Chrijo beamed proudly when his eagle son returned with a fine fat rabbit in each claw. "You have proven your worth, my son," he told the boy as he returned to his more human form. "Are you as good at cooking the meat as you are at fetching it, though?"
"I will leave that judgement to you, Father," the boy said with a bashful blush. He then gasped aloud as his brother lumbered back into the campsite dragging a freshly killed stag. "Braggart," he pouted. "I could kill the stag too, but I wouldn't be able to fly it back to camp."
"I would never doubt you, hummingbird," Tarel said quickly and honestly. "Of a truth, I meant not to offend you, only to bring meat that can be cured over the fire for our travels."
"Oh, I will need the herbs from Mother's kitchen," Orien exclaimed and ran to search the wagon.
"With such fine hunters as sons, you will never know hunger, old friend," Friezen smiled at Chrijo.
"Hark, who calls whom old now, ancient one," the warrior returned.
"Ancient? Ancient?" the sorcerer screeched. "You are even cruder than I remember," he pouted. "And here I was about to offer to journey with you to protect you."
"You protect me?" Chrijo scoffed. "Recount that tale again, my friend. Who is worshipped as the God of War and who had to be nursed back to health from a single blow?"
"You brute you," Friezen pouted. "I'm loathe to say how I've missed your sharp tongue, Chrijo."
"Well, should I be forced to the admission," the warrior started with a shrug. "There has been a hole in my life that only you fill as well. I've had no one sneaking into my tent, adding tassels to my armor in the night."
"Tassels?" both Tarel and Orien started snickering, then giggling.
"How dare you laugh and scorn gifts from a great and powerful mage," Friezen scolded.
"Were they powerful amulets to protect him in battle?" Orien asked wide-eyed.
"They were tassels cut from the rug in my commander's tent," Chrijo answered.
"Rug tassels?" Tarel snorted and giggled more.
"It served the double purpose," Friezen defended with a pout. "It brought attention to the best warrior we had, and it stopped everyone from tripping over that stinking rug."
"Oh, it brought attention well enough," Chrijo mocked. "That rug had been woven by his wife, and he thought I had defaced it in dishonor to her. I was ordered to assist the cooks for a month."
"Ah, yes but you only served a day of that sentence," Friezen pointed out. "Tell me does your soup still curdle the souls of the purest of hearts?"
"YES!" both boys blurted quickly.
"Were it not for our hummingbird, we would starve," Tarel added with a smile for their youngest companion.
"We still shall if that hummingbird doesn't get to work on those fine rabbits he caught and the stag you have brought," Chrijo pointed out.
"What is this hummingbird?" Friezen asked looking at the three of them. "I have seen no tiny garden dweller. My eyes beheld a young, yet powerful war eagle, with a heart no less full of love for his family than the battle lion who followed, not to protect his eagle, but so that his eyes would not be robbed of the sight of him."
"I... I..." Tarel stuttered. "I must gather more firewood for the night," he blurted and ran from the camp.
"I will.... gather the wood with my eldest son," Chrijo said as he stood and followed Tarel.
"He really followed me just so that he could watch me?" Orien asked softly, his voice trilling happily. When he heard it, he stopped immediately and blushed.
"I will tell you the secret, my feathered friend," Friezen smiled. "All birds trill for their mates, from the tiniest hummingbird to the greatest war eagles, and all cats make the grand gestures to prove to their mates that they can provide for them," he added as his hand swept over the carcass of the stag. His magic skinning and curing the hide in one quick motion. "Now my little dove, you start cooking, and let your uncle Friezen turn this hide into something you and your kitten will both appreciate."
In the woods nearby, Chrijo found a golden lion clawing a massive oak angrily. "We need only firewood for the night, my son, we do not build a fortress," he called out. He expected the great cat to turn on him angrily, but instead, it flopped to the ground and whined pitifully, as it transformed back into Tarel's more human looking form.
"I didn't bring the stag to show off that I was a better hunter than he was," he said with a sad sigh. "Well, I did, but I didn't mean for it to make him feel bad. I don't want him to have to hunt for his food; I want to do that for him. It's my duty as his... guardian."
