"Father, there is a split in the road ahead," Orien observed casually. "Which road shall we be taking?"
"We go to the left, little eagle," Chrijo replied.
"I feared you would answer so," the boy sighed. "I shall wake Tarel and Papa."
"Why would you halt their slumber? They guarded us well last night, now it is our place to guard them." He looked over at his younger son and frowned. "Tell me what your eyes have seen that mine have not."
"There is a band of men, father," the sharp-eyed lad answered. "They are all afoot, but have some knowledge of our approach and have hidden in the trees on each side of the road."
"How many would you say?"
"They outnumber us more than two to one I would say, Father."
"What is this I hear of a band of men?" Tarel asked sleepily.
"Keep your voice down, son," Chrijo shushed. "No need to wake Papa for this I think."
"It was your voice that stirred me from slumber, not his," Friezen grumped as he sat up in the back of the wagon. He spared a glare at Orien who was giggling and pointing at his hair, which stood out from his head in a most undignified fashion. "Do you think your hair looked better when you were roused this morning, little one?" the wizard asked pointedly.
"Orien has always had a bird nest of hair," Tarel said quickly, then laughed. "Well, I suppose that isn't so surprising when you think about it."
"If my hair sticks up in the morning, it's from you playing with it before you wake me," the little eagle snapped defensively. "You have none but yourself to blame."
"I do not…." Tarel started to protest, but as he spoke he realized that his hand was ruffling the younger boy's hair once more. He snatched his hand away with a blush.
"No one said you had to stop," Orien pouted.
"Should I shift and go around the side of them, Father?" Tarel asked, turning his attention the trail ahead of them as it left the clear meadows and entered a forest.
"If they know of our approach as our eagle believes, from such a distance, they may know of such a plan should you attempt it," Chrijo thought out loud. "Best stick to the road, as planned, but be prepared to defend ourselves."
The two boys and their father blinked as Friezen mumbled something and the wagon under them all seemed to shudder for a moment. "None that wish us harm will know that we pass by. We could run them down in the road and they would have no knowledge of who crushed them. I would caution against such a thing however. A man's body can make for a surprising bump when run over by a wagon, even one that hauls an anvil. Whilst it is on my mind, I wish to state that anvils do not a comfortable pillow make."
"My most humble apologies for not making my anvil out of forest moss to better cushion you, love," Chrijo joked. "Though I know not why you grumble, you slept with my bedroll beneath your head, not my anvil."
"You were not to tell him," Friezen scolded teasingly at Orien.
"Who had to tell? His eyes have been more on you than the road. Only the horses have kept us from leaving the path."
"So you keep his secrets, but tell mine?" Chrijo mock pouted. "I knew it; you love your Papa more than me." He pretended to wipe tears from his eyes, making the other three in the wagon laugh and hug him.
"Stop the wagon," Friezen called out a few moments later.
"Papa, if we stop here, we are surrounded," Tarel whispered.
"Yes, by men I know well, or rather boys," the sorcerer responded. Instantly the illusion on the wagon fell away. "Carzier! Bring your troops, if they can so be called, out where I can see them all or I will strike them all down where they cower in the bushes."
"Uncle Friezen?" a voice called from the trees.
"No, I am a rabbit, come to steal the vegetables from your dinner so that your mother doesn't know you didn't eat them," Friezen yelled with a laugh.
"UNCLE FRIEZEN! That was ten summers ago," the voice scolded. "Will you next tell my warriors of the time I wet my bed?"
"Tell me which time you mean and I shall gladly share the tale of it," the older man retorted. Snickers could now be heard from the woods all around them. "And pray do not call these ragamuffins of yours warriors in the presence of the War God of Jolyne. Why I would wager my youngest companion could beat most of them in a fair fight single handed and he is but ten summers old."
"It will be eleven summers at the end of this one," Orien defended himself bravely.
"My revered uncle travelling with gods and children? What interesting company you keep."
