyson’s indignant tone under different circumstances, but now he only nods. “I am Tibarn, King of the Hawks, and I… am thirty-five, unless I lost track.”

Reyson frizzles a little at that. “I know who you are!” He leans his head in his hand, still frowning. “Thank you”, he adds. It sounds lackluster and tired, but Tibarn doesn’t expect him to be able to express flowery gratitude.

They’re quiet for a while after that, Tibarn only drums his fingers on his knee and watches as his people move through the skies.

“I have not been a very considerate guest”, Reyson says, finally. ”I’m sorry, Hawk King. I will better myself, I swear it. I should apologize to Her Majesty, to begin with.”

“You mean the old queen Ylva? I didn’t know she’d spoken to you, and prince or not, she would have hammered your face if you were rude to her.”

“Wh—“ Reyson lifts his head back up. “Are we talking about the same—? Your mother?”

Laughter bursts out of him before he can stop it. Loud, genuine laughter, straight from his belly. Reyson shrinks a little but looks more confused than frightened.

“My darling mother! Hah, no, Heron-prince, things work differently here!” Tibarn pats his left arm, and flexes a little, just for show. “These make you king or queen!”

Reyson looks at him with a wrinkled nose. He looks appalled, but at the same time, a tiny bit impressed.

“I… suppose that makes sense, in a place such as this. I mean no offense, but Phoenicis is no…” He gives a weak wave toward the mountains, trailing off.

“No”, Tibarn agrees, his smile melting away as he rubs his chin. “It is no Serenes.”

Reyson closes his eyes.

“Why’d they do it?” he asks through gritted teeth. “We never did… We just…”

“You just minded your business?”

Reyson nods.

“That doesn’t mean a moldy fig to them”, Tibarn scoffs, his eyes on the horizon. “They’ve been at our throats on these seas for years, now. I don’t care for their reasons, if they have any. I’ve humored them far too long… With what they did to Serenes, they’ve started a war, and they will not live long enough to regret it.”

Reyson watches him beneath a silent frown. “Will you invade them?”

Tibarn laughs, despite himself. “Hah! No, boy. We’re far too few… But we are hawks, not complacent ravens; we shall not simply stand by and tolerate human cruelty a moment longer! They have not yet known our might, as we let them cross these waters in peace, but from this day, I will personally sink every single Begnion ship in sight until they know only of terror.”

The Herons are said to be a people of peace and grace. Tibarn excepts a small nod, perhaps. Not a wide, open grin.

“And they say hawks don’t make good music.”

Chapter Text

Fishers join him. Hunters join him. Everyone with a will to use their talons stands with their king, and so the raids begin. Tibarn does not think of this as harsh. It is simple justice.

Most of the humans fight back, but their resistance means little. Sooner or later, they all sink below the railings as their masts keel over. The flag of Begnion is torn between young hawks for sport, and Tibarn joins them in their hearty laughter.

Phoenicis’ time of poverty ends, and prosperity reaches even those back on the island. One ship is loaded with leather and shoes, and an old huntress cries with joy when she finds a pair that could fit her son. The shoes are of human sizes, but a mender promises he can customize some of the leather to fit Tibarn, and he’s not one to decline such a kind offer.

Another ship carries linen and finery. Among the cargo are a few pieces of sturdy cloth in an array of colors. And one in particular catches Tibarn’s interest. He brings it with him up on deck, and waves it like a banner.

It is a coat, a very large one, and pearlescent green.

“I wanted something just like this when I was a lad!” Tibarn hollers, and his crew cheers as he cuts the back open to make room for his wings before he dons it. It is a powerful kind of green, and with the red of his scarf around his hips, he’s a figure all will see and recognize. And most importantly, fear.

 

---

 

They become known as the Shipless Pirates. It is the name the Begnion crews cry when they’re targeted, and Tibarn likes the ring of it. He would prefer Begnion’s Bane or something the like, because it is only Begnion ships that he targets. Small fishing boats, Gallian flags and Crimean flags are all off the hook.

