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Sofia

Chapter 3: Flightless

Night had fallen and the Mountain lay eerily quiet. All Gliders, even the Chosen Eight, had retired to their chambers. Still, though elves slept, the stars shone brightly in the dark sky, greeting one lone point-eared figure as it made its way up to the openness of the Aeries.

The wind rushing down to greet him was the only sound. Even the Great Hawks were still in their nests, eyes shut to see only dreams, if they did dream. Rayek glanced at them briefly and found to his surprise that their still forms made a shiver run down his spine. They looked almost like Kontema's sculptures; like the bones above-

Frowning at himself, Rayek unfolded the soft, thick cloth he’d brought with him and spread it out on the largest stone ledge, as close to the edge as he dared. The breeze, playful though it was, was also calm and he had little fear of falling. The endless openness of this place was his alone for the moment. Behind him the birds rustled around in their nests, moving in their sleep. To his shame he started a little at that and couldn't stop himself from glancing both once and twice at them over his shoulder. They were moving and breathing. They were not statues. Just as they shouldn't be.

With an annoyed sigh Rayek lay down on his back and folded his hands behind his head. His hair, having yet again fallen victim to Semtra, fanned out in a tangle of braids under him.

Is something wrong with me? The question came unbidden and unwanted, but could not be ignored. He narrowed his eyes further and glared up at the darkness with its small lights. Even Tyldak enjoys this – this 'calm' – and no one loves a wild flight more than him. Why can't I...

He squirmed on the blanket, twisted from side to side, but could find no comfortable position. With a curse that would have made Ohnri scowl at him he sat back up and shifted his darkened gaze from the sky to the woods below. He sat in silence for a while, just trying not to move a single muscle. An image of Brace's unmoving form flashed through his mind, accompanied by Door's stone-like golden locks and Egg's unseeing eyes. He shuddered.

Such a child, he cursed at himself as he lay back down again. Above him a cloud floated by lazily, briefly hiding the starlight away. If any of the others so wished, they could touch that cloud. They'd just leave the ground behind and take off – Tyldak would be even faster than Kureel's hawk. And then they would see everything. There was a longing to that thought that he himself couldn't understand or quite shape. I can barely get off the ground at all...

He gave a small huff of annoyance and turned on his side, ignoring the overhead sky in favor of the steep mountain walls and lighter horizon. Somewhere far, far in that direction the Vastdeep Waters had touched the setting sun before the evening had ended. One day he’d go there and watch it, up close. No, not go, he'd fly.

“What are you doing here?” The words weren’t unkind, but neither were they gentle or friendly. Rayek rolled over onto his back again and leaned his head back as far as he could, spotting Kureel leaning against the mountain wall where the ledge began.

“Nothing,” Rayek replied with the carefree, bored tone of ten-year-olds everywhere, betraying none of the emotions of his recent thoughts. He kept his gaze locked on Kureel, trying to read the other elf’s face. “What are you doing?”

Kureel had his arms crossed over his chest, seemingly not all too interested in Rayek for a change. His attention was focused on something further in, in the depths of the Aeries. At Rayek’s echoed question a small smirk formed on his face. “They’ll be hatching tonight.”

Rayek started, immediately shifting his eyes to follow Kureel’s steady gaze into the dark. Now? But no one said anything about a hatching today. He hesitated for a moment, before he truly remembered who he was talking to. No one knows more about hawks than Kureel. With a swift, eager jump Rayek was on his feet and by the other elf’s side.

**Can we watch?** There was a respectful wariness in Rayek's sending, but it did nothing to hide his enthusiasm.

**If we don’t go too close,** Kureel sent back, both amused and pleased.

Rayek nodded quickly, his small face set in as serious an expression as he possibly could make. He leaned against the wall next to Kureel, attempting as well as he could to mimic the older elf's relaxed stance.

