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Talon of the Silver Hawk
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Shivering, the boy huddled close to the dying embers of his meager fire, his pale blue eyes sunken and dark from lack of sleep. His mouth moved slowly as he repeated the chant he had learned from his father, his dry lips cracking painfully and his throat sore from intoning the holy words. His nearly black hair was matted with dust from sleeping in the dirt; despite his resolve to remain alert while awaiting his vision, exhaustion had overcome him on three occasions. His normally slender frame and high cheekbones were accentuated by his rapid weight loss, rendering him gaunt and pale. He wore only a vision seeker's loincloth. After the first night he had sorely missed his leather tunic and trousers, his sturdy boots and his dark green cloak.
Above, the night sky surrendered to a predawn grey and the stars began to fade from view. The very air seemed to pause, as if waiting for a first intake of breath, the first stirring of a new day. The stillness was uncommon, both unnerving and fascinating, and the boy held his breath for a moment in concert with the world around him. Then a tiny gust, the softest breath of night sighing, touched him, and he let his own breathing resume. As the sky to the east lightened, he reached over and picked up a gourd. He sipped at the water within, savoring it as much as possible, for it was all he was permitted until he experienced his vision and reached the creek which intersected with the trail a mile below as he made his way home.
For two days he had sat below the peak of Shatana Higo, in the place of manhood, waiting for his vision. Prior to that, he had fasted, drinking only herb teas and water; then he had eaten the traditional meal of the warrior, dried meat, hard bread, and water with bitter herbs, before spending half a day climbing the dusty path up the eastern face of the holy mountain to the tiny depression a dozen yards below the summit. The clearing would scarcely accommodate half a dozen men, but it seemed vast and empty to the boy as he entered the third day of the ceremony. A childhood spent in a large house with many relatives had ill prepared him for such isolation, for this was the first time in his existence he had been without companionship for more than a few hours.
As was customary among the Orosini, the boy had started the manhood ritual on the third day before the Midsummer celebration, which the lowlanders call Banapis. The boy would greet the new year, the end of his life as a child, in contemplating the lore of his family and clan, his tribe and nation, and seeking the wisdom of his ancestors. It was a time of deep introspection and meditation, as the boy sought to understand his place in the order of the universe, the role laid before him by the gods. And on this day he was expected to gain his manhood name. If events went as they should, he would rejoin his family and clan in time for the evening Midsummer festival.
As a child he had been called Kieli, a diminution of Kielianapuna, the red squirrel, the clever and nimble dweller in the forests of home. Never seen, but always present, they were considered lucky when glimpsed by the Orosini. And Kieli was considered to be a lucky child. The boy shivered almost uncontrollably, for his paltry stores of body fat hardly insulated him from the night's chill. Even in the middle of the summer, the peaks of the mountains of the Orosini were cold after the sun fled.
Kieli waited for the vision. He saw the sky lighten, a slow, progressive shift from grey to pale grey-blue, then to a rose hue as the sun approached. He saw the brilliance of the sun crest the distant mountain, a whitish golden orb that brought him another day of loneliness. He averted his eyes when the disk of the sun cleared the mountains, lest his vision flee from him. The trembling in his body lessened as the sun finally rose sufficiently to begin to relieve the chill. He waited, at first expectantly, then with a deep fatigue-generated hopelessness.
Each Orosini boy endured this ritual upon the Midsummer Day close to the time of his birth anniversary in one of the many such holy places scattered throughout the region. For years beyond numbering, boys had climbed to these vantage points, and men had returned. He experienced a brief moment of envy, as he recalled that the girls of his age in the village would be in the round house with the women at the moment, chatting and eating, singing and praying. Somehow the girls found their women's names without the privation and hardship endured by the boys. Kieli let the moment pass: dwelling on what you can't control was futile, as his grandfather would say.
