Tarel and Orien had stood beside their mother's grave the next morning one last time. Neither boy bothered to hide what she had called their outer gifts any longer. The older had his arms around Orien's shoulders while the younger boy had his midnight wings wrapped around his brother as Tarel spoke to his mother's spirit. "I know you will not linger in that village or in this place as pleasant as it is, Mother. You will be watching over us, as you always have. I vow to you on your grave, I will protect our little hummingbird with all my heart, with all my strength, with all my soul, because they all belong to him. I never thanked you for bringing me that egg to keep warm when you could have done so much better at it yourself, but I do thank you and I will for the rest of my days, Mother."
"I know that you were not my mother," Orien whispered. "You told me the tale so often so that I would know I had a mother who gave her life to give me mine. You saved my life when you helped my mother deliver me, but then rather than raise me as your own, you gave me to my lion and you let him raise me instead. I believe you knew I would never be the fighter that he is; I have not the stomach to make war unless it is in defense of my lion. I will stay with him for the rest of our days, and I will bless your memory each night and each morning for having given me the only person I have or will ever need so much."
As they walked away to rejoin Chrijo at the wagon, Orien looked up into Tarel's face. "You said your heart and strength and soul all belong to me. Do you truly feel so, my lion?"
"I vowed it on my mother's grave, my little hummingbird."
"You will never let me see the end of that name, will you?" Orien grumped, adorably in Tarel's eyes. "As soon as I am good enough to fight, I will challenge Chrijo to a duel for having given you the thought."
"Now why would you fight our best and only friend in the world, when in truth, it was I who called you that first in his presence?"
"You called me.... Why would you do this?"
"I swear to you I never meant insult," Tarel said sincerely. "You were hiding not at all as well as you thought in the bushes near his practice field one day, and my thoughts were on you rather than my lessons. He grew weary of correcting me, and finally asked what had stolen my mind that day. It was then I told him of your trilling whenever you are in my arms. I never told him of your wings."
"I told Tarel that day that if you were willing to risk trouble with your mother for sneaking out of the house and all the way across the village to spy on you, then he should work that much harder at his training so that he was worthy of your admiration," Chrijo spoke up as they had reached the wagon once again.
"Father, it has come to my mind that I may be of use to our journey, rather than just sitting in the wagon as you and Tarel drive the horses," Orien smiled hopefully. "If I were to take to the air, I could...."
"Easily be shot down by a hungry hunter who mistakes you for a mere bird," the man cut him off.
"I had not considered that," the boy said sadly. "I merely wished to be of more help, as you say I am not yet strong enough for the horses."
"Orien, who spent the most time with your mother learning her healing arts, you or Tarel?"
"Does it not follow that you are the better healer then? I have only trained with weapons, making them and using them. Tarel has trained only in using them, though I hope to teach more of making and repairing weapons soon as well. This means that we two warriors need a healer we place our lives in the hands of to keep us fed, rested, and in our best fighting fit."
"I can do that. I will care for you both and you will each protect us all, and we will be a family together."
An hour later they were on their journey once again and young Orien had fallen asleep in the back of the wagon as Tarel and Chrijo sat and took turns with the team. "Thank you for that," Tarel said simply.
"What do you thank me for?"
"You made Orien feel that he is as important as either of us."
"Is he not?"
"Yes he is," Tarel agreed quickly. "It was needed for him to know that as well, though. You are a fine father to him, just as you have been to me. She would have been glad to have married you. She didn't know I knew that, but just as my Orien would sneak to watch me train with you, my mother would watch you."
"You have no doubt heard the stories of me from the village, how that I lost my ability to sire in the wars of my youth. It is expected of men to marry and sire fine strong sons. In a small village like we have come from to not take a wife and raise sons can be a shameful thing, Tarel. For this reason, despite the grief I share with you at the loss of your mother, good woman that she was, I rejoice for you and Orien that we have gone from there, for now you.... Never mind, perhaps I speak too much too soon."
"It is well, Father. You have said I am the son of your heart, no less so you are the father of my own, please, speak on."
"I know only that none of the girls of the village ever caught your eye or your heart, but that may well be because of that which your mother and you kept hidden. I think that was not only what kept your eyes from straying to the girls though."
"It was as you say, Father. Neither my eye nor my heart has ever yearned for that which hides under the dresses of the women or girls of the village. It may well change should I encounter a female of my people, but I feel it not now."
"Fifteen summers you are, still young enough that it may change, but old enough that it may not."
"What may change?" a sleepy voice mumbled from behind them.
"Naught that concerns you, little bird," Tarel told him. "You will learn of it in your own time, and that time is yet many summers away. Now back to sleep, little hummingbird."
"I think not many, but still several," Chrijo mused thoughtfully.
"Surely not, father," Tarel nodded. "He is only ten summers now."
"Did you not start your nightly visions near to that age, as I did?"
"Father!" Tarel blushed intensely. "You speak so boldly of such things."
"If I am to be your father, is it not my place and duty to speak of such with you?" the man shrugged. "Or did your dear mother....."
"NO!" Tarel yelped. "I... that is to say.... Mother was always too busy to umm... well it didn't ever feel right to burden her with my questions."
"But you now have a father, perhaps not of blood and birth, but as we have spoken, in the heart you two are my sons, whom I will always love. As your father, it is not only weapons that I should teach you."
"I know of relieving the matter, father," Tarel blushed from head to toe and mumbled.
