Whiterock is my next novel, aiming for release in 2020. 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)
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.
The smile on Tristan’s beak was as wide as the country that spread out before his eyes as he and Pepro climbed up over the village. Galinta was seated at the confluence of two creeks in the bottom of a gentle valley. Long slopes of tall, green grass were crowned by conifers on the ridges above and seated in reedy marshes and broad, bare oaks below. Songbirds sang with springtime vigor and the branches of the oaks hung low with heavy buds, just beginning to burst into fresh, new leaves.
Tristan followed Pepro in a wide circle over town as he climbed to get his bearings and spot distant landmarks. Tristan took the opportunity to look over the town, the only community he had ever really gotten to know.
There was the bathing spot he had just washed at the night before. To one side was an open patch of worn ground with perches arranged around it. This is where town meetings and other events took place. Around this were benches and tables where birds sold goods and forage during the day. And above that, on the hillside were trees that bore the more permanent shops and dwellings. The shelters took many forms, depending upon the species that built them and the skills of the individual. Some were simple nests, some were huts, and others were elaborately decorated tents and houses.
On the edge of the village, near the creek, was Kor’s tree. It was the largest oak in the village and had been in his family for generations. Its fat trunk was wrinkled by centuries of age. A thin ribbon of grey smoke curled up from metal flue in its heart and Tristan could still see the wooden sign that hung above the landing deck at the doorway. It bore Kor’s insignia: The silhouette of a raven with an eye of red onyx circled by a setting of gold. He remembered the first time he looked at it, when his parents brought him to Kor. It was the first gem that he had ever seen. His keen eyes could still catch the red glint of the stone even now, high above town.
Pepro flattened his wings out and glided northward towards the nearby ridge. Tristan knew that he had spotted a thermal to help them on their way so he turned and followed. As they crossed the ridge, they caught a strong rise of warm air, a thermal that would lift them many thousands of feet over Galinta Valley. An hour later they were so high and had drifted so far east that Galinta was but a patch of trees blending into a background of hazy blue forests and meadows behind them.
Tristan had never flown so high, or so far, from Galinta before. The only other long trip he had made was his day-long journey with his parents from the Western Meadows. Now a wide, new world spread out before him and it thrilled him down to his talons.
But the dizzying heights scared him. It was far higher than owls dared to climb. He smiled nervously at Pepro, confident that his big friend knew what he was doing, even if he felt like a small feather adrift in a huge ocean of air.
Pepro smiled back. “Get in behind me, just a bit off to the right and a little above.”
Tristan tilted his wings and settled into the spot Pepro suggested. Air spilled off Pepro’s primaries, the outermost, finger-like flight feathers, in undulating swirls, like water washing over smooth rocks in a river. By riding in the upwash, he felt himself carried along with less effort, which was important since he had only half the wingspan of Pepro.
Tristan’s wings buffeted, “Ah! Oh! Wow! I see, Peppy! Thanks!”
“Don’t mention it. When I swing around in the thermals, always ride the wing that’s on the downwind side. You’ll get a better boost.” The two flattened into a long, straight glide, heading for another batch of rippling thermals on a ridge a few miles away.
Despite Pepro’s closeness, Tristan still felt vulnerable so high above the ground. Gusting winds high up in the sky could tear him apart, not to mention being vulnerable to attack by a multitude of predators.
As if reading his mind, Pepro encouraged him. “You’re doing great, Tristan. Don’t worry. I’m right here with you. And you know what? I was really scared the first time I flew this high.”
Tristan’s wings rocked with a hard gust and he shut his eyes for a tense moment. “N-no way! You were s-scared?”
“Aww, Tris. It’s ok. Here, ride on my back for a while.” Pepro dropped his toes slightly and slid back underneath Tristan. “Go on, let me help ya.”
Tristan felt instantly relieved by the warmth of his friend under him. He lowered his feet onto Pepro’s back.
“Ah! That tickles!” Pepro giggled and staggered in flight.
Tristan curled his toes and tried again, this time resting on his hocks. He folded his wings only partway so as not to burden his friend too greatly. Pepro’s feathers were soft and comforting.
Tristan leaned his beak forward over Pepro’s nape and chirped to him, “It must have been scary for you when you started your Wander. How did you get through it, all by yourself?”
“Oh it was tough. But I had help. My Uncle Perro taught me to fly and hunt, and I had friends to encourage me too. So, when I finally went off on my own, sure it was scary, but I was ready. I just thought of them and their words of encouragement and took one challenge at a time.” Pepro cocked his left eye towards Tristan, “And I’ll do the same for you, Tris.”
By late afternoon they had made it to the last rocky ridge that separated the heartland of Volatalia from gentle, forested slopes that dropped to the east. Far in the hazy distance, they could see the blue sliver of a long lake nestled at the foot of a deep valley that came down from the stabbing, white peaks to the north. Beyond rose the blue wrinkles of the forested coastal ridges.
As they approached a prominent rocky peak, the two decided to take a break. Tristan spread his wings and lifted off Pepro’s shoulders and circled down towards the top of a bone-white, dead spruce tree.