“They have done us no ill”, the Heron King Lorazieh had pleaded with Tibarn from his sickbed. King Lorazieh acts a lot like a heron in that regard.

Reyson, on the other hand, acts the part of a hawk child with all of their recklessness and none of their bulk. And just like a hawk child, he ends up in the healer’s ward too often to count.

“I’ll go with you, one day”, Reyson occasionally says, with tight fists. “I’ll make them pay!”

“Hm”, is Tibarn’s only response every time, and it is a disapproving kind of ‘hm’.

“At least let me fly overseas and fetch my own food!” Reyson insists. “Or let me be useful and talk to the Ravens. This sitting around is… humiliating!”

“You’d have to be able to make it off the island, first”, Tibarn shrugs.

Reyson opens his mouth as to claim he already has, and Tibarn hastily adds; “In one piece, Reyson!”

And Reyson clams his mouth shut again, but not without an angry glare.

 

---

 

The years pass by, and while it comes to Tibarn’s attention that the ravens have taken the opportunity to become Shipless Pirates as well, he does not fight them over it. He’s made sure to show them he disapproves by roughing up a few ravens that targeted a ship of Crimeans, but he has no time to go out of his way to defend any nations other than his own. If the ravens breach into his territory he will kill if he has to, which he is sure they know. It has not yet come to such extremes, which is a good call on the ravens’ end.

Winter storms pass into spring rain, again and again. The heron king gets sicker, while Reyson steadily grows stronger. With twenty more years to his name, Reyson has finally been able to master the ocean winds and is able to fly back and forth between Kilvas and Phoenicis. Reyson is one of the only ones that tolerates King Naesala’s presence, since ravens had been close to herons both geographically and politically before the massacre. Although not even Reyson is very welcome in raven halls in later years, something that greatly upsets him.

“Naesala has never been anything but kind to me and my family”, Reyson says as he paces Tibarn’s halls. “Ten years ago he said he was happy I acted as the hawk-missive these days, and he told me he was interested in broadening the Phoenicis trade… And now he doesn’t even let me through the border! What’s he thinking?”

Tibarn grunts and shrugs. Naesala changes his mind with the weather, that is nothing new and it is all the same to Tibarn. With the waters safer Tibarn can send his merchants back out into the world. And having Kilvas no longer be the most viable trading option, he will not bother with Naesala’s petty schemes.

Though perhaps there is more reason behind the raven king’s choices than mere pettiness – said merchants have jokingly called themselves Phoenicis spies, and Tibarn cannot disagree. Information bleeds into his kingdom naturally, the keenness of his people working in their favor. With proper knowledge the pieces of a large puzzle fall into place, and Tibarn is a spider in the net of the world. The only one that will not yield any valid information is none other than the old Naesala himself, and the Goldoan dragons.

What he gets is still plenty. The changes in the world overseas are wilder than ever before.

War, the humans say, in every corner of the beorc world. Daein invades its neighbor Crimea and lays waste to the whole place. Tibarn cares not about that, but once Gallia, a fellow laguz nation, is invaded by the madness of Daein, he perks his ears and sharpens his talons.

 

The winds are indeed shifting. A note carried by dragon’s magic finds him even as he is out searching for Begnion ships to raid in the middle of the ocean. It sticks to his feathers and will not leave him alone until he shifts to his beorc form and tears it open.

The letters are golden, at least before saltwater sprays onto them and melts the whole thing into a soggy kind of grey. Parchment is not meant to last out in the sea, but even so, Tibarn folds what remains and sticks it inside his coat.

It is an invitation. The ancient king Dheginsea will allow him to pass over the borders to Goldoa, as part of a call for all laguz kings to assemble. For what purpose, the letter did not say, but Tibarn has a pretty good guess. The entire world is abuzz with the whispers of war, so there’s hardly any other reason for the dragons to get involved with the outside world.