"I would have fretted if you did not at your years, Tarel," Chrijo teased. "Of a truth, that is first discovered by boys not that very much older than our hummingbird, and the same of the nightly visions that relieving the matter as you say is meant to calm."
"Of a truth, I think this is the most words you have ever spoken to me, other than commands on the training on the field," Tarel grinned, clearly hoping to sway the conversation from such troublesome thoughts.
"It is likely so, for I was never more than commander to you," Chrijo agreed. "Does it vex you now to have me as father and commander?"
"There is no other in all the realm whom I would rather have for father or commander, having never known my sire. You do not stand as my father, you are my father, and you are my commander."
"As you are my son, my lion cub. No man could be more proud of a son of his own loins than I am of you, Tarel." The man reached over and pulled Tarel against his side and let him fall asleep embraced by one arm while the other drove the team. When the boy stirred sometime later, he smiled and asked, "Do neither of my sons sleep at night? Of a truth you won't this night as you have done so most all of the day."
"Father, I am so sorry," Tarel apologized. "I should have taken my turn with the team."
"Calm your fears and guilt, my son," Chrijo soothed. "If I had needed you, I would have woken you. It is not every day that a boy buries his mother, so my sons needed their rest this day. Besides, it just means you will stand double watch this night so that I may sleep."
"Father, you do not fool me," Tarel teased back. "You do not sleep when I am on watch or driving the team. You let Orien think you do, but your eyes never completely close."
"He does not fool me, either, my lion," Orien giggled from behind them. "I know the breathing of a sleeping man, as mother taught me to watch for such and know the difference of a man who sleeps by his own doing and one who sleeps from the efforts of another, whether they be for his good or no."
"Oh, so my sons have found me out," Chrijo laughed. "Well, I assure that my old eyes will be completely shut and my breath will truly sleep tonight." He then grew serious as he looked into their faces. "I trust you, Tarel, to keep us safe, just as you do the same with me. Of a truth, who better to guard us at night than my son with the eyes of a cat?"
"Father, speaking of eyes, there is a rider ahead of us, coming this way," Orien said quickly. "Shall we cover ourselves?"
"Is the rider alone?"
"Yes, father there is no one around him," Orien answered.
"I do not see a rider," Tarel complained.
"My son, while no one sees better at night than the cat, it is also true no one sees farther and better in the day than the eagle."
Tarel rolled his eyes as Orien puffed out his little chest and preened proudly. "Hear that my lion? I am an eagle, not a hummingbird."
"Eagle you may be to the world, Orien, but hummingbird you will always be to me." Orien started to protest, but something about the way Tarel had spoken and the way he looked at Orien had the younger boy blushing rather than fighting. There was also a trill of happiness heard that made the boy's face grow even brighter before he busied himself drawing a cloak over his wings to hide them from the approaching rider.
"Hail, friend," the rider called out as he drew closer to their wagon.
"Greetings," Chrijo replied. It was not lost on the boys in the wagon with him that their father figure had not returned the word friend to this stranger, but had responded in a friendly manner.
"Know you this region well?" the stranger asked.
"I know it, but not well," Chrijo answered. "I know nothing beyond that this road leads to the Western Sea, where my sons and I will seek to either make our fortunes or trade our goods and move on."
"You are a merchant, then?"
"I have been, as I have also been a warrior, and a blacksmith."
"A man of many talents, it would seem," the stranger smiled warmly. "Would that our paths lay in the same direction that I might benefit from your skills."
"You flatter me, sir," Chrijo laughed, but both boys knew it was not the sound of his genuine laughter.
"I seek a kinsman who has gone missing," the stranger told them. "I sadly confess he has brought much shame to the family, and I have been sent to ensure that he does not do so again."
"A terrible burden you bear," Chrijo told him.
"It is, indeed," the man agreed. "As children he and I played together, but Raspien was drawn by the darker things of life. Many in the family tried to correct him, but alas it never changed him."
"Begging your pardon, sir, did you say Raspien?" Tarel asked in a low gravelly voice.
"Yes, the name of an ancestor he dishonors with the use of it," the man replied.
"What is your task with this kinsman?" Chrijo asked as he put a hand on Tarel's arm.
"It is my duty to my family that if he refuses yet to end his wild ways, well... I must end him, or die in the attempt," the man returned.
"Your mission is for naught, sir," Tarel said. "The man you seek has been put to death for the murder of my mother."
"Dead? You are certain of this?" the stranger asked. He gasped as the rest of Tarel's words sunk in. "I and my family owe you a debt that money can never pay, young one. Allow me to travel to the Western Sea in your company that I may serve you as guardian and perhaps in time a friend."
"You speak truth that nothing may replace my loss, but we would not wish to burden you with our travels," Tarel told the man trying desperately to cover his nerves. He had no reason yet to trust this man.
"Is it your travels with which you fear to burden me, or is it your doubt that I will keep your secret, young cat?" He raised his hands in a gesture of surrender as Chrijo reached under the seat of the wagon. "Peace friend, I mean no harm, and have already stated my family owes this boy a great debt."
"You would not be the first to pay a debt by the slaughter of they who hold the debt," Chrijo pointed out.
"To do so would violate all I stand for, Chrijo of Jolyne," the stranger replied. "Has it been so long since you have heard that name?" he asked at Chrijo's gasp. "Tarel, the Lion, I beg of you to spare me the arrow in your brother, Orien the Eagle's bow," he called out. "It would not slay me, though it would hurt very much."
"I think it is