He thought of his grandfather, Laughter in his Eyes, who had been the last to speak to him as he climbed the lonely trail from the valley where his people dwelt. The old man had smiled as he always had -- he could hardly remember a time when he hadn't seen a smile on the old man's face. Grandfather's face was like brown leather from nearly eighty years of living in the mountains, his clan tattoos upon his left cheek still black despite years in the sun. The old man's keen eyes and strong features were always framed by steel-grey hair down to his shoulders. Kieli resembled his grandfather more than his father, for they both shared the olive skin which turned nut-brown in the summer and never burned, and in his youth Grandfather had also had hair the color of a raven's wing. Others remarked that an outlander must have joined their family generations ago, for the Orosini were a fair race, and even brown hair was unusual.
Kieli's grandfather had whispered, "When the gourd is empty, on Midsummer's Day, remember this: if the gods haven't already provided you with a name, that means you're allowed to choose one you like." And then the old chieftain had smothered him in a playful, but still strong, hug that sent him stumbling along the path. The other men in the village of Kulaam looked on, smiling or laughing, for the festival would soon be upon them, and the time of the naming vision was a joyous time.
Kieli remembered his grandfather's words and wondered if any boy actually had his name bestowed upon him by the gods. Examining the gourd, he judged he would be out of water by midday. He knew he would find water at a brook halfway down the path to the village, but he also knew that meant he had to leave the ledge when the sun was at its zenith. He sat silently for a while, thoughts of his village dancing through his mind like the splashing foam of the brook behind the long hall. Perhaps if he set his mind free, he thought, if he didn't try too hard to find his vision, it would come to him. He wanted to return soon, for he missed his family. His father, Elk's Call at Dawn, was everything the boy hoped to be -- strong, friendly, kind, resolute, fearless in battle, and gentle with his children. He missed his mother, Whisper of the Night Wind, and his younger sister, Miliana, and most of all, he missed his older brother, Hand of the Sun, who had returned from his own vision but two years earlier, his skin burned red by the sun, except for a pale print of his own hand where it had rested all day upon his chest. Their grandfather had joked that Hand was not the first boy to have come to his vision while asleep. Hand had always been kind to his younger brother and sister, taking care to watch over them when their mother was out gleaning the field, or showing them the best places to find ripening berries. Memories of those berries, crushed with honey and served on hot bread, made Kieli's mouth water.
The celebration would be joyous, and the thought of the food that waited below gave Kieli cramps of hunger. He would be permitted to sit in the long house with the men, rather than in the round house with his mother and the other women and children. He felt a pang of loss at that thought, for the singing of the women as they oversaw the domestic chores of the day, their laughter and chatter, the gossip and the jokes, had been a part of his daily life for as long as he could remember. But he also looked forward with pride to being allowed to sit with the men of the clan.
His body shivered uncontrollably for a moment, then he sighed and relaxed as the sun warmed him further. He let his stiff muscles loosen, then moved to his knees and attended to the fire. He placed a few fresh twigs upon the glowing coals, then blew upon them, and in a few minutes it was done. He would let the flames die down after the mountain air warmed up, but for now he was thankful for the nearby heat.
He sat back against the rocks, which were warming with the sunlight despite the lingering chill in the air, and took another drink. Letting out a long sigh, he glanced at the sky. Why no vision? he wondered. Why had he received no message from the gods granting him his man's name?
His name would be the key to his na'ha'tah, the secret nature of his being, that thing which only he and the gods would know. Other people would know his name, for he would proclaim it with pride, but no one would know the nature of his vision and what his name said to him, about his place in the universe, his mission from the gods, or his destiny. His grandfather had once told him that few men truly understood their na'ha'tah, even if they thought they did. The vision was only the first hint from the gods as to their plans for a man. Sometimes, his grandfather had said, the plan was a simple one, to be a good husband and father, a provider for the well-being of the village and the nation, an example for others to emulate, for it might be that his role was to be a father to someone chosen, a special one, a na'rif, and that plan would unfold long after a man's death.
Kieli knew what his grandfather would say at this moment, that he worried too much, and that he should simply put aside worry and let the gods bring to him their will. Kieli knew his father would say the same, adding that to hunt or give counsel in the long house, or to be a good husband, first one must learn to be patient and to listen.