Goldoa has not concerned themselves with their laguz neighbors since the beginning of history and the Great Calamity some eight hundred years back. As Tibarn turns around to return to Phoenicis, he ponders the possibility to ignore the missive and stay in his own lane, but he could not do such a thing. It is far too exciting a prospect – and in truth, stepping in place does not suit him. This is a leap, a plunge right into the action, and he is ready for it.

 

Reyson’s father has received a letter as well, which Tibarn learns once he returns home from his raid (with five leather satchels in his arms, filled with all kinds of spices). Tibarn walks to the heron kings chamber with purpose, and as he enters, Reyson is already there as well. The letter sticks to King Lorazieh’s fingers as he pulls it out to show his son, and Tibarn sees the same excitement glisten in Reyson’s eyes as Tibarn feels himself.

King Lorazieh cannot move more than three steps from his bed, and it is unspoken that Reyson will be the one to travel to the dragons in his place.

“To be granted entrance to Goldoa”, Reyson mutters as he reads the short invitation once more. “It’s been forbidden territory for almost a millenia. I can’t help but wonder what they want.” He lowers the shimmering piece of parchment, and lifts his chin. “Not that those dragons frighten me, mind you.”

“You’ve got the heart of a hawk”, Tibarn smirks at him.

Reyson scoffs back, but he does not object. He simply smiles a little bit, still with his eyes on the letter.

 

---



The dragons have chosen a desert ruin as their place to meet. The sand whirls in the wind and blends together with dropped feathers of soft black, dark brown and seafoam green. Shimmering white feathers glisten like snow as Reyson follow Tibarn and his retainers down toward the ground.

The dragon monarch Dheginsea stands in his beorc form, as does the dragon prince and the King of Lions Caineghis. Their guardians stay in a transformed state, dragons with glistering scales and tigers and cats with keen eyes – it’s a way to demonstrate power, as royalty does. Thus, Tibarn and Reyson are the only ones to shift, while Janaff and Ulki remain as they are behind them, cocking their heads and slamming their beaks.

King Naesala, however, comes alone. He seems more concerned with how the desert winds handle his hair than the show of power around him, and he stays quiet, his arms crossed while he waits.

The purpose of this gathering is evident as soon as Dheginsea speaks. It’s about the beorc war, and Tibarn will happily share what he knows – if they ask him, that is. He would rather stand and observe them all, first.

The King of Lions tell stories Tibarn already know through his spies, of the Mad King in Daein that would destroy Crimea, Gallia’s human ally, and has now turned to Gallia itself. The Lion king even calls the mad king monstrous, which is rich coming from a laguz with a mane wider than Tibarn’s shoulders.

The reasons for the mad king’s actions remain clouded, but it is no secret to any of the kings present that he seeks the last heir to the Criman throne, a young princess. And as Tibarn claims to know that her whereabouts are concealed from Daein in Begnion – because what goes around in Begnion is very much his business – Naesala finally speaks.

“Your information is dated, hawk king!” He flicks his wings and smiles the smile Tibarn knows is meant to provoke, yet it always succeeds. “Have your legendary eyes and ears abandoned you after all these years?”

Tibarn glares at him. If the Raven thinks he can provide to the conversation after years of silence, he’s welcome to try for all Tibarn cares.

“You have something you wish to say?”

“Polite as always”, Naesala chuckles. “Very well, I’ll indulge you – Princess Elincia spent two long months at sea, arriving in Begnion mere days ago, that much is correct, but what old Tibarn’s spies have apparently failed to make known, is that these events are no secret to Daein at all. The mad king has dispatched a team of hunters to make a corpse of the girl, while the attack on Gallia… Well, you harboring the princess is just an excuse for a bit of laguz-killing, I imagine. And that, dear kings, is the latest news...At least, to the best of my poor knowledge.”

“Daein knows the princess is in Begnion?” the king of lions proclaims, his mane frizzled. “King Kilvas, how did you come to possess this information?”

“Why, there's no trick to it”, Naesala shrugs. “I just perk up my ears and...point them in the right direction.”

