Whiterock Chapter 4: The Close Caw

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.

As Tristan continued east, he glided over rolling hills of spruce and fir trees. An enormous u-shaped valley ran down from the north, rimmed on each side by sharp white peaks like rows of teeth. A gray-blue creek, fed by icy ribbons spilling from the alpine snowfields, splashed its way down the center of the valley through canyons and over boulders until it slowed and tamed into a meandering river with sedgy banks. At the lower end of the valley, the mountainous teeth gave way to rounded molars, covered in larch and spruce and the river poured into Sunrise Lake. The green and gold shallows of the river’s entrance quickly fell off into dark blue-green indicating that the lake was very deep and exceptionally clear.

Near the north end of the lake was a small, forested island, barely a dozen wingbeats across. It had a rocky backbone capped in old spruce and was ringed by alders that cloaked its rocky beach. Many were bending out over the water and slowly toppling in. The most prominent tree was a tall spruce at the top of the island, surrounded in saplings that reached up like eager children. The tree had three crowns that split apart about two-thirds of its full height. One of the trunks was dead and its pale twisted heartwood reached up like a skeletal hand above the green tops of the other two.

Tristan could see an enormous nest nestled at the spot where the trunks branched apart. Pepro had told him about how eagles used the same nest year after year, piling them up with branches until they grew massive. This one was wide and thick and he knew it must be generations old.

He flew up the lakeshore towards the island but didn’t see any sign of Pepro. Rather than proceed to the most conspicuous place around, Tristan stopped and waited in a tree near the shore, not far from the island. He waited as patiently as a young owl could, standing tall and narrow, using his natural camouflage to blend in as best he could.

Minutes stretched into hours and evening shadows cast by the trees reached far out into the lake as the sun set behind him. A shiver went down his spine as he considered what was taking his friend so long. Fear crept into his thoughts as quiet and cold as the evening vapors materializing above the still waters. A robin chirped out alarm cries up the shore and Tristan’s frame stiffened. He pressed against the trunk of the spruce he was perched in, trying hard to blend in, but he knew his camouflage was not a perfect match for these trees. He should have been clinging to stone or maybe an aspen tree, but a spruce was the best he could find. He thought to himself: I probably stick out like a downy feather on a pile of coal.

The evening hushed as shadows completely embraced the lake and shoreline. Orange sunlight bathed the white peaks across the valley and reflected an ethereal glow across the silent forest. Birds that had been chirping incessantly fell silent one by one until only the feeble hum of mosquitoes remained.

Tristan’s acute hearing picked up a tremble in a nearby hemlock tree. It sounded like a bird landing only a few dozen feet away. He saw the glint of a shiny eye, black feathers, and a great, black beak and it was looking back at him. It was a large raven and by Tristan’s experiences with Kor’s grumpiness, this one was not in a good mood. When he heard the loud swooshing of another pair of raven wings from the opposite direction, he knew he was surrounded.

Tristan sprang into the air and flew as hard as he could just as an attacker crashed through the lacy branches. A loud series of aggressive caws exploded in stereo behind him as broke out in to open air over the lake and headed for the island. He was built for stealth and not for speed but he pressed his soft wings to their limit, no longer caring if he was conspicuous or not.

He dared not slow himself by turning to look but it was no matter since he could hear the whistling of the ravens’ wings getting closer. A bolt of fear shot through him and he screeched in terror as he realized the black birds were right on his tail. For the first time in his life, he experienced the sinking sensation that he was about to die. Dread closed around his head with cold clammy talons and the only thing that mattered was flying harder to escape them.

There was a sharp stab at his tail and the snap of a beak. The pain of the pluck was replaced by the coolness of an empty feather follicle. His attacker growled and plucked another feather, slowing Tristan further. The raven was winning and he had no more speed to muster from his madly flapping wings. His heart fluttered and his wings cramped and he knew it was over.

In his peripheral vision, Tristan saw a flash of black as one of the ravens latched into his back with its sharp talons. Tristan twisted over with a wild screech, bared his talons toward his attacker and hissed. The raven rolled easily around him to end up inverted below. It plucked a feather from his back and jeered, “Your talons are so tiny!” It’s companion laughed heartily.

Tristan rolled back over and lashed out at the bird scoring a glancing blow. The raven yipped as a patch of feathers ripped from its breast. Its mischievous smile turned to an angry frown and he stabbed hard to the center of Tristan’s forehead.