He closed his eyes and listened to the sounds of the breeze in the mountains. It spoke to him as leaves rustled in the cedars and pines. At times the wind could be a cruel companion, cutting through the heaviest of furs with a bitter, freezing edge. At other times it was blessed relief, cooling the hottest days of summer. His father had taught him of its voices and taught him that to learn the language of the wind was to be one with it, as were the hawks and eagles who built their nests among the craggy peaks. A screech split the morning air, and Kieli's head turned with a snap as a silver hawk struck at a rabbit less than a dozen yards from where he rested. The silver hawk was the rarest of the hawks of the high mountains. Its feathers were actually grey, with a mottling of near black around the head and shoulders, but an oily sheen upon the wings caused the bird to glisten with silver highlights when it sped through the clear sky. With a single beat of its wings, the hawk gripped the struggling rabbit tightly and launched itself into the air. Like a kitten carried by its mother, the rabbit hung limply from the bird's talons, as if resigned to its fate. Kieli knew the animal had gone into shock -- nature's kindness as pain and thought were dulled. He had once seen a stag lying motionless on the ground, awaiting the hunter's final mercy with a knife, felled by an arrow that hadn't killed it.
In the distance he saw other birds wheeling lazily in the morning air, catching thermals off the rapidly heating rocks so that they could glide in search of a meal. Turkey buzzards, he knew. Their large wingspan allowed them to drift on the rising hot air while they scanned below for the dead and dying. Ungainly and ugly on the ground as they hopped to the carcass of a fallen animal, on the wing they were majestic.
To the south he saw a black-tailed kite balanced in midair, tail pointed downward while its wings beat quickly for two or three strokes, then halted to allow it to fall slightly, then beat again, to hold the kite in place above its intended kill. Then, with stunning swiftness, it stooped, talons extended downward, and with precision bordering on the supernatural, struck the ground in a tight arc, lifting off without even a moment's hesitation, a squealing vole clutched in its claws.
From the distance, forest sounds reached him. The rhythms of the day and night were different, and now the diurnal residents of the forests below were making their presence felt as their nocturnal neighbors sought out shelters in which to sleep. A woodpecker industriously sought out insects in the bark of a nearby tree. From the pattern of the sound, Kieli knew it was the large red-topped who was digging out his meal; his tapping was slow, thunderous and persistent, unlike the more dainty staccato of his smaller, blue-winged cousin.
The sun rose higher in the morning sky and soon the fire died, unneeded as the heat of day returned to the rocks. Kieli resisted the temptation to finish drinking the last of his water, for he knew that he must harbor it until he was ready to descend the trail. He could drink his fill at the creek below, but he had to get there first, and should he waste his water now, there was no guarantee he would safely reach the creek.
It was rare that a boy perished upon the peaks, but it had happened. The tribe prepared each boy as fully as possible, but those who had failed to survive the naming ordeal were considered to have been judged by the gods as lacking and their families' mourning was a bitter counterpoint to the celebration of Midsummer.
The heat increased and the air dried, and suddenly Kieli realized a sa'tata was upon them. The wind from the north blew cold year-round, but the summer western wind would grow hotter and dryer by the minute. The boy had seen grass turn brown and brittle in less than three days and fruit dry upon the branch from this wind. Men grew restless and women irritable when the sa'tata lingered more than a few days, and the skin itched. Kieli and his brother had swum in lakes and rivers on such days, only to be dry by the time they had returned to the village, as if they had not felt the cooling touch of water at all.
Kieli also knew he was now in danger, for the sa'tata would suck the moisture from his body if he remained. He glanced at the sky and realized he had only two more hours before midday. He glanced at the sun, now more than halfway along its climb to the midheaven, and he blinked as tears gathered in his eyes.