They both stood, just watching, for a long while. Finally Rayek began to fidget. Nothing was happening and the air flowing into the mountain had taken on a cool temperature. For a heartbeat Rayek considered fetching the cloth still lying on the ledge, but caught himself before he had time to move. What if I turn my back at the exact moment one of the eggs crack? It might all be over before I have a chance to turn back around! Rayek’s face took on an obvious mask of concentration; he wasn’t going to miss a moment of this.

Kureel’s smirk widened faintly as he glanced over and saw Rayek’s focused expression. Stretching he sat down, folded his legs and leaned against the wall. Rayek took little notice of this at first, then hurried to do the same.

It was almost light outside before the pecking started. Rayek had dozed off halfway through the night, shoulders stiff with tension. At the faint sound he sat bolt upright, eyes, still hazy from sleep, flying open. “What?” he muttered, stifling a yawn.

Kureel made a hushing gesture with his left hand. **It’s the fledglings. They’re pecking at the shells of their eggs.**

In and around the gigantic nests the adult hawks had begun to stir. Five soon-to-be mothers and fathers had gathered around their collections of purple-shelled eggs, scrutinizing them with piercing black eyes. Rayek drew in a surprised breath when the first beak broke through its birth cage.

The chick didn’t have nearly as much feathers on its head as its parents. Its eyes were half-closed and the entire creature was covered in some sort of sticky fluid. It should have looked disgusting. It didn’t.

Kureel and Rayek didn’t exchange a thought as the chicks – nine in total – struggled their way out into the world. When the chicks were clean and had begun chirping for food, Rayek finally couldn’t fight back the yawns anymore. Kureel, his smirk almost a small, warm smile, put a hand on his shoulder. **Go sleep child, the chicks will be doing the same soon.**

For once Rayek obeyed without arguing.

****

”Are you still asleep child?”

Rayek stretched and blinked owlishly a few times, before he sat up. In the doorway of his chambers stood Ohnri, a gentle smile on her face. “I’m awake,” he muttered, rubbing sleep out of his eyes with one hand.

Ohnri floated into the room and began taking pieces of clothing down from one of the many shelves; it had carvings of the Great Hawks as decoration. “You are the last one to rise today child – whatever were you up to last night to make you so exhausted?”

All traces of sleep disappeared from Rayek’s eyes within a heartbeat. He didn’t even protest when Ohnri glided over to the side of his beddings and began pulling a tunic over his head.

“I was in the Aeries!” Rayek crowed, triumph in his voice. “I stayed up all night to see them hack out of their eggs! There’s eight-and-one of them and they were all sticky, but now they’re clean and fluffy and do you think I can have one?”

“What are you talking about dear child?” There was faint amusement in Ohnri’s voice.

Rayek sighed loudly. He’d thought the topic of his rant perfectly obvious. “The hawks of course! The hatchlings left their eggs last night. Do you think Lord Voll will let me have one? The Chosen Eight don’t need all of them – only Oroleed is in need of a bond bird right now! Do you-”

Ohnri’s hands paused suddenly, tunic only half on Rayek. It wasn’t long before Rayek had managed to get it on all by himself. Tunic no longer covering his eyes, he noticed the stricken look on Ohnri’s face. “What is it?” Rayek asked, honestly confused.

“I-“ Another pause. Ohnri had begun to wring her hands. “I-I don’t know – I mean I – oh I…”

With both of his eyebrows raised to the line of his hair, Rayek watched Ohnri stutter and bob up and down ever so slightly as she glided back and forth by his bedside. When she stopped she seemed to make some form of decision and turned her attention back to him.

“I’ll go speak with Lord Voll right now. You just- you just wait here, agreed? I’ll be back as quickly as I can.”

Once more elated Rayek only nodded, already sure of his victory. Ohnri was out of his chambers faster than Swiftwing left the Aeries when a hunt was called. Rayek got out of his beddings and went in search for his boots, a wide smile on his face.

****

No one spared Ohnri a second glance as she came gliding into the Feast Hall and stopped by Lord Voll’s chair. However the quite dinner conversations stopped abruptly the moment Voll began coughing, loudly. With a shaking hand he placed his goblet of wine back on the table and covered his mouth with the other. No one else dared move.

