Whiterock Chapter 2: The Mission

Whiterock is my next novel, aiming for release in 2022. I have it all written but it still needs polishing so I’m sharing it here, a bit at a time, to get your feedback. Have a quick read and tell me your impressions, or give me your critique, in the comment area below. Enjoy! (Updated 14-Jul-2021)

What is Whiterock?

By Hal Aetus

©2019 Hal Aetus (aetusart.com). Please do not repost without permission of the author.

WARNING: There are some 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. My target audience is adult (e.g., 18 years or older) so be advised.

In the hour before dawn, the sky was dark blue and the morning star was high in the East. Pepro stomped on a foot-operated bellows that drove a stream of fresh air to the heart of the forge. Its glowing embers cast orange light on his white head and focused eyes. Tristan fetched materials from the shelves, lining them up on the workbench for the first project of the day. A bar of crude steel for making a carving knife and an elm branch for the handle.

Suddenly they heard Kor’s whistling wings and he landed at the doorway.

“Pepro! Tristan! Stop what you’re doing and come here!”

The two looked at each other with a shrug, wondering what they’d done wrong.

Kor exclaimed, “No, don’t worry, I’m not displeased, just get your tails over here! I’ve got something fun for you two to do!”

The apprentices glanced at each other as they approached, wary of what Kor meant by “fun.”

Kor chuckled, “No, really, boys, this’ll be quite an adventure and it’s very important. But I think that you’re ready for it!” At this they both relaxed and focused on Kor’s unusually quiet voice.

Kor went on. “Vasili is a very important patron and not just because he’s a king. He’s been courting Miss Margarit, a lovely white-tailed sea eagle from the north coast. You two have never seen her I’ll wager, but you’ve certainly heard of her. She’s the envy of every able eagle that lays eyes on her!” Kor’s eyes rolled upwards and he fluttered his white third eyelids. His sooty throat feathers puffed out. “Caw-caw! Who wouldn’t want to be brooded by that intelligent, graceful, strapping hen!”

Tristan and Pepro snickered.

Kor sighed and regained his composure, “Well, Vasili has won her heart and now he wants to tell everyone about it by having bonding rings made. It’s an old human custom to forge bands of gold, or some other precious glittery substance, to demonstrate devotion to only one mate forever.” Kor poked his beak towards his sketches. “Yonder is what we’ll be making!”

Tristan and Pepro cocked their heads and studied the drawings.

Tristan remarked, “Wow, they’ll be beautiful! What an amazing honor!”

“Indeed! And I can think of no greater honor as a jeweler! But, as you have no doubt surmised, we have very little gold­­ not enough to make rings of this size.” Kor’s upper eyelids flattened and determination took over his tone. “But Vasili is a well-paying customer! So I need you two to get your feathered butts out to Whiterock, out to the Eastern Cliffs, and trade for some gold!”

Pepro and Tristan looked at each other with wide eyes and smiling beaks. They both started in at the same time: “Master! Really? When do we go?”

Kor held out his wings to settle the two birds down. “Today! But, hang on! I’m not done yet! It’ll take you 2 days to fly there, if the winds favor. Pepro! I’m putting you in charge of navigating and protecting young master Tristan. Keep your eyes open and your wits sharp. Don’t let me down. Don’t let the King down!”

“Yes, master” Pepro solemnly swore, bowing his head slightly.

Kor turned to Tristan “You are my negotiator, Tristan. You assess the gold, just like I taught you, and broker the deal with my special supplier. Then bring it back here with Pepro’s help. This could be dangerous. We’ve had peace a long time now but there’s still those that would steal if they realized you had something valuable. Since you’re an owl, Tristan, you know to take special care to avoid unfamiliar ravens, crows, and other dayfolk, especially this time of year when territorial tensions are high. Pepro should be a good deterrent to most mischief so stay close to him in the countryside and don’t take any chances. My contact in Whiterock will provide a place to stay.”

“Yes, master” Tristan said, standing straighter than usual, the trust of his master elevating his posture.

Kor cocked his head. “Hmmf . . . that’s better, young bird. Remember that posture when you arrive in Whiterock. It’s a rough place, full of birds the likes you’ve never seen. Order is kept pretty well by the Peacekeepers, especially Brant, a black­backed gull. But they mostly just keep the rowdy and the drunken from tearing each other apart. They won’t be able to protect you from being tricked out of your money and there are plenty of ways to be plundered. Which brings us to the birds you’ll be looking for . . .”

Kor turned and walked to a corner of the room. He poked his beak into a knothole, probed around, then made a quick stabbing motion and swallowed something. Another moment and he pulled back his beak with a long leather case in his grasp. The case had loops on it, meant to be worn as a harness. He offered it to Pepro who took it in his left foot.

“Be very careful with that. There are two separate, sealed letters in there. One should be taken to Madame Penelope. She is, shall we say, an old acquaintance.” Kor gave a smiling wink. “She is a very upscale magpie that owns a boarding house and hotel. It’s near the center of town in a tall, red ruin left by the humans. Her sign is an oak tree with a crescent moon. It’s called ‘The Avian Haven.’”

Tristan cocked his head and studied the case. “Master, may I ask what the letters are for?”