Kieli let his mind wander a few moments as he wondered who would be chosen to sit at his side. For while Kieli lingered on the mountain, waiting for his vision from the gods, his father would be meeting with the father of one of the young girls of the local villages. There were three possible mates for Kieli from his own village: Rapanuana, Smoke in the Forest's daughter; Janatua, Many Broken Spears' daughter, and Eye of the Blue-Winged Teal, daughter of Sings to the Wind.
Eye of the Blue-Winged Teal was a year older, and had gained her woman's name the year before, but there had been no boy of the right age in the local villages to pledge her to. This year there were six, including Kieli. She possessed a strange sense of humor that made Kieli wonder what she found funny most of the time. She often seemed amused by him and he felt awkward when she was near. Though he hid it well, he was more than a little scared of her. But Rapanuana was fat and ill-tempered, and Janatua was pinch-faced and shy to the point of being speechless around boys. Eye of the Blue-Winged Teal had a strong, tall body, and fierce, honey-colored eyes that narrowed when she laughed. Her skin was lighter than the other girls' and scattered with freckles, and her heart-shaped face was surrounded by a mane of hair the color of summer's wheat. He prayed to the gods that his father had met with her father the night before Midsummer, and not with one of the other girls' fathers. Then with a surge of panic, he realized his father might have met with the father of one of the girls from close-by villages, the slow-witted Pialua or the pretty but always complaining Nandia! He sighed. It was out of his hands. Stories were told of men and women who longed for one another, sagas told by the storytellers around the fire, many of them borrowed from singers from the lowlands as they passed through the mountains of the Orosini. Yet it was his people's way that a father would choose a bride for his son, or a husband for his daughter. Occasionally a boy -- no, he corrected himself, a man -- would return from his god's vision and discover that no bride waited to sit next to him at his manhood festival and he would have to wait another year for a bride. Rarely, a man would discover that no father wished his daughter wed to him and he would have to depart the village to find himself a wife, or resign himself to live alone. He had heard of a widow once whose father had died before her husband, and she had taken one such man to her hut, but no one considered that a proper marriage. He sighed again. He longed for this to be over. He wanted food and to rest in his own bed, and he wanted Eye of the Blue-Winged Teal, even though she made him uncomfortable.
Upwind he caught a sound he knew to be a sow bear with cubs. She sounded alarmed, and Kieli knew her cubs would be scampering up a tree at her warning. Kieli sat up. What would alarm a black bear this close to the mountain? A big cat might, if a leopard or cougar was ranging nearby. They were too high up for the big cave lions. Maybe a wyvern was hunting, he thought, feeling suddenly small and vulnerable out on the face of the rocks.
A small cousin to a dragon, a wyvern could hold off half a dozen or more skilled warriors, so a boy with only a ceremonial dagger and a gourd of water would make a very satisfying break of fast for such a beast.
Hunting packs might frighten the sow bear; wild dogs and wolves usually avoided bears, but a cub was a manageable meal if they could draw the sow away from one of her babies. Or it could be men.
In the distance the circle of buzzards grew. The boy got to his feet to gain a better view and was suddenly gripped with a light-headedness, for he had stood up too quickly. Steadying himself with one hand upon the rocks, he gazed into the distance. The sun was now high enough that the haze of morning had burned off, and he could clearly see the buzzards and kites wheeling in the distance. Kieli's sight was legendary in his village, for few could see as far as he, and none in the memory of his clan could see better. His grandfather joked that whatever else he lacked, he had a hawk's eyes.
For a long moment Kieli's eyes saw without him comprehending. Then suddenly he realized the birds were circling over Kapoma village! Alarm shot up through him like a spark, and without hesitation he started down the trail. Kapoma was the village nearest to his own.
There was only one possible explanation for so many carrion-eaters above Kapoma: a battle. He felt the panic rise up in him. Moreover, no one was clearing away the dead. If marauders were ranging through the valleys, Kulaam would be the next village they raided!
His mind reeled at the thought of his family fighting without him. Twice as a boy he had stayed in the round house with the women while the men had defended their village from attack. Once it had been a clan fight with the men from the village of Kahanama, and another time a goblin raiding party had sought children for their unholy sacrifices, but the stout stockade had proven sufficient to repulse the invaders. Who could it be? he wondered as he stumbled down the path toward the trees below.