Tristan’s pale wings went limp and he faltered. The raven gripped into his chest with his black claws and stabbed his beak deep into Tristan’s neck fluff. He locked onto the leather coin bag and yanked hard as the two tumbled head over tail towards the water. Tristan’s unconscious body bent to the raven’s will and the necklace slipped off from over his head.

The raven released Tristan and snapped its wings back out into level flight. Tristan fell like a fluttering rag towards the lake below but when the triumphant raven looked back to its companion, wearing a smile of accomplishment across its beak, it found no one there.

Slam! The raven spun out of control in a cloud of its own neck feathers. It croaked out loudly in panic and dropped the necklace. The hapless bird fell almost to the surface of the lake before recovering its wits and pulling back level. A sprinkle of blood spattered the water but it was not mortally wounded. It flapped hard back for the shore from whence it came, following its companion that was already far ahead. They both disappeared into the thick woods cawing wildly all the way.

The surprise participant sharply banked from her dive, her wings buffeting as she bent the air to her will and redirected her momentum towards the falling owl. She was a female peregrine falcon, sleek and solid like a feathered javelin, rowing her tapered wings through the air with a determined frown. She grabbed Tristan just as his wings tapped the water and pulled him up with her into a dizzying climb. A mile away, Pepro beat his wings as hard as he could, racing to assist.

As the falcon’s speed drained off and she leveled her ascent, she looked at the cargo in her talons. Tristan dangled, his seemingly lifeless body bouncing to her wingbeats. His feathers blew back in the wind and his head dangled such that she couldn’t tell if he was alive or dead.

She rose sharply, fluttered briefly and came to a standstill on the edge of the eagle nest. She stepped softly off Tristan and rolled him onto his breast. His eyes were closed and his beak hung open limply, a small smear of fresh blood coating the roof of his mouth. She bent down low and put her ear feathers against his beak. He sighed and took a deep breath and then another. He’s alive!

The falcon didn’t stop to catch her breath. She plumped up moss in the nest and rolled Tristan over on top of it, taking motherly care to prop up his head up so he could breathe more easily. She fanned her wings slowly back and forth, providing a refreshing breeze to Tristan’s pulsing forehead.

In a few moments, Pepro sailed in and landed hard and ungracefully. He dropped a marmot from his talons and immediately tripped over the nest sticks in a hurry to get to his friend’s side.

“Tristan! Are you ok? Tristan?!”

“Oooohh…” Tristan moaned and rolled his head about, barely conscious.

“That raven drilled him right between the eyes! He’s lucky to be alive! But he’s gonna have a splitting headache” said the falcon.

Pepro’s eyes were moist and his beak worried. He reached down and licked Tristan’s beak. “Don’t worry, Tristan, you’re safe now. I won’t leave you!”

Tristan squirmed and tried to speak “The necklace . . .” he muttered and he strained to look at Pepro.

“Don’t worry, buddy! Take it easy.” Pepro said with a big smile. The wet necklace bobbed out from under his neck feathers and touched Tristan on the beak. “An eagle is good at fetching things from the water. It’s safe and sound!”

Tristan smiled weakly and sank into blackness. Hours went by and Tristan dreamed he was in the lake, sinking while fish whispered all around him. Their whispers overlapped so much that he couldn’t make any sense of what they said and he didn’t know why he wasn’t drowning. The fish slipped away into the dark water, one at a time and the whispers faded, leaving Tristan all alone except for a singular whisper coming from a white light far, far above. The light was distorted at first but then became still and focused. The whisper coalesced into the sound of Pepro’s hushed voice.

Tristan blinked his eyes as he awoke. He was lying on his back looking straight up at a waning sliver of moon. His head throbbed under a soft bundle of cool wet moss on his forehead. He moved slightly but the effort stabbed his head with pain so he lay still and focused on listening to Pepro and the falcon speaking.

The falcon chirped softly, “Your parents would be proud to see what you’ve become, Pepro.”

Pepro responded, “Thank you, Nyx. I hope so. I often wonder if they would have preferred me following the feral life. I flew my Wander. I lived off the land and sea. I watched a thousand sunrises while I circled the Great Island. I watched the sand dry on hundreds of beaches, slept in the rain through long winter nights, and washed blood from my talons while the sunset light the sky on fire. I learned what my mom had meant when she sang to me about an eagle’s chest beating in tune with the bubbling of a creek or rising and falling with the surge of the ocean. My life was tied completely to the rhythm of land and sea and I found peace. Heck, sometimes it felt as though it connected me back to her and pa. Like they were there with me in the flow of life. I was alone most of the time but not completely lonely.”