Tibarn has had just enough of this nonsense – he’d come to discuss politics, not coddle with the veiled words of the Raven King.

“You expect us to believe that a stray wind carried it to your ears? This is an odd tale, Naesala.”

“Hmm?” Naesala hums, clearly pleased with the provocation. “Do you think so? Well, there is one trick to information gathering that I know. Shall I share it with you, bird to bird?”

Tibarn scoffs and crosses his arms. “I know your tricks, crow. If it involves dealing with human scum, I'll pass. Forgoing my laguz pride is not something I'm willing to do, unlike you.”

Naesala laughs, tensing his wings and shoulders.

“Ha!” he snarls. “Is that not always the way of Phoenicis, to cling to those last tattered remnants of pride? Instead of proclaiming that you will attack none but Begnion ships, just admit that you don't have the power to do more!”

What did you say?”

Tibarn can stand for many things, but to have a greasy raven spout ill of his nation in front of every laguz king is more than he can stomach, and Janaff and Ulki are clearly of the same mind. Their feathers on end, they merge their cries with his.

“Both of you will desist at once!” The voice of the dragon king rumbles over them. “We did not come here to listen to petty bird squabbles!”

Tibarn backs down, but Janaff’s coat remains ruffled in indignation, and Reyson has clenched his fists so tightly the skin on his knuckles looks as if it will break.

The dragon king’s harsh words are directed mostly at Naesala, which the raven takes with a bored, blank face and an empty ‘I’ll take your words to heart’. And once the dragon turns to Tibarn, his own face is just as blank.

“And you, King Phoenicis. What good will your piracy do you if it earns the wrath of Begnion? Continue at this pace, and there's no telling when the hostilities will end.”

Tibarn has never met a dragon before, but he’s somehow not at all surprised that they’re this preachy.

“Until the people of Begnion apologize for the slaughter of our kindred herons, I will do no such thing”, he answers simply.

“Prince Reyson of Serenes? Are you of the same mind?”

Reyson does not release his fists, only clenches them tighter. “Those humans burned Serenes Forest and killed my people. No amount of human blood can slake my thirst for vengeance. For my siblings, for my countrymen, I demand justice. I cannot even return my bedridden father to our forest home!  I am no soldier. I know nothing of war, so King Phoenicis acts in my stead. I am most grateful to him, and I would not see him stop until Begnion has paid.”

Tibarn cannot omit how it warms his heart, even in the midst of clashing wills, that Reyson would speak good of him. The dragon king is clearly not impressed, but the goal was not to impress, just to state the truth. “Blood leads only to blood”, he scolds them. “And violence begets violence. Nothing more. Revenge is simply another name for murder.”

The dragon king looks away, and misses how Reyson rolls his eyes to the heavens. Tibarn doesn’t.

“And you, king of lions?” he continues. “What will you do about your home of Gallia? Now that you know Daein's feint toward Gallia is merely another move in his game of war, how will you act?”

“If it's the first step towards eradicating this human scum”, Tibarn adds, “Phoenicis will help you destroy Daein.”

“No”, Caineghis says. “We will wait. Unless this becomes a true war among all nations, I want you to stay your hand. There is no need for you to get involved. As long as Gallia is protected by the sea of trees, we can stave off Daein's attacks on our own.”

Tibarn ignores the dark gaze the dragon king is giving him, and rests a hand on his hip with a lazy smile at Caineghis.

“Well”, he says. “If you change your mind, you know where to find me.”

Chapter Text

As per usual, when they return to Phoenicis, Reyson immediately begin his restless pacing. It is market day and Tibarn tries to return to his duties seamlessly, but Reyson has a harder time of letting go of their visit to Goldoa.

“Why would Naesala rile against you like that?”

Tibarn likes the idea of playing unknowing, because that is a subject he’d rather not use words to express. Though Reyson, for good and ill, lays much of his energy on getting to the bottom of things, and Tibarn knows better than to play a silent game with him.

