I’m excited to share chapter 1 of Whiterock with you and I would love to get your feedback. Have a quick read and tell me your impressions, or give me your critique, below. Enjoy! (Page updated 5-AUG-2021)
By Hal Aetus
©2018 Hal Aetus (aetusart.com). Please do not repost without permission of the author.
WARNING: There are scenes throughout this novel that depict actions some may not consider suitable for children such as drinking of alcohol, mild gore and violence (as in close combat), romance, and mild sexual content. The target audience is adult (e.g., 18 years or older) so be advised.
Tristan fluffed his head feathers to change the shape of his facial disk and focus the sound from the next room into his ears. It was part of what made a barn owl’s hearing the best in the bird world. He didn’t have to try hard though because the speakers were not trying to be private.
“What are they saying, Tris?” whispered Pepro, a bald eagle with black smears of soot on his white head and tail. He was standing right behind Tristan, almost pushing him over as he peeked around the corner. They were hugging the side of the rock forge in the center of the workshop, a wooden hollow in the heartwood of a broad, ancient oak.
“Shhh, Peppi. I’ll tell ya everything they say later. Just keep shoveling out the forge so Kor doesn’t think we’re slacking off.” Tristan listened more intently as Pepro went back to scraping out the day’s ashes.
Tristan poked his beak further around the corner towards the brightly lit drawing room. He stayed in the shadows so as not to alert Kor, his raven mentor who was known throughout Volatalia, the avian kingdom, as a master jeweler and blacksmith. By the looks of their foreign guest, a stately Stellar’s sea eagle, he was known even beyond Volatalia’s borders. As soon as he arrived, the eagle had introduced himself as Vasili, King of Maamyrskyt. Tristan had never heard of that land, but Pepro explained it was far away, across a wide sea that the young owl had never seen. In his almost one year of life, he had only seen the fields and forests within a days’ flight of Galinta, the small bird village that hosted Kor’s shop.
The drawing room was a blistering bubble of multicolored shards of glass trapped in a polished webwork of hardwood framing. In the daytime it lit up with reds, yellows, greens, and blues that was bright and gay in the dreariest of weather.
Kor sat with his breast down on an elevated, saddle-like chair made of smooth wood and leather situated above a low drawing table. His hocks rested on dowels and allowed him to draw with both feet at once, using triangular charcoal pencils. He reached with his beak and turned the knob on an oil lamp to brighten the room before returning to his furious two-fisted sketching.
Beside him stood Vasili, the most magnificent bird Tristan had ever seen. His body was draped in dark feathers like the stately cloak of a monarch and punctuated by patches of crisp white over his wrists like fresh snow on dark stone. His beak was thick and brilliant orange like an arctic sunrise, capped by a glacier of white forehead feathers and ending in a stout, sharp hook. Orange-rimmed eyes of gold peered out commandingly from under his broad ocular ridges.
Tristan had trouble understanding his words. They were more clipped and carried an unfamiliar undulating rhythm than he was used to hearing around Galinta. He squinted his eyes and concentrated on every gesture and sound as the two birds spoke.
Kor flashed his white third eyelids and cocked his head. “King Vasili, your bonding ceremony is in nine days?”
The eagle spoke in deep woody tones. “Yes, that is correct.” The eagle squinted his eyes. “Eh, I’m terribly sorry to be coming to you this late. It’s hardly worth explaining except to promise that I will make it well worth your time. I will pay you three times your normal commission. Is that satisfactory for the inconvenience?”
Tristan’s eyes widened. He was used to most patrons haggling the price down. He had never seen a patron that was completely unconcerned with price.
Kor picked up a nearby clay jar with his beak and tipped it back until a liquid dribbled into his maw. As he set the jar down, his eyes creased in a smile. “That is more than acceptable. Agreed! I am honored to be of service.”
Tristan noticed how Kor’s eyes were glistening and mellow. He realized that the two were drinking something strong.
“Eggg-cellent! My dear Margerit’s insignia will be this flower.” The eagle pulled a small five-petaled pink flower from a leather satchel and dropped it on Kor’s drawing table. “We call it Summerstar. It blooms in the moss that lines our nests.”
Kor paused and admired the blossom. “It’s very lovely.”
