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King of the Sky

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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.”