The morehdel -- those the lowlanders called the Brotherhood of the Dark Path -- had not been seen in these regions since his grandfather's boyhood, and the trolls usually gave the villages of the Orosini a wide berth. There were no clan feuds currently being fought. The people who lived in the High Reaches to the northeast were currently peaceful, and Latagore and the Duchy of Farinda to the south had no issues with the Orosini.
Raiders, then. Slavers from the City of Inaska or Watcher's Point down in Miskalon would sometimes venture into the mountains. The tall, strong, red- and blond-haired Orosini fetched high value on the slavers' blocks down in the Empire of Great Kesh. Fear overtook Kieli: he felt it start to freeze his mind.
He drank what little water and herbs he had left, secured the gourd around his waist with a cord, then took half a dozen wobbly steps down the trail and lost his footing. Attempting to catch himself with his outstretched right hand, the youth fell and twisted, falling hard into a large rock. Pain shot through him, and his head swam as he realized he had injured his left arm. It didn't feel broken, but there was already a massive red mark running from his shoulder down to the elbow, which would turn to a deep bruise. It hurt when he moved it. He tried to stand and his stomach heaved from the pain, and he sat down and vomited.
Kieli's vision swam and the landscape turned a vivid yellow, and he fell back upon the road. The sky above turned brilliant white and the heat seared his face as he gazed upward, his eyes gradually losing focus. The ground beneath him spun until everything was swept away as he fell through a tunnel into darkness.
Pain woke him. He opened his eyes as it seared through his left arm. His field of vision narrowed, contracting and expanding for a moment as dizziness washed through him. Then he saw it.
On his arm, flexing slightly, rested what looked like a spread talon. Kieli didn't move his head, just shifted his eyes. Barely inches from his nose stood a silver hawk, one leg bent as it rested its talon upon his arm, its claws digging into the skin but not piercing it. Almost as if seeking to wake the stunned youth, the hawk flexed its claws again, dug deeper.
Kieli found himself looking into the bird's black eyes. The bird's claws tightened again and pain shot though his arm again. Kieli's eyes locked on the bird's, and then the words came. Rise, little brother. Rise and be a talon for your people. As you feel my talon upon your arm, remember you can hold and protect, or you can rend and revenge. Kieli heard the words in his mind. Suddenly he pushed himself upright and stood, bearing the hawk on his arm. The bird's wings flared as it kept its balance.
Pain was forgotten for a moment as Kieli stood facing the bird. The hawk stared back; then bobbed its head, as if nodding agreement. Their eyes locked once more, and then, with a screech, the bird leapt upward, a single snap of its wings taking it right past the young man's ear. Kieli felt another slight pain and reached up to touch his right shoulder. His eyes saw upon his arm the pinprick marks of the bird's claws.
Was this my vision? he wondered silently. No hawk had ever behaved so in the history of his people. Then, with a dull shock, he remembered his reason for hurrying down the mountain. The heat of the day still baked the rocks around him. He felt weak, and his left arm throbbed, but his mind was clear and he knew he would reach the creek. He picked his way carefully among the rocks, seeking good footing lest he fall again and suffer further injury. If there was a fight coming to his people, injured arm or not, he was now a man and would stand with his father, uncles, and grandfather to defend his home.
Kieli stumbled down the dusty trail, his left arm sending jolts of agony up into his shoulder with every movement. He summoned up a chant, a mind-numbing exercise that would reduce the pain, and softly intoned it in rhythm. Soon he felt less pain, though the chant didn't work as well as his grandfather had told him it would; his arm still hurt, but at least it wasn't making him dizzy from pain.
He reached the creek and fell forward into it, his arm suddenly exploding in hot agony at that foolish choice. He gasped and was rewarded with a choking mouthful of water. Then he rolled over on his back and spat out water, clearing his nose as he sat up, coughing for a moment. At last he rolled over onto his knees and drank. He filled his gourd quickly, tied it again around his waist, then resumed his journey.