Vasili looked down at the floor wistfully. “Miss Margerit will be a summer blossom in my nest, a cheerful flower to my kingdom, in even the darkest season. I want her ring to reflect this, yes?”
Kor grunted approval and resumed scratching away with his pencils.
“The bonding ceremony will be the greatest ever seen. And well it should be! Our two nations, Volatalia and Maamyrskyt, and all enlightened birdkind, will be one step closer to being united. Glorious!” The stately eagle picked up another jar with his beak and tipped back a swallow of the drink. He exhaled deeply as he set the jar down. “I want you to come to Whiterock, Master Kor, and attend our bonding. And bring your apprentices. Please. Be my special guests. I insist!”
Tristan’s wings vibrated and he stifled a hoot of excitement. Kor’s sketching slowed, and he wondered if he had heard him. But he recognized by the slow blinks of Kor’s white third eyelids that the raven was probably thinking, perhaps about how much he hated formal social events or leaving his shop. Nobody knew his love of work and silence more than his two apprentices. But in a few blinks of his eyes, his smile returned, and he cast a friendly look at Vasili. “Honored, sir, honored. We will be happy to attend!”
Tristan skittered back into the dark workshop and jabbed his beak close to Pepro’s dusty face. “You won’t believe this! You won’t! You won’t! I can’t believe it! We’re going to a royal bonding!”
Pepro’s beak dropped open. “What? Where? When?”
“Whiterock! In nine days!”
Kor croaked out loudly from the drawing room, “Pepro! Tristan!”
Tristan and Pepro shook the dust off their feathers and scampered into the light of the drawing room. They tried to not smile but their excitement glittered in their eyes and in their fluffed feathers.
“Boys, King Vasili has extended a special invitation to us.”
Pepro was smiling from ear to ear as he looked over at Tristan.
Kor glanced between them, “You already know, don’t you?”
Tristan’s smile dropped and he bowed, expecting a scolding. Surprisingly Kor did not scowl or grumble. He looked back at his customer amiably. He slurred out, “I ssshould have known. Nothing sssaid around here escapes his keen earrrrs.” Kor’s beak wagged slightly, “Very helpful, too, in negotiations sometimes. Please, King Vasili, meet my apprentice, Tristan.”
The eagle’s stare illuminated into a broad, warm smile and his talons scraped on the floor as he stepped closer to Tristan. He was several times larger and seemed to have no concept of personal space. Tristan took a step back, his heart pounding and his tail shaking. Just as he was about to take another step back, the eagle bowed his head, looked at his feet for a moment and then rose again saying “I’m so pleased to meet you, Master Tristan! Let me greet you in the manner of my kind!” He briefly tapped each side of Tristan’s beak with his own. Tristan’s fears melted as the king’s warm feathers surrounded him in a firm hug.
As the eagle released him, Tristan bowed and chirped, “Your highness! Pleased to meet you!”
The king then turned to Pepro. “And you, what a handsome lad! You could be a distant cousin! What is your name?”
Pepro bowed his head courteously “Honored, sir! My name is Pepro.” But before he could lift his head, Vasili was tapping his beak and hugging him heartily, just as he had done with Tristan. Pepro’s head feathers fluffed with pride.
“And you are both blacksmith’s apprentices, eh? It is a good trade and will keep you well fed.” Vasili looked at Pepro’s strong feet, “You must be learning to forge weapons?”
“Indeed sir! Weapons and tools.”
Vasili pointed to Tristan with a wing, “And you are an artist, aren’t you?”
Kor grunted approvingly and Tristan’s chest swelled with pride, “Yes sir! I carve jewelry! Amazing! How did you know?”
Vasili’s eyes creased as he smiled, “A part of being a king is learning to read others. I see by your physique what you do and by your young smiles that you both are pure of heart. It shows instantly and I am pleased to make your acquaintance.”
Vasili gestured to the drawing, “I want you to be a part of this! My pair bonding to Margerit! She will be the flower of my nest!” Vasili exclaimed, his inebriated beak swinging back so high that he staggered. He caught himself and chuckled. “You must all come to Whiterock in 9 days to celebrate with us! And please, young masters, please take the remains of this flask to celebrate tonight. And have these fresh capelins from my homeland, carried here today! A fellow fish eagle like yourself, Pepro, will find it most excellent!” He gestured to a bundle on the floor.