"One child, loud of mouth but coward of heart," Tarel called out. "You have yet to show yourself, and if indeed this wizard is your uncle, you do him a disservice by disobeying him so boldly, though the disservice will be to yourself should he choose to strike you down."
"Calm yourself, warrior with the breaking voice," Carzier teased as he stepped into view. "I couldn't very well step into sight while relieving myself."
"Carzier, your manners are atrocious," Friezen scolded.
"I beg pardon, Uncle," the young man, no more than two summers older than Tarel, stated as he walked up to the wagon with his hands held up in a peaceful gesture. "I sought only to explain myself to your guard."
"I guard too," Orien growled as he moved forward to get a better look at the young man.
"A mightier foe I could scarce imagine, I'm sure," Carzier said with a remarkably serious face, and gave a bow.
"Oh… well… you don't have to bow," Orien mumbled as he blushed. "I'm not that great a fighter, yet."
"Your skills at the campfire more than make up for your lack of fighting force, my son," Chrijo said with a proud smile.
"Campfire? Does that mean the little one cooks?" another voice from the other side of the wagon suddenly asked. This was a youth of the same apparent age as Tarel, and the same hunger it seemed as he dropped his battle axe and rubbed his growling stomach eagerly.
"Let me guess," Friezen frowned. "You sought to follow me out and battle your cousin Raspien, gaining honor and glory in the family hall, but you, as so many times before, failed to adequately prepare for the journey?"
"Does that mean he forgot to pack us any food? Cause he did," the younger hungry lad blurted. "Please, mighty Friezen, sir, we have had no food since two moons."
"Here, take some of this dried venison," Orien told him holding a piece of the meat. "This will hold you until I can make a fire and start cooking. Could you not catch any game at all?"
"Our cook has spoken, we make camp here it seems," Chrijo laughed. "Answer my son, lad. Did you not try for game?"
"Boren shot at what he thought was a wild boar earlier this morning," the lad laughed.
"It was not funny," a third teenaged want to be warrior stepped out of the brush with a frown. He came to stand quite close to the one who had teased him, despite his apparent anger at his comrade. He was of the same age and build as his companion, meaning both of them looked as if they could do with quite a few more well-rounded meals, as well as a good three to four summers before their transformation to manhood would be complete.
"Not at the time, as the owner of the sow you attempted to impale with your last arrow brought out the village militia," Carzier complained. "Funny now though. You can't tell the difference between a wild boar in a wood and a breed sow in her pen."
"I didn't see you making any headway with the rabbit you threw your sword at, you dolt," Boren retorted.
"Carzier, Juram, Boren…. Where is Little Ker?" Friezen asked.
"Over here, Uncle Friezen," a voice younger than Orien's called out and a small boy came out of the trees waving.
"Does your mother know that you have run off after your brother again?" Friezen asked sternly.
"I'm sure she does by now, Uncle," the boy answered as he kicked at the dirt of the road bashfully.
"As I thought," Friezen growled as he glared at Carzier.
"I told him to go home, Uncle, I swear," Carzier gushed.
"You did not," the little boy squealed. "You told me we were going to have a grand adventure and that you needed a wizard since Uncle had already gone ahead."
"And are you a wizard, Ker?" Friezen prompted with his arms folded over his chest.
"No, Uncle, I'm just a 'prentice, and I won't be a wizard until you say I am, which won't be for a very long time because I'm always getting in trouble for trying to be too much like Carz and that's a bad thing cause he's an idiot."
"Mind your tongue about your elder brother, little runt," Carzier scolded.
"I didn't call you a idiot, Carz. I was just saying what Uncle did, lots of times," the boy defended.
"Uncle!" the teen pouted.
"Do not take that tone with me, when you are the one leading the only boys dumb enough to befriend you, and your only younger brother, into deadly dangers without proper provisions or anyone with a brain to defend your band of children playing at warriors and wizards."