“Naesala chooses his enemies poorly”, Tibarn states, but he does not stray his eyes away from the market – this is where his hawks gather, and he wants them to feel safe. “The old raven has not changed in all the years I’ve known him. I’m aware that he’ll wag his tongue to feel important, and he’s aware that I can punch the heart out of him if he steps out of line. I know you think of him as a friend, but I have not had that… privilege.”

Reyson sighs and fiddles with his sleeves. “I know, I know—but I still don’t understand the change he’s gone through. It did not matter where I came from before a few years ago, every time I came to visit him he’s never once been rude. To listen to him brook insults at you, insults you do not deserve— I will not stand for it!”

“You seem far more offended by this than I”, Tibarn states. Because to him, this offense is just one of many stacked onto a pile of foul-smelling bones to pick with Kilvas.

“Let me talk to him”, Reyson pleads. “If I could get him to stop being a thorn in your side… You’d have one less trouble weighing on your mind.”

Tibarn understands the restlessness, and he knows Reyson always have a pressing need to be of use despite his lack of sturdiness. There are hawks with the same build as him, but they’re also content with carving and gathering and guarding – Reyson is a prince, through and through.

And yet, the thought of him leaving on his own was not a pretty one. It’s ironic how no other place in the entire world is safe, except the gaping, cruel cliffs of Phoenicis.

“I’d rather you didn’t cross the waters on your own”, he finally answers Reyson. “Not with this unrest. I will follow the other kings’ advice, and stay out of both human and raven business for now, but that means I cannot make the waters beyond any safer. These islands are mine to protect. That includes you. If any of the human nations were to decide to turn on Kilvas or Phoenicis the way they did Serenes while you’re gone, I think you know I cannot be at two places at once.”

“But I can take care of myself in a skirmish!” Reyson’s voice carry over the market, and some hawks turn their head to look at him, before they shrug like they think ‘it’s just Reyson shouting again’ and walks on.

Tibarn does not say anything, because whatever his word choice may be in objecting to that statement Reyson would take great offense, and still not heed his advice. Better to spare them both that pain.

“It’s just the Ravens”, Reyson go on, all the more hastily like he’s trying to justify this to himself more than he’s trying to convince Tibarn. “It’ll take a day, not more!”

Tibarn looks at him sternly. “I care for your wellbeing, Reyson. Please heed me when I ask you to stay.”

Reyson does not answer, but Tibarn can see it in his eyes. Reyson is not very good at taking a ‘no’.

He knows the rules of the islands – those who want to leave can leave whenever they feel like it, and come back welcome so long as they haven’t done anything traitorous. The Protector may be called a ‘king’ or ‘queen’, but they have no right to use that power to force any hawk to obedience like the humans’ orders have it. Reyson’s an adult and can do as he wants. That’s all there is to it.

So, when the heron prince is gone the following day, Tibarn doesn’t go after him. Not that it sits right with him to know he’s probably bad-mouthing Naesala in his own home, if he hasn’t drowned on the way there – but he stands true to what he said the day before. He cannot leave his island vulnerable, at least not over this. Reyson will be back, one way or another.

But another day passes. Then another. Then a week.

Tibarn sits on the top of one of the uninhabitable spiral mountains, his feet a feather’s width from a plunge to oblivion (or ‘a minor inconvenience’, same thing, really). He watches the horizon, frustratingly unbroken. There hasn’t been a single ship in his waters, and the calm is getting on his nerves.

A pair of light brown wings flap into his vision, and he nods to acknowledge them as the approaching hawk shifts.

“You know”, Janaff greets him, “in my youth, I met such a strange little nestling right here on this spot.”

Tibarn smiles at him. “I cannot imagine who.”

“I hope that kid is doing well.” Janaff sits down. “He seems to be a little bit weighed down by a lot of things.”

“I’m not fond of being in the dark”, Tibarn admits, scratching his ear. “There’s no news, then?”