Kor’s eyes glittered, and his mellowed beak nodded approvingly. He glanced at Vasili. “The king and I have more to discuss here. Finish your chores and be on your way!” His expression iced over for a fleeting instant. “But get your sleep! I have an important job for you both tomorrow!”
“Thank you, sir! Good roosting to you!” exclaimed Pepro and Tristan in unison. The two skipped back into the shop with their gifts and placed them high up on the shelves.
With Tristan’s help, the forge was quickly refilled with fresh kindling and coal for the next day. It was none too soon for the light was dying outside and they both needed to bathe before retiring. But before they could leave, they would have to navigate the king’s three formidable companions who had been guarding the door since their arrival a couple of hours earlier.
They were similar in appearance to King Vasili except far more stolid. They hulked like vultures on the landing porch outside, drying their feathers from the showers that had ceased just prior to their arrival. They wore breastplates of leather trimmed with golden thread and leather helmets that fastened under the beak. The helmets were studded with steel blades that projected up from the nape and above the eyes. One of the eagles was larger than the others, including Vasili, so Tristan surmised that she was a female. She blocked the door completely so there was no way they could leave without negotiating with her.
Pepro carried a bucket of hot ash in his beak as he approached the imposing figure. He chirped out through clenched beak, “Please, pardon our passage!”
The eagle swiveled her head around and shot a piercing golden stare. Tristan felt like he and Pepro were insects squirming under a magnifying lens. She didn’t move at first, as though she expected something.
Pepro whispered, “Oh shit.”
Tristan knew what he meant. Pepro had told Tristan about how since before the Awakening male eagles always afforded females more latitude and respect. It came with them having more aggressive demeanors but, too, they simply required more space to move since they were bulkier. It wasn’t law, it was just wise to treat females with an extra measure of respect.
In a case like this, it would normally be a mild breach of social protocol, hardly worth a glance. But Tristan saw that the blades on the great eagle’s helmet were gilded with gold suggesting she may also be royal or at least hold a higher rank than the others.
Pepro set the bucket down and slicked his feathers and bowed his head. “Forgive me, my Lady! Please, for your safety, step back and allow me to pass.”
The eagle’s heavy feet scraped as she turned to face him. She cocked her head slightly and smiled. “Of course, young one. But, please, tell me your name.”
Pepro stayed bowed. “I am Pepro, and this is Tristan behind me. We are apprentices to Master Kor.”
The eagle stepped back and to the side. She gestured into open space with a wing, and it wafted the smell of clean feathers and leather into Pepro’s nares. “Please step out and let us see you!”
Pepro picked up the bucket as they stepped out onto the platform. The eagle held her head slightly forward, her hackles fluffed. Although she smiled politely, her posture conveyed tension and distance, very unlike Vasili.
The eagle croaked with a deep, clear voice framed with the same hard clip as the king. “I am Vouli, daughter to King Vasili. My companions, Tulivor and Ruusch are high guards to the king.” She nodded her head slightly in a polite, but minimal bow.
Pepro and Tristan bowed low again, keeping their plumage slicked down tight. Pepro replied, “We’re honored to meet birds of your importance. Thank you for the capelin. It’s been many new moons since I’ve enjoyed such a treat.”
The princess smugly replied, “I’m sure.”
“Are you enjoying our village?”
The eagles simply blinked with flat expressions and Tulivor yawned.
“How was your journey?”
Vouli’s eyes narrowed slightly. “Long.”
Ruusch grunted, “And wet.”
Tristan’s heart pounded in his ears as his eyes flitted between the three fierce faces, wondering whose turn it was to speak.
Vouli broke the awkward pause. “Please, don’t let us interrupt your work. You must be weary and eager for the reward of rest from your toils.”
Pepro nodded, “Yes, my Lady, thank you.”
They passed the guards and hastily took flight. Neither said a word while Pepro dumped the ashes but, glancing back, they saw that the eagles had resumed facing each other, apparently in quiet conversation.