Gasping for breath he shifted around to face Ohnri, eyes as wide as hers now. “Are you sure?” he asked her. His voice betrayed nothing, but his face told everyone in the hall enough. Anxious murmuring followed Ohnri’s short nod.

“He seems quite taken with them, my lord. I-I did not know what to say. I told him I would speak with you. He’s still in his chambers.”

Those at the table who were part of the Chosen Eight stood. “Is there trouble, my lord?” Yeeyeen asked

“Do not worry yourselves,” Voll addressed the others, hands held up in a calming gesture. “There is no danger. Merely another one of Rayek's...ideas.”

Every pair of shoulders in the Hall visibly relaxed. Some of the Gliders even gave relieved laughs, or comments such as; “Again?” and “I hope it does not involve food this time – the cooking fire was nearly impossible to clean after his last adventure. I doubt Helonai ever will stop bemoaning that.”

With the initial panic soothed before it could grow, Lord Voll rose from his chair. All Gliders did the same and bowed, not sitting back down again until he'd left the Hall. Ohnri, the only one still with worry in her eyes, stayed behind. Then, before anyone could ask her unwanted questions, she too left, heading in the opposite direction.

Voll's steps carried him to Rayek's chambers just in time to meet the child as he was rushing out. Rayek stopped a hand's breath from tumbling right into Voll's cloak.

Despite himself Voll had to smile. “Where are you going in such a rush child?”

Rayek, eyes alight with eagerness rarely seen within the walls of Blue Mountain, immediately replied:

“The Aeries! Did you see Ohnri?” He was fidgeting where he stood, shifting his weight from one leg to the other, nearly jumping in place.

Voll hesitated. Then: “Yes, I did. She said you had seen the hatchlings.”

Rayek nodded, his expression unchanged. However, when Voll said nothing else for a long moment, something dark began to creep its way into Rayek's eyes. He stopped fidgeting.

Voll felt his heart grow heavy. Still, there was only one possible answer to Rayek's request. “I fear, young one, that a hawk bond is far too great a burden for you. Yes, the hawks do care for themselves mostly, but flying, outside. It is enough a danger when Tyldak carries you. If you were to fall from the back of a hawk, there might not be someone to catch you in time.”

During this small speech Rayek had transformed completely. Gone was the open eagerness and joy. In its stead there was disappointment and anger – though Voll got the impression that the anger not exclusively was directed at him.

“But they can't fly yet!” There was faint desperation in Rayek's voice, though neither it nor his eyes were pleading, only demanding. “And I'm sure I can learn to float before they leave the nest, I swear it!”

Voll hesitated. It would be so easy to give in and say yes – so easy to bring the joy and eagerness back to the child's eyes. So easy to leave him to fall, plummeting to his death...

It was only endless years of self-control that stopped Voll from visibly flinching at that image. Instead he drew himself up taller than he already stood and his eyes narrowed into a stern look Rayek seldom, if ever, had received before. It left the child frozen, the disappointment and anger in his eyes temporarily giving way to unpleasant surprise.

“No.” It was all Voll said. He held Rayek's gaze for a heartbeat longer before he turned around and walked away.

It wasn't until he had three corridors between himself and Rayek that he let his stern mask crumble into a look of worry. He stopped to collect his thoughts, tracing the ornaments on the nearest wall with one of his hands in a distracted fashion. Hopefully he had done the right thing.

****

Rayek stood stock still a long while after Voll had left him, jaw slack in disbelief and shock. Then, body finally under his control again, he shut his mouth with a loud snap of teeth hitting teeth, just barely missing taking a bite of his tongue. He fisted his hands and made a frustrated noise in the back of his throat. His eyes looked both lost and angry and he didn't seem able to rest them on anything for any longer amount of time. Both the floor, the wall, the ceiling and the bedding inside his own chambers ended up at the receiving end of his confused, enraged stare, but did not have to suffer it for more than a few breaths of air.

The frustrated sound worked its way up his throat a second time. Rayek made no effort to hold it back, but he did stop himself from kicking the wall.