Nyx whined, “That’s so beautiful Pepro. But I sense something changed your mind.”

“The Wander is traditionally about living off the land, honing an eagle’s skills so they can better support a family. We also explore for a new place to nest and raise a brood. But after four years, I began to wonder if it really exposed me to all the possibilities. If it was about learning to be better, I figured I should give civilization a try too. My ancestors didn’t have that opportunity but maybe they would’ve tried it out. We bald eagles are, after all, ready to make the best of any opportunity. So I fished for a few villages but decided I wanted to learn something new. That’s when I found myself in Galinta Valley and convinced Kor to take me on.”

“You like it there?”

“I do. My eyes have seen so much but I never saw ravens and eagles working together. Nor eagles and owls being friends, helping each other to excel. I realize that the old feral ways are not my ways. I’ve made my choice. Volatalia is the future of birdkind. I can’t imagine living alone again. I can’t imagine living without my friends.”

There was silence for a moment before Nyx spoke again. “Tristan is very special to you, isn’t he?”

Pepro looked up at the sparkling peaks and blinked. “Yes.”

Nyx giggled a little and Pepro cocked his head. She dropped her beak, “Sorry, I’m not laughing at the notion of you and he as friends. I’m laughing because it’s, well, adorable. And I’m very happy that you’ve found your place and your own family, as it were. Your parents believed in Volatalia too.”

“Really? I know so little. It felt like there was a lot they wouldn’t tell me and that they’d really rather I not know too much about the civilized world. I would start in with questions about Capital City and other enlightened birds, the Awakening, and such and they would shrug the questions away and focus on stories about flying and hunting. But I could tell that they knew so much more, which seems odd since we were not noble nor a well-connected family as far as I knew.”

“I don’t know much more than what I overheard from my parents, Pepro. I sensed that my folks held back from telling me everything too. They knew that we were close friends so perhaps they were fulfilling a promise to your mom and dad. It was obvious . . .“ Nyx swallowed hard. “It was obvious that they loved you though. And as far as nobility, you know what my parents taught me?”

Pepro shook his beak.

Nyx’s eyes sharpened in the moonlight. “Nobility is borne out of dedication to each other. Out of valuing others more than yourself. If you are blessed with plenty you’re not noble. The truly noble bird uses that plenty to help those in need. It makes everyone better in the end. And you’ve got that giving spirit down to your bones.”

Nyx leaned in and preened Pepro’s neck. He churred softly and rubbed his beak into her nape feathers.

Tristan felt awkward, now, listening to these two old friends exchange affections. He stirred and sighed. The moss slid off his head with a wet thud. Nyx bobbed her head and they both looked to Tristan.

“Tristan!” Pepro chirped. “Are you feeling better, my friend?”

Tristan’s eyes closed partially and he shook his head slowly “Ow! Chirp quietly! I’m right here, Pepro!”

“Oh sorry!” Pepro whispered. “That raven really knocked you hard!” He studied the crusted blood and missing feathers above Tristan’s beak. There was a dark bruise and the skin was swollen.

Nyx walked over and studied the injury too. “You really should keep that wet moss on there. It will keep the swelling down.” She reached down, picked up the moss, and replaced it to Tristan’s forehead.

Tristan closed his eyes and groaned appreciatively. “Did you fight those ravens off? I can’t remember what happened.”

Nyx preened the forehead feathers around the moss to help it make good contact with the bruise. “Yes.”

Tristan sighed. “Thank you, uhh, Miss–?”

“I’m Nyx! Pepro and I are old friends. We bumped into each other while he was in the high country fetching your dinner.”

“Ohhhh . . .” Tristan opened his eyes wider and saw the silvery silhouettes of the two standing over him. He could see very well in the dim moonlight. Nyx had grey, sleek wings and handsome malar stripes below her eyes. Her dark eyes sparkled with reflections of stars. He whispered, “Wow, you’re so lovely!” Then closed his eyes. “Thank you for saving my life.”

“Flattery will get you everywhere, young owl” she snickered. She looked at Pepro with a wistful smile, “I see why Pepro likes you!”

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