He was starving, but the water had settled down his thinking. It was a two-hour walk to his village. If he ran at a steady pace, he would be there in a third of that time. But with his injured arm and in his weakened condition, he couldn't sustain any sort of steady run. Below the creek he entered the heavy woodlands, where he felt the day's heat lessen, then settled for a fast walk, jogging over open stretches of trail, moving as quietly as he could, his mind focused on the coming struggle.
As he neared his village, Kieli heard the sounds of fighting. He smelled smoke. A woman's scream pierced his heart as sharply as if a blade had struck. Could that be his own mother? No matter, he knew that whoever it was, it was a woman he had known all his life. He took the ceremonial dagger and held it tightly in his right hand. How he wished he had two good arms and a sword or spear. In the heat of the day he had not felt the need for his usual clothing, though he had missed his cloak and tunic at night, but now he felt particularly vulnerable. Even so, he hurried along, the anticipation of the combat to come dulling the pain in his arm and forcing his fatigue aside.
Choking clouds of smoke accompanied by the sound of flames warned him of the devastation that greeted him a moment later. He reached the point in the trail where it left the woodlands and passed between the village's large vegetable gardens before reaching the stockade. The gate was open, as it was during peaceful times. No enemy had ever attacked on Midsummer's Day, which was a day of almost universal truce, even during time of war. The condition of the wooden walls and the surrounding earthen foundations below told the boy that the enemy had rushed through the gate before the alarm had sounded. Most of the villagers would have been in the central square, preparing the feast.
Everywhere was flame and smoke. He could see figures in the smoke, many on horseback, and the outlines of bodies on the ground. Kieli paused. To run down the trail would make him a target. Better to circle along the line of the wood until reaching the point closest to the village, behind Many Fine Horses's home.
As he moved to his right, he found the smoke blowing away from him. Now he could see the carnage in the village. Many of his friends lay motionless upon the ground. It was hard to make sense of the tableau before him.
Men on horseback, wearing various styles of clothing and armor, rode through the village, several bearing torches firing the houses. Mercenaries or slavers, Kieli knew. Then he saw footmen wearing the tabard of the Duke of Olasko, ruler of the powerful duchy to the southeast. But why would they be aiding raiders in the mountains of the Orosini? Reaching the back of Many Fine Horses's home, Kieli crept along. He saw an Olaskan soldier lying motionless just beyond the edge of the building. Casting aside his dagger, Kieli decided to make a run for the man's sword. If no one noticed, he would attempt to remove the round shield on the man's left arm as well. It would hurt to carry the shield on his injured arm, but it could also mean the difference between life and death.
The sound of fighting was coming from the other side of the village, so he thought it possible he might be able to fall upon the invaders from behind. Creeping forward, he retrieved the shield and sword and paused for amoment.
In the smoke, he could faintly discern figures moving in the distance; cries of outrage and pain drifted toward him, as his people struggled to repel the invaders. His eyes smarted from the acrid smoke, and he blinked back tears as he reached the fallen soldier. He turned over the body to retrieve the sword and as his hand fell upon the hilt, the soldier's eyes snapped open. Kieli froze, and as he yanked back the sword the soldier lashed out with his shield, bashing him in the face.
Kieli fell back, his vision swimming and the world seemingly tilting under his feet. Only his natural quickness saved him, for just as the soldier was on his feet -- dagger drawn -- and slashed at him, Kieli dodged.
For a second he thought he had avoided the blade, then pain erupted across his chest and he felt blood flowing. It was a shallow wound, but a long one, running from just under his left collarbone down to his right nipple and there to the bottom of his ribs. Kieli slashed with his own blade and felt shock run up his arm as the soldier deftly took the blow on his shield.
Another attack, and the boy knew that he was overmatched, for he only narrowly avoided death from a dagger slash to the stomach. Had the soldier attacked with his sword instead of a short blade, Kieli knew he'd be lying gutted upon the ground.