Pepro dropped his legs, pulled his wings in, and lifted his head. It turned him into a wall of ruffling feathers, bringing him down swiftly and smoothly without picking up much speed. He dropped below the ridgeline than snapped his wings open and used up the last of his momentum to swoop up and land gently with only one lazy stroke of his wings.
It took Tristan a few moments longer to circle down with his long soft wings but soon he fluttered to a silent stop beside Pepro.
Tristan smiled, “You’re a pro, Pepro. You landed almost as quietly as me!”
“Thanks! that’s a big compliment, coming from a barn owl. Good thing I don’t need to be quiet to sneak up on fish though.” Pepro’s gizzard growled. “Speaking of which, I could use some fish right now. That’s Sunrise Lake down the valley. We could roost in the forest tonight, but I think we can make it to the lake. It’d be nice to stay in my uncle’s nest there.”
Tristan’s eyes widened, “Really? Wow, I’d love to meet him.”
“I don’t think he’s there. But, no worries, I know he would love for us to stay there anyway. And I can catch us some nice, fresh supper. We’ll sleep with full bellies tonight!”
Tristan gizzard shuddered at the thought of more oily fish. “Hmm . . . don’t be offended, Pepro, but I’m hoping that I can find something less fishy for dinner. Maybe I can catch some voles along the shore.”
“Mmm, yes, there should be plenty.” Pepro preened a wing feather. “Your parents are village hunters, right?” asked Pepro.
“Mhmm, for the village of Kahnavis.” Tristan stared at his delicate toes and talons. “But they said my feet were too small and that I wouldn’t be able to keep up with the family trade.” Tristan said it casually before the pain caught up with his words. He sometimes forgot that it still hurt to talk about it. “I just couldn’t hunt like my siblings. So, they brought me to Kor to learn another trade, and here I am.”
Pepro shuffled closer and bumped him lightly with a wing. Tristan lifted his gaze to the friendly eagle face. “Hey, those feet are perfect. You’re an artist! So what if you’re not the best hunter. How many owls get to make wedding rings for royalty?”
Tristan felt warm and smiled back. “You always make me feel better, Peppy.” He looked out to the hazy blue horizon. “Somehow, I don’t think my parents would be impressed. They’re all about hunting, and they’re very good at it, but that’s all they do. But, maybe. Heck, I barely got to know them so who knows?”
Pepro spread a wing over his friend and softly stroked his head feathers. “I’m sorry your parents couldn’t see the best in you. Maybe they really do love you but just didn’t know how best to help ya. I can see it hurts you to talk about it, and I won’t pretend it’s all ok. But I know one thing for certain.”
Tristan unlocked his eyes from the distance and swiveled his face over at Pepro to bask in the glow of his smile. “What’s that, Peppy?”
“I’m sure glad we ended up together. You’re the best friend I’ve ever had. And if you’d stayed in Kahnavis, I’d have never met you and we wouldn’t be on this adventure together.”
Tristan leaned into his feathers. “Aww, Peppy. That’s saying a lot considering all the interesting birds you met on your Wander. It sounds like you’ve been all over Volatalia.”
Pepro slowly stroked the deep fluff on Tristan’s nape, watching the feathers move one by one to the pressure of his wing. “Yes, all over the north lands and the coast all the way around the rest of the Great Island. It was fun, very tough at times, and always a bit lonely. And now that I’m old enough to see things different, the loneliness has become harder to put over.”
Tristan knew that “putting over” was an eagle euphemism referring to the swallowing motion that eagles make when they move food from their crop to their stomach. It meant that being lonely was not an easy condition for Pepro to process any more.
Pepro looked at his feet thoughtfully for a moment. “You’re the first bird that’s begun to fill that emptiness. You’re a good friend, Tristan, and you make me very happy.”
Tristan’s heart fluttered. It wasn’t being said, but it was easy to see that Pepro’s feelings were the same as his own. Despite being 4 years of age apart, they were both entering their first adult year and quite old enough to have feelings beyond friendship. So far they had not had any romantic inclinations but Tristan was wondering if this experience together might change that. He snuggled closer to Pepro and preened his ear feathers, electrified by having his beak so close to Pepro’s lovely face.
A breeze broke the stillness and the old tree creaked. Pepro lifted his wing to catch his balance and Tristan pulled away, suddenly aware of how close he had move to Pepro. But Pepro’s smile remained, telling him that the awkwardness was only coincidental.
Pepro’s eyes smiled as he spoke, “Hey, I’ve got an idea! I’ll get you something special for dinner tonight. When you get to the lake, you’ll see an island with a big spruce and an eagle’s nest. It’ll take me a while, but I’ll catch up with you there.”
Tristan’s beak bristles stiffened with concern. “I don’t know, Pepro. Are you sure it’s such a good idea to separate?”
“You’re doing great, Tristan! Just fly through the trees like you usually would and you’ll be fine. It’s all downhill from here. And I promise the surprise will be worth it!” Pepro lifted his tail and relieved himself in preparation for flight.
“Ok, but hurry! It’s getting late!” called Tristan as his friend launched out towards the north.
As Pepro flapped up and away, Tristan sighed, “I guess he knows what he’s talking about. I’d better get going.” He stretched out his wings and headed down the valley with golden sunshine on his tail.