"You say guardian as though another word is in your mind and I suspect your heart as well, Tarel," Chrijo said quietly as he sat beside the son of his heart.
"It cannot be," Tarel said strongly. "He is my brother; I have raised him from his birth. We are family to one another, not....."
"Are mates not family, Tarel?"
"Mates?" the teen squeaked. "No. No. No. It cannot be. I beheld the trust in his eyes when they opened for the first time as he emerged from the shell in my bed. They were as blue as the sky in summer, not just any summer day, but that one perfect best day of summer when the sky is completely clear, and the sun warm and comforting and you are the happiest that you have ever been because you see that sky."
"It is not his eyes making you think of that sky, I think, but rather that sky recalling his eyes in your heart," Chrijo said wisely. "I have told you that I saw you never had eyes for the girls of the village, my son, but perhaps it is time to tell you what I did see in your eyes. The other boys, their eyes would go to this girl or that one and fill with a darkened glaze of what their loins conjured. Your eyes only and always sought your hummingbird and they never darkened, but were ablaze. You sought not a release of your loins, but a joining of your heart. I saw in your eyes not what a boy reveals when sighting a girl, but what a man reveals when sighting his mate."
Back at the camp, Orien was rushing around the campfire mumbling to himself as he rummaged through this sack and then that one occasionally squealing triumphantly and running back to the fire to season some portion of the meats, he was cooking with the treasure he had found. Friezen on the other hand, was sitting a little further from the fire waving his hands over the deerskin and mumbling as well. He had just finished what he was doing to it and called Orien over to try the cloak on when Tarel and Chrijo returned to camp with what seemed to be enough firewood to burn a city to the ground.
"What have you done to him?" Tarel bellowed and dropped his armload of firewood, rushing over to Orien quickly. "If you have harmed my mate, I will hunt you through all eternity to make you pay," he growled at Friezen.
"Tarel, peace," Orien called out desperately as he shrugged off the cloak and ran to Tarel. "Peace, my lion. He has done naught but fashion me a cloak that hides my wings without a hump."
"You have your wings, my eagle?" Tarel gasped as he sank to his knees in front of Orien. Orien confirmed by wrapping the appendages in question around them both like a blanket. Tarel purred loudly from inside the feathered cocoon. He then cleared his throat and peeked out over the top of the black feathers at Friezen. Orien pulled his wings back behind him and went back to his cooking. "Master Sorcerer, I beg your forgiveness for my words of haste. It is not known by my brother, but the night his bearer came to my mother's hut, her wings had been violently and viciously cut from her body and I believe it was this that caused her death."
"When you saw your mate without his, you feared that end for him as well?" Friezen asked quietly. Tarel nodded while keeping his eyes on the ground at the sorcerer's feet. "You know I have the powers to utterly destroy you, yet you would fight me for your mate's life and health? Are those black feathers indeed that precious to you?"
"I have not the words to say how much they mean to me, Master Sorcerer," Tarel confessed. "My fears do not excuse my actions. Punish me as you see fit, great one."
"I will not punish such love and devotion, you silly cat," Friezen laughed. "You may thank me for helping your dear eagle travel in more safety, however. The power I used for that cloak has quite drained me. You will take my shift at guarding the camp this night."
"As you wish it, Master Sorcerer," Tarel said quickly and grabbed the hem of the man's cloak to kiss it reverently.
"Go on with you, silly kitten," Friezen fussed and shooed at him with his hands. "You make me feel dreadful and old. Get away, boy, before I catch your fleas."
"I do not have fleas," Tarel defended with a pout. "Nor am I a kitten. I am a powerful warrior."
His words would have had more impact had his father not walked up behind him at that moment and scratched behind his left ear, causing the teen to break into a purr and duck his head into the touch. "Oh, no, my son, you are no kitten," Chrijo laughed and hugged the boy before Tarel could storm away, even though his blush was clearly seen by both the men.