Child! Had thoughts been venom, this word would have been the deadliest in his mind. Child, always child. He'll never let me near the hawks, never!

He paused, hands curled into fists and eyes stinging. This brought him up short and his face returned to its first expression of shock. Then his posture changed again, shoulders slumping slightly, gaze once more directed at the floor. His cheeks flushed and his eyes stung more. Because I am one. None of the others would act like this. They'd never- He hurried to wiped his arm across his face and took a deep breath.

His knees threatened to buckle. Behind him, inside his chambers, his beddings beckoned with privacy and rest. It would be so easy to just go back in there and fall asleep. The rest he'd gotten after the hatching hadn't been long. No one would fault him for it.

You could just lie there 'til you rot or you could go practice, a voice in his mind, his own yet not, hissed suddenly. Once more Rayek's eyes widened in realization. His face set into a look of determination to rival the one he'd had during the wait for the hatchlings.

I'll learn. I'll learn and I'll show them. And I won't stop training until I'm the fastest. Until I can lift the Great Egg like it was a feather.

With this as a shining beacon in his mind he straightened up and began walking. He needed to find Winnowill.

****

The air in Lord Voll's personal chambers was cold. It always seemed to be, especially when they were there together.

“He is spoiled my lord,” Winnowill whispered in Voll's ear, standing oh so very close. There was a bittersweet longing in the mere hand’s width between them. She didn’t step closer. He didn’t turn around.

Instead Voll nodded, slowly. “You may be right Winnowill. Spoiled him we have. But has he not deserved it?” His hands came to rest on one of the many ornaments in the room. It was a small stone egg, dark in color with gold and precious stones woven into a pattern of a shell. He lifted it into his hand and studied it with unseeing eyes.

“My people all deserve the best treatment I can give them,” he spoke out loud, mostly to himself. He did not see Winnowill flinch – she stood behind him, keeping out of the torchlight that illuminated the chambers. There were no openings in this room, other than the door, covered by a drape of heavy cloth to provide solitude for its occupants. “And he, who brings us all such joy, should he not be repaid in kind?”

Winnowill took a few steps closer to the table the egg ornament had stood on, still keeping the same distance from Voll. “He's yet a child. He will learn to appreciate gifts, in time. Now he only takes them for granted. Soon he'll be counting what you've refused him, instead of what you've given him. Would that make him happy, my lord?”

With a heavy sigh Voll put the small egg back onto the table. He gave Winnowill a tired, but perhaps also grateful smile. “Your words ring true,” he agreed. “Still, there must be a way to lighten this blow.” His fingers followed the pattern on the egg, threatening to upset its balance momentarily. “I confess, I could not feel more guilty had I truly struck him.”

There was silence between them – a stillness that once would have been comfortable now only served to make Winnowill take a few more steps towards the chambers' exit. Voll watched her do so, but said nothing, showed nothing in his eyes.

“Will you speak with him?” he asked, gaze once more on the small egg's pattern. “I fear he is far too upset with me to listen if I were to talk, at least not today.”

Winnowill gave Voll a nod that in any other elf would have been the beginning of a bow. She left. Voll stayed. The air in his chambers was still cold.

****

“And what are you doing down here so early?” Helonai said, making the others in the chamber start. They all looked up from the food they had been arranging, to see Rayek, his back turned to them, seemingly just about to leave.

Rayek halted and gave a sigh and a sound, which most likely was a muttered curse. Turning around he made no attempt to hide the loaf of bread and the piece of dried meat he'd taken. He met Helonai's questioning gaze with a steady one of his own – though his eyes did wander towards the exit once or twice, before he gave an answer. “I slept through he morning meal, ” he offered as only explanation.

Helonai and the rest of the chamber's occupants – Tenle, Yeron and Padhei – only smiled in response to this. “Then you should have told us and we would have made you something warm to eat. That will not be enough. Though you do seem to be in a hurry, so I guess it can't be helped. Here, have some fruit as well.” Helonai took an apple from a basket next to him and handed it to Rayek, who took it without a word.