"Did he just insult us?" Boren murmured to Juram. He got only moans in response as Juram was still eating the scraps of venison that Orien had given him. "That good is it?" he asked, nodding at the meat.
"Good enough to not share with you," Juram finally spoke again. "Friezen truly travels with gods as this venison tastes divine."
"Well, I wouldn't have it to cook if Tarel hadn't felled the deer," Orien blushed and shifted attention off his talents bashfully.
"You slew a deer, yourself?" Carzier asked in awe. "Perhaps we could hunt together and bring more game so that your brother might cook for us all?"
"Well, I… that is to say…." Tarel stammered.
"Gather round, my dear ragamuffins," Friezen said gesturing the four boys closer. "As I keep secrets for you, and you for me, I ask now that you open your hearts and your trust to my little family."
"But Uncle Friezen, are we not your family?" Ker asked in innocent confusion.
"You are my nephew, Ker. Orien and Tarel are my sons. They are the sons of my heart," he added as he saw Carzier about to speak. "Further, they are blessed with powers that even I could never command. Tarel, show the boys the form in which you brought down the stag."
"You are sure they are safe, Papa?" Tarel asked as he stepped down from the wagon. At the reassuring nod, he transformed into his animal form and shook his head at the boys as they gasped. Well three of them gasped and one of them squealed.
"KITTY!" Little Ker bellowed in a high-pitched voice as he rushed forward to pet Tarel adoringly.
"Papa, what of the other men that I saw? Will they be safe for us as well?" Orien asked he jumped out of the wagon to show the younger boy all the best places to scratch Tarel and make him purr.
"Will you show him, little apprentice of mine?" Friezen smiled proudly.
Ker scrunched up his little face and waved his arms around him and suddenly they were surrounded by big strong warriors, only as Orien looked closely, he could see that it was all images of the same man.
"When I miss my father, I do this to see him again," Ker said sadly. "It is easier to bear his loss when Uncle Friezen is around."
"I must make amends for my leaving then, little one," the wizard said warmly. "Come, you and I will set the spells to protect our comrades while our warriors fetch wood and game for our fire tonight."
"I will cook my best for your family, Papa," Orien vowed solemnly.
"Perhaps I could help you with the cooking?" Juram asked eagerly.
"You only want to help with the food so you can nibble as a mouse while it is being prepared," Boren teased.
"A good cook has to sample as they work," Orien answered for the teen. "Otherwise how do they know the food is good?"
"A little man after my own heart," Juram smiled as he put an arm around Orien's shoulders. The boy jerked away defensively however. "A thousand pardons, little cook; I only meant to show my brotherhood to you. I meant not to bring pain from your affliction."
"Orien, child, I believe if Tarel can show his form, you can be true to yours with our new family," Chrijo suggested softly.
"You brought no pain," the bird boy told Juram as he shrugged off the cloak Friezen had made for him, and taking the chance to stretch his wings to their fullest after being confined for so long.
"By the powers," Carzier gasped. "Those look powerful and large enough to bear you in the air."
"I haven't tried flying in this form yet, as we were afraid of being seen, but I assure you I fly quite well like this," Orien smiled as he too transformed.
Little Ker squeaked in wonder and fell back onto his butt on the ground beside the giant cat he had been petting. Tarel nudged him to get the small boy to start scratching behind his ears again. "I never saw a bird that was bigger than me before."
Orien shifted back to his normal state, and smiled. "Had you ever seen so large a cat before?"
"Well, no but kitties are nice," the little one defended as he kept scratching Tarel's ears.
"I'm nice, too," Orien pouted. "Plus I'm the one cooking your food," he pointed out. Ker abandoned Tarel instantly to hug Orien tightly.
"I promise I really like you, too," the little boy vowed. "I just maybe like you better like this, and the big kid better as a kitty, cause big kids always get us little guys in trouble."
"Oi," Carzier protested.
"Truth can be painful, Carz," Friezen laughed.