“Well…” Janaff bobs his head and bites a nail. “I have not seen anything suspicious, apart from the Kilvas manor being completely empty – and even getting a glimpse of that place is hard because some ravens don’t take it well that I’m hanging around, you know.” He shows off a fresh tear on his arm, but then snaps his fingers. “Ulki’s got some interesting tales, on the other hand. He’s caught the royal geezer, Nealuchi, whimpering and muttering to himself about Reyson, and I can confirm that the old bastard is walking on eggshells and preparing a journey. Something about that is telling both of us that the prince isn’t out on some vacation.”

Ever since the flames of Serenes, there’s been a place room for deep and complete darkness within Tibarn. Such fury is usually reserved for the humans that would raise their bows against his shipless crew, but now it spreads from the very center of him and all the way to his fingertips.

“The blasted raven knows he’s under my protection”, Tibarn says, and it comes out like a growl at the back of his throat. “I care nothing for peace if he’s harmed one of us.”

Janaff has no time for answer, before Ulki sweeps down to join them.

“Ocean scouts have spotted a raven”, he says. “A very gray one.”

Tibarn narrows his eyes. “That wouldn’t be the old geezer Naeluchi, would it? Speak of the demons, and they appear.”

Ulki doesn’t fold his wings, ready to take off again. “I believe it is him, but he’s alone. Naesala is usually with him. Maybe this is just a messenger.”

Janaff cracks his knuckles. “If he isn’t, we’ll make him one by beating answers out of him. Right, Tibarn?”

Tibarn gets to his feet. He wants to say yes, but keeps it contained. “If the royal raven nanny crosses the ocean alone, there’s clearly something he wants to tell us. But prepare for it to be a trap. Assemble all of Phoenicis to the great caves! We’ll give the old bird a welcome befit of his kind.”

 

---

 

Nealuchi is bent and crooked enough as it is, but in the halls of the hawks, he shrinks so far down he might as well be crawling on the floor.

“Is that it?” Tibarn rumbles, and there are whispers through the caves. He does not care how many of his people choose to attend this gathering; he is not one to keep secrets.

Nealuchi has only had time to gasp out a few coherent sentences, but it is enough for Tibarn. It is more than enough. Reyson is in Begnion, in the grubby hands of human scum that would dare to hold him captive—

“Wait, there's more!” Nealuchi croaks. “The prince—the prince has escaped Duke Tanas’ villa, and last I heard he’s taken refuge in Serenes—but the Duke has sent his men to fetch him back—and oh, it is a disaster, a disaster for all bird tribe… We have not a moment to waste!”

The old raven looks like nothing more than a dark puddle on the rocks at this point, but the puddle still speaks.

“Please, O king of hawks! Reach out your mighty talons, strike down these wretched humans, and rescue Prince Reyson. I implore you, Your Majesty, take wing at once!”

Tibarn has never minded flattery when such compliments are deserved and spoken by an equal, but bootlicking, he instantly realizes, is very different. And disgusting.

“If it concerns you so”, he grumbles, “why is Naesala himself not here?

“That...er... His Highness must not be seen here at this time... It's—“ The old raven yelps as Tibarn picks him up by the wings, forcing him to look him in the eye.

“It's all very complicated...” he peeps, wise enough not to fight the hold.

“I care not for excuses”, Tibarn says, and it takes all his restraint not to shake Nealuchi. “If anything happens to Reyson, blood will be spilled.”

The assembled hawks around them let hear their agreement, fists in the air and wings tense.

“Oh, no”, Nealuchi squeals and waves his arms in some sort of protest. “Please! There's no cause for worry. Duke Tanas treats his works of art with a delicacy so extreme that it could best be called...abnormal. He would never let any harm befall Prince Reyson....He probably can't even bring himself to touch him. The king himself told me so. That is the only reason he accepted this proposal—“

Ulki is the quickest to cut in. “Proposal?”

Nealuchi turns deathly pale, and does not add anything else except for some incoherent stammering.