“And this,” Padhei said, hurrying to add a small jar of honey to the collection of food. “It will go well with the meat.”

Yeron rolled his eyes at Padhei, but still picked up a few cherries, wrapped them lightly in a cloth and wordlessly handed them to Rayek.

Floating up to reach the top shelf on the far wall, Tenle fetched a basket and returned to the others, to offered it for Rayek to put his prizes in. “Wouldn't want you to drop anything,” she explained unnecessarily, earning her a nod of understanding from Rayek.

They all smiled as he left, watching him until he was well and truly out of the room. Then they went back to their own tasks as if they never had been interrupted.

Out in the hallways Rayek kept close to the walls, eating as he walked. He walked as quietly as he could, eyes and ears open wide, alert for signs of others being close. Once or twice he had to dodge into a side chamber, avoiding someone floating around a corner or down from a hole in the ceiling. He had to be careful. Although most of the others kept to the upper parts of the mountain, the climb down to the lower corridors was long -

“Where are you going, child?”

-and the Gliders flew silently. With a sigh Rayek swallowed the last of the bread and turned around. Kireele, who now floated in front of him, gave him a soft, friendly smile.

“I'm looking for Winnowill.” Rayek folded his arms over his chest, eyes defiant, as if daring anyone to oppose this plan of action.

A look of worry did cross Kireele's face, but was soon replaced by his usual gentle smile. “Well then I shall have to help you then. The way down is much swifter when you fly.”

Rayek's gaze became edged. “I can get down on my own. There are staircases.”

Something flashed over Kireele's face, but it was gone before Rayek could give it a second thought. “Then I will go with you and you can make sure I don't fall. You are far better at walking than I.”

Rayek managed both to stifle a sigh and to not roll his eyes. That reasoning had stopped working on him years ago, although Kireele never seemed to notice things like that. Still, arguing with him would only mean more wasted time. With a short nod he accepted the offer and began walking for the nearest staircase. Behind him Kireele stopped floating and put unsteady feet on the ground.

*****

“Ah, Rayek, I was looking for you.”

The way the child's eyes lit up at that was pleasing. Why it pleased her, Winnowill refused to reflect upon.

“Really? I was looking for you too!” he admitted and made halt at the bottom of the stairs. Kireele, who seemed to have accompanied him down, gave Winnowill a respectful bow and floated off, with only one backward glance over his shoulder.

“And what did you wish to speak with me about?” she asked, settling on a bench by a nearby fountain.

Rayek hesitated for a moment, something like wariness holding him still by the staircase. In the next moment that was gone, replaced by enthusiasm and determination. He walked straight up to her, but didn't sit down.

“I want more lessons,” he stated simply, arms crossed over his chest.

A smile, cold and sharp as the blade of a newly shaped knife, split across Winnowill's face. “And what makes you so sure you deserve more lessons?”

Rayek's self confident air faltered slightly. Still he stood his ground.

“I heard of your – request.” Rayek flinched and pulled his gaze away from hers, to observe the water splashing up into the air behind her. “Have you any idea how old the Chosen Ones were when they received their first bonds?” No answer. “I thought not. Countless of years older than you I can assure you. And they could all fly.”

“But Padhei told me that even Lord Voll used to-”

“That was then.” Winnowill's voice was icicles and frostbites. Rayek's crossed arms tightened around him, briefly becoming more a self-hug than anything else. He still would not meet her eyes.

The tense moment did not last long. Winnowill shrugged off the short lapse in self-control like a redbreast shakes loose broken feathers and stood. She bent down and gently took hold of Rayek's face, cupping his chin in her hand. She stroked her fingers soothingly along one cheek, earning a shiver. Not even she could tell if it was one of pleasure or fear.

“I will give you no lesson today. Keep practicing what I've already taught you and you will learn what you strive for, in time. But,” her grip firmed, making sure he'd meet her eyes, “if I hear of more ingratitude from you towards Lord Voll, my lessons will end. Do we have an understanding?”