They flew down Galinta Creek to the bathing area, a circular shallow area with a few taller stones for perching to dry. Pepro dropped the pail and waded in quickly, drinking the clear waters and fluffing his plumage with the anticipation of a refreshing bath.
Tristan plunged in and scooped up beakful after beakful of water. It had been a long, dry day by the fire of the forge, and he was as thirsty as he was filthy. Despite bursting with excitement inside, he had to hurry to bathe, preen, and dry his feathers before flying back to their loft above the shop. Although darkness was not a problem for him, Pepro was a poor flier at night.
The western sky was purple and orange, and the black eastern sky was studded with stars when they finally made their way back to the shop. The eagles were gone but Kor was still inside scribbling away in his drawing parlor.
The apprentices’ loft was high inside the shop. It was warmed by the forge and whatever the weather, it was always the perfect dry, cozy place to rest after a long day’s work.
They avoided disturbing Kor and instead circled up into the tree and landed at a small upper window into their loft. It was a tight squeeze, but Pepro pushed his body through the opening and Tristan followed. Once inside, Pepro eagerly hopped a few rungs down the ladder and snatched their special dinner treats from the top shelf.
“Oh, my my my, Tristan, we are soooo lucky!” Pepro said as he picked at the twine around package.
Tristan footed the flask and brought the corked top to his beak. He cast a skeptical eye at the fish as the package Pepro held fell open. The fish were plump and shiny.
Pepro churred, “Oh these are ripe and ready to spawn!”
Tristan’s face wrinkled, “Ewww, they smell very oily. I’m not so sure about eating those. I’ve never seen fish like that!”
Pepro’s eyes widened, and his beak watered. He was not discouraged by his friend’s reluctance as he bit one in the middle. As he squeezed it in his beak, it spurted tiny eggs onto the floor. He ripped the front half off and gulped it down. It slid down his gullet and his eyes rolled back. He churred again in bliss.
Tristan chuckled, “I haven’t seen you look so happy since Kor congratulated you on that dagger you made.”
Pepro chuckled, “This capelin is so fresh and tasty. . .” he gulped down the tail end. “Mmmm. . . you’ve got to try it!” He continued to eat as Tristan studied the flask.
It was a bladder fashioned from a young seal’s stomach tanned and watertight. They usually were contained strong drink. Still holding the neck of the flask in one foot, Tristan pulled the cork off with his beak. He took a tentative sniff and furrowed his eyes. “This smells really strange! But it’s something special so I guess I should try it.” He grasped the open end of the flask in his beak and tipped his head back. The flask glugged and a splash of the concoction chugged into his maw and splashed down his front. His eyes shot open, and he fumbled forward, coughing hard, and nearly dropped the flask down into the shop below. He hung his head, wheezing with his tongue protruding. His throat burned like the chimney of the forge.
“Are you ok?” Pepro asked as he gulped another fish. He sniffed the air. “Mmm… seaweed! Why that’s got to be fykialkol!”
“Fykiawhatsit?” Tristan rasped.
“Brandy made from fermented seaweed.”
Tristan frowned. “It’s strong! And it tastes like, like. . . ”
“Like the sea!”
“I was going to say something much worse.”
Pepro giggled. “Understandable. I guess you’ve never been to the sea so you wouldn’t know how delicious it smells.” Pepro took the flask in his beak and tipped back a large swallow then exhaled briskly “Whew! That’s strong! Mmmm. . . ” He leaned back on his haunches, his crop half full of fish, his fish scale-encrusted feet before him, and a warm glow on his beak. “I’ve only tasted this once before. It sure reminds me of home by the sea.” He offered the flask back to Tristan.
Tristan was frowning, holding the flask in an outstretched foot, unsure if he wanted to sample it again. “What’s the sea like, Pepro? I know there’s lots of water, but what else?”
Pepro’s eye ridges cock as his mind drifted home. “Oh, Tristan, I hope you can see it someday. The winds that come off the ocean strike the cliffs and lift you up so high that you can soar back and forth for hours with barely a flap, all the while bathed in the wonderful smells of all the good things to eat. Fish dart around under the waves below and you can just pick the fattest, nicest ones.” Pepro took another swallow, and his eyes grew more sparkly. “And when you are hungry, you just glide down and take one from the water or sometimes goodies just wash up on the beach.”