“Hold it!” Janaff seethes, stepping forwards with a finger of accusation a feather away from Nealuchi’s eyes. Tibarn lets it happen. Every single heart in this cave is hammering with fury for Reyson’s sake, and it is not right to leave them out of it. “You crows set the prince up?!

“S-set up? Set up? Oh, no, no! Well...not exactly. Um...” The assembled hawks slip closer, flocking around the raven like he’s nothing but pray, and Nealuchi curls himself up in a ball. “Please don't hurt me!”

Pleads do not reach Tibarn. He lifts Nealuchi higher, unable to withhold his anger.

“So that's the truth of it, eh?” Tibarn roars. “Naesala treated Reyson—one of us—like a piece of merchandise and sold him, to a human! Like a trinket!”

Every hawk in the hall is as wild with anger as he is at the audacity, and all Nealuchi can do is crawl into an even smaller ball and whimper a series of ‘oh dear’s.

Tibarn fans his wings out and raises a hand.

“Brothers, sisters!” he calls into the cave, “stay your talons! I do not need the help of a mob to break an old sack of bones, should I wish for him to break!”

The crowd answers with cheers and calls – they may want to see blood, but they know the call is ultimately his to make. Is the raven a threat the Protector needs to eliminate, or not?

Tibarn takes his duty seriously. There’s no use in killing this bird – it’d do nothing but worsen what is already a political chaos.

Nealuchi is not catching up on that signal, however. He’s still trying to hide, hanging from his wings.

“Please don’t hurt me”, he repeats. “I… I didn’t know, His Highness keeps much to himself, but he wanted to save Reyson himself as soon as the payment was done, I cannot imagine anything else—“

“Claiming ignorance does not grant you innocence”, Tibarn shoots back. Say what he likes about Reyson’s talent for words, it has most definitely rubbed off on him after twenty years. “Your king can fall and drown for all I care, but Reyson trusted him! Naesala spit on that trust, and I cannot forgive it!”

“Goes to show that no crow is a friend to us”, Janaff scoffs.

“I hear you well, young hawk”, Nealuchi peeps – he’s relaxed his protective stance a little bit, but his eyes are still wide. “But our nation has… its own issues.”

“Like that’s news”, another hawk scoffs from the front lines of the mob.

Nealuchi cringes slightly at the aggression. He’s come here expecting to die, Tibarn can tell. Suppose that makes him braver than most ravens, then.

“P-please”, he stammers. “This is not the time to yell at a tired old man. The humans, they’re— You must hurry to Prince Reyson’s side. Once he’s safe, you can tear me limb from limb if you wish, but please, go to him, please!”

“This begging is unseemly and unwanted”, Tibarn says and lowers Nealuchi back down on the cave floor. “But you’re right in one thing—we’re done here. Return to Kilvas or wherever your accursed king resides, and tell him that when this is over and Reyson is safe, King Tibarn of Phoenicis will be paying him a visit.”

Nealuchi is about to start another series of ‘y-yes, oh thank you, o king of—‘ but he’s not allowed to finish. Tibarn throws him, and he wobbles in the air before he regains control of his wings and flaps desperately out of the cave, and toward the horizon.

Janaff, his feathers evening out, sighs and leans back a little. “I know he deserves it”, he mutters. “But in hindsight I kind of feel bad for badgering the old coot.”

“Is there a plan of action?” Ulki asks, his arms crossed. As usual, he speaks when there is silence around him.

Tibarn doesn’t think there is much ‘planning’ to do, so he does not bother forming an answer.

“Ylva!” he shouts instead.

The former queen and protector is there, just as he’d known she’d be, and she steps forth, polishing her wings in a comfortable, relaxed manner. She knows exactly how to appear perfectly capable, even at her age.

“Can I entrust you with protecting this island as you once have, while I’m not here to do so?” Tibarn asks.

The late queen grins at him. “I may be just as old as that raven, but it will be a while yet before you can take me by the wings and throw me, young King.”