There was fear in the child's eyes now. Not the fear of death or pain. She could not quite place it, but knew she had seen it before: in the eyes of her own reflection.

Quickly she loosened her grip and with a last gentle stroke of her hand down his cheek she left Rayek by the fountain. She had things she did not wish to think of and that she did best in her own part of the mountain.

****

There was a tray of food waiting for him when he finally got back to his own chambers. The broth gave off a thin mist of steam, so it could not have been left there for long. Rayek did not touch it or the fruits or the bread. Not even the goblet, filled with juice of his favorite berries, tempted him.

He curled up on his bed and stared at the wall with all the shelves. Winnowill's threat was fresh in his mind, as was the fear of it becoming reality. Never learn to fly. Always bound to the ground while everyone else soars high above me. He nearly choked, but not only because of that thought.

Ingratitude? The word was strange, foreign. It stirred many questions. The broth was long cold before he'd settled on answers for half of them; and they still left him feeling unsure.

**Where are you sulking, fledgling?**

Kureel's sending nearly made him fall to the floor. For a moment he believed he'd imagined it, but it was soon followed by another; this one only the feeling of impatience and slight annoyance.

**I-in my chambers,** Rayek replied, confused.

**Well leave them and get yourself up to the Aeries!** Kureel commanded casually, annoyance leaving room for amusement. **I should have known no one had told you yet or you would have been here before me.**

Hope and the fear of having said hope shattered began to form somewhere in Rayek's chest. **Why?** was all he could think to ask.

**Lord Voll says I am to give you your first riding lesson. Can't have you unprepared for the next hatching, now can we?**

Rayek had left his chambers before Kureel had finished sending.

******

**No, no, not like that! Be careful so you don't ruffle the feathers - it is very unpleasant for the hawk and gives him no reason to let you ride him.**

The sending was followed by a complete halting of motion from the one it was directed at. Brush, elder among of the great hawks, merely clucked softly and glanced back at the two elves next to him with patience, as if they were small fledglings scrabbling over meat; their behavior annoying, but tolerated for their lack of age and experience.

Voll smiled to himself as he watched Kureel guide Rayek's hands in fastening the harness correctly onto the hawk. The tunnel mouth Voll occupied lay well away from were the last rays of the sun could reach, keeping him half in shadow. Kureel and Rayek on the other hand were near the outskirts of the Aeries and brightly illuminated by orange red sunlight. Voll had become accustomed to the grim expression of extreme concentration the child wore whilst learning, but seldom had he seen such obvious enjoyment in teaching displayed by Kureel.

~**I thought you had decided not to give him one.**~

There was no flinching or other sign of surprise form Voll at the sudden sending. He merely glanced over his shoulder, much like Brush in his manner, greeting the newcomer with a curt nod. “I had and I stand by that decision.”

One of Winnowill's eyebrows arched upwards in a silent question.

"There will likely not be another hatching for a hand of eights. From what I have seen of his lessons, by then he shall be an accomplished glider and we can revisit the matter then. In the meantime, I see no reason the child should not learn his way around the hawks," Voll explained, his voice as soft as his eyes; both once more turned to Kureel and Rayek. "I gave all of the Chosen instructions not to let him onto the back of a hawk until he himself can fly and then only when accompanied by one of them. Kureel volunteered to be his first teacher."

Winnowill leaned against the mountain wall in a deceptively relaxed fashion that spoke volumes -- or would have, had Voll had the ears to hear. "I fear you are too soft-hearted at times, my Lord." Her tone was decidedly not soft.

Voll only nodded in agreement, smile still on his lips. "Perhaps. But sometimes compromises are needed." Winnowill made a faint noise in reply - or perhaps it wasn't a reply at all.

They stood in silence for a few heartbeats, observing.

"There was another matter..." Voll began, but stopped himself as his outstretched hand found only air. Eyes closing in a brief show of pain, Voll opened them to stared down the tunnel after her for an endless moment. He then returned he returned his attention to the lesson.