Tristan picked at one of the fish. “Hmmm… this fish is very fresh but a bit strong for me.” He nibbled up some of the tiny clear eggs. “These eggs are pretty good.” He looked up with a clump of the caviar stuck to his beak tip. “I’m not sure I’d be as excited about eating from the ocean as you, my friend.”
Pepro’s blushed beak corners lifted into a wistful smile. He delicately licked the fish eggs from Tristan’s beak as the ticklish owl giggled.
Then Pepro sat back further, leaning against a messy nest of spruced bows and dry grass. His eyes closed in an alcoholic fog. “Sometimes, when it is clear, and the sun is setting, or climbing over the horizon in the morning, you see every color that must exist. The water can be so still that it looks like the land is floating in the heavens. In midday, the water is deep blue and still other times it gleams so bright you have to squint your eyes.” Pepro’s eyes furrowed tight then relaxed.
Tristan closed his eyes and tried to imagine Pepro’s beloved coastal homeland. The closest thing he could recall in his memory was a large lake. “Sounds amazing.”
“It is! Just imagine when storms come straight at you across the open water with nothing in the way. Oh, Great Awakening! The waves get as high as mountains and crash with a loud boom against the rocks. Trees snap and fall in wind that pushes you stronger than a rushing river. It’s impossible to fly so you hold close to a strong tree for dear life. After days of fury, when the storm dies down, lots of tasty creatures, ripped up by the storm, wash up on the beach and provide you with food for days.” Pepro swallowed loudly. “I love storms. . . exciting and scary. . . they make a big bird feel very small. . . and glad to be among the living.”
Tristan took the flask from his inebriated, homesick friend and took another sip and winced, but didn’t cough, this time. “Someday, Pepro, you’ll have to take me there. I’d like to experience it with you.”
Pepro smiled and his head wobbled. He was still sitting on his rump, in a very un-eagle-like posture. He opened his eyes in two dreamy slits and reached out his right wing. “Come ‘ere, Tristan! Lemme hug ya!” He pulled Tristan brusquely into his fluffy embrace. He squeezed him tightly and remarked, “Mmmmfff! I love you, friend!”
Tristan kicked and squirmed playfully and when Pepro relaxed, he slid back against his side and sharply inhaled to catch his breath. He smiled and felt the room gently tilt around him as the alcohol warmed his brain. He leaned into Pepro’s side and thought back to when he first arrived. Six months seemed so long ago now. At first, he feared everything, including Pepro. Pepro was the biggest, strongest bird Tristan had ever met and had already been an apprentice for many months, so his knowledge was intimidating too. But he was kind to Tristan from the start and showed him exactly what to do. With his help, it wasn’t long before Tristan was carrying out all the duties that Kor expected of him. It was Pepro, too, that showed Kor Tristan’s personal works and convinced the old bird of his artistic talent. Pepro was a true and selfless friend. Tristan inhaled the smell of Pepro’s feathers and closed his eyes. “I love you too, my friend.”
“Mmhhmmmmm . . .” Pepro shifted with eyes closed and a big smile on his beak. Brrrruuukk! Pepro belched and sleepily licked the roof of his mouth.
Tristan chuckled and rubbed Pepro’s belly with a wing. It was very quiet except for the gentle creaks of the tree trunk around them and their own relaxed breathing.
“Are there owls where you are from?” whispered Tristan.
Pepro was silent for a moment then he snored and let his breath out in a chortling chirp.
“Aww, my friend, you’ve had a long day.” Tristan laid his head against Pepro’s breast and listened to his heart beating, the air sighing in and out of his airsacs, and the rhythmic churns of his gizzard. The dim light coming from Kor’s drafting room went out and he heard Kor shuffle to the door softly humming and grumbling to himself. Sometimes Kor slept in a roost behind the forge but on a mild night like tonight, he would probably roost in the branches of his massive tree, enjoying the clear starry skies.
As he sank into sleep, Tristan tried to picture the ocean. He pictured a lake that reached out to the horizon. He imagined soaring in updrafts as huge waves beat the cliffs and schools of fish and flocks of birds swirled below. Imaginings turned to dreams of flying with his best friend to a far-off land as he fell asleep in the embrace of his best friend.