Fear threatened to rise up and overwhelm him then, but the thought of his family fighting for their lives only yards beyond the masking smoke forced it aside.
Seeing the boy's hesitation, the soldier grinned wickedly and closed in. Kieli knew that his only advantage was the length of his blade, so he offered his already-wounded chest as a target and clumsily raised the sword with both hands as if to bring it crashing down upon the soldier's head. As Kieli had hoped, the soldier reflexively raised his shield to take the blow and drew back his dagger for the killing thrust.
Kieli, however, dropped to his knees with a spin, bringing his sword down and around in a powerful arc which sliced through the soldier's leg, knocking him backward screaming. Blood sprayed from the severed arteries just below his knee. Leaping to his feet, Kieli stepped upon the man's dagger hand and struck straight down with the sword's point into the man's throat, ending his agony.
He tried to wipe his sword hand dry, but discovered that blood was flowing freely from the long cut on his chest and knew he'd soon be weakening if he didn't bind it, though he thought it probably looked a great deal worse than it was.
As he hurried toward the sounds of battle, a gust of wind cleared his vision for a moment so that he had a clean line of sight and could see the village's central square. The tables that had been heavily laden with food and ale were overturned, the ground around them littered with the feast for the day's celebration. The flower garlands were crushed into mud made up of soil and blood. For a panic-stricken second, Kieli faltered, horror causing his gorge to rise. He blinked back tears -- though whether they were caused by smoke or rage he didn't know. A short distance away lay the bodies of three children, obviously cut down from behind as they raced for shelter. Beyond them, he could see the men of his village making a stand before the round house. Kieli knew the women and surviving children would be inside, the women armed with knives and daggers to defend the children should the men fall.
Men he had known all his life were being slaughtered, despite fighting with desperation to protect their families. The soldiers had set up a shield wall and were pressing in with spears leveled, while behind them sat mounted soldiers, calmly loading and firing crossbows into the villagers.
The Orosini bowmen responded, but the battle's outcome was obvious, even to a boy like Kieli. He knew he would not survive this day, but even so, he could not stand behind the invaders and not do whatever was in his power.
On wobbly legs he started forward, his target a man upon a black horse, obviously the leader of these murderers. Next to him sat another horseman wearing a black tunic and trousers. His hair was as dark as his clothing, pulled back behind his ears and falling to his shoulders.
The man somehow sensed something was behind him, for he turned just as Kieli started to run. Kieli saw the man's face clearly; a dark beard trimmed close to his jawline, a long nose which gave him a harsh appearance, and pursed lips as if he had been lost in thought before he heard Kieli's charge. The rider's eyes widened slightly at the sight of the armed and bloody boy, then he calmly said something to the officer, who turned. The man in black carefully lifted his arm. There was a small crossbow in his hand. He calmly took aim. Kieli knew he had to strike before the man's finger tightened on the release. But two strides away from the horseman the boy's knees weakened. Kieli's newly acquired sword felt as if it had been fashioned of lead and stone, and his arm refused to obey his command to deliver a killing blow to the invader.
The boy was one stride away when the black-clad man fired the crossbow. Then his knees buckled. The bolt had taken him in the chest, high up in the muscle below his first wound. The bolt spun him around completely, and his blood splattered both men as it fountained from the wound. The sword flew backward from fingers that could no longer grip. His knees struck the ground and he fell over backward, his eyes losing focus as pain and shock swept over him. Voices shouted, but the sound was muted, and he could not understand what they were saying. For a brief instant, he saw something: high in the sky above him a silver hawk flew in a circle, and to Kieli it seemed to be looking directly down at him. In his mind he heard the voice once again. Linger, little brother, for your time is not yet. Be my talon and rend our enemies.
His last thought was of the bird.
Excerpted from Talon of the Silver Hawk by Raymond E. Feist. Copyright © 2003 by Raymond E. Feist. All rights reserved. Posted with permission of the publisher. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.