“The first one, for Madame Penelope, should be your meal ticket, if all goes well. Treat her like the gracious, beautiful, fine lady that she is and you’ll be fine.”

“Yes sir,” replied Tristan solemnly. “Sir? Is Madame Penelope our gold supplier?”

“Ah, no. But she runs across a lot of news around town so if you need something, she can help you find it.” Kor’s eyes narrowed and his beak moved closer to Tristan’s face. “The gold supplier you’re looking for is a big, salty bag of feathers known as Perry. He’ll probably be in an area known as Lowtown. It’s down by the cliffs where a bird with low standards can find most anything they desire. He won’t be hard to find, provided he hasn’t drunken or copulated himself to death. He’s a wandering albatross­­ huge bird but harmless unless you stand in the way of his drink or the tails he’s chasing. And unless you’re offering your tail to him you’ll have trouble keeping his attention. That is, unless you show him this!”

Kor jerked his head and brought something from his gullet into his beak. He extended his tongue and on it was a pea-sized glittering crystal. The stone caught the light from the rising sun outside and threw small rainbows around the floor. Neither Pepro nor Tristan had seen anything like it before and their pupils constricted at the spectacle.

Pepro asked in awe, “What is it, master? It’s shinier than glass or metal.”

Kor carefully set the stone on the sunlit table, his raven eyes sparkling as much as the stone. “The ancient humans called it a diamond and they went to great lengths to mine them from deep in the ground. They’re very rare now, particularly gems of this quality. This will get Perry’s attention for very special reasons. Once you have his attention, give him that second letter and make sure he reads it. It’s a secret note just for him.”

Kor dropped the diamond into a small leather pouch. He pulled out a few small copper coins from a drawer and dropped those in the bag as well. He stepped on the bag and pulled the thong with his beak, closing it tight and then slipped it over Tristan’s head.

“Hide this money well under your feathers. It’s just in case Penelope’s mood has cooled or you run into other incidentals. Spend it wisely. You should be able to hunt your own food on the way. And I suggest that you get going soon. Pepro! You know your way as far as Sunrise Lake, right?”

“Yes sir! I grew up there!”

Kor paused, cocked his head ever so slightly to the left and flicked his third eyelids. “Mmm, yes, so I’ve heard.” Curiosity fed by old rumors swirled through his raven mind but this was no time for side-tracking the conversation.

“Something wrong master?” asked Pepro.

Kor’s eyes cleared and his ear feathers erected slightly. “No… no, not really.” His voice was a wisp less confident than usual though and both Pepro and Tristan detected it. “OK, yes, yes, there is something else. It’s just a hunch. But I found it unusual that King Vasili traveled with three guards in these peaceful hills. It’s like he was expecting trouble.”

Tristan chirped out, “Those guards gave me the creeps. Did you know that the big one was King Vasili’s daughter? She was not friendly at all.”

“Yes, well, that’s how most Stellar’s sea eagles are. Once upon a time they ruled over our land. But a great war forced them away across the sea. Though none still live that saw that war, they still carry the grudge of it and many in Volatilia still carry the mistrust of their kind.” He looked at Pepro. “You wandered all over Volatalia, Pepro. You know what I’m talking about.”

“Indeed, master. I rarely saw Stellar’s sea eagles and I never had a chance to speak with one. They kept to themselves and I was too afraid to approach them. But they’re magnificent and I would like to be friends with them if I could.”

Kor’s gaze fixed on the bright young eyes before him. “That’s what I love about the new generation. You are eager to explore frontiers beyond the walls your elders have built. I’m a shrewd old bird so it means a lot to say this. But I think King Vasili is genuine. He’s convinced me that Stellar’s sea eagles can be warm and generous. While others I’ve met stink with superiority, he treats every bird like an equal. I’ve never known the likes of it. I sincerely hope there are others like him and we can live together in peace.”

Kor’s ear feathers bristled. “But for now, you be careful of strangers, even the king’s party if you encounter them, though I think you can trust Miss Margerit and the King himself if you need help.”

Tristan adjusted the pouch of coins and tucked it under his breast feathers. “We will, Master. We’ll be careful.”

Kor continued. “Good lad. Stay the night in the spruce forests of the western hills. You’ll get some good thermals in the morning and can cross the lake and make it to the coast by tomorrow evening if the winds stay westerly.” Kor looked at his two apprentices, a whisp of concern in his eyes. He blinked it away and croaked “Any questions?” He looked from beak to beak for a response.

“Sir, what if Perry doesn’t have gold or won’t sell it to us?” asked Tristan.

Kor looked him in the eyes, “A good question master Tristan but don’t worry. He’ll help us. You’ll see! And you can trust him completely except with two things: Social advice and spending money. Don’t give him any valuables except the diamond.”

“I think I understand, master.”

Kor cawed, “Good! Fair winds to you both! Now blow on out of here! I have work to do!”

Pepro and Tristan watched Kor turn and sharply ignore them humming to himself as he walked towards the back of the hollow. They looked at each other, heads swarming with darting expectations like clouds of summer swallows.

Tristan turned to Pepro. “I guess we’d better be going!”

Soon they were both climbing up into the cool blue sky aiming East. Kor watched from one of the small window openings, a serious look on his face. He grunted to himself “Good luck, young ones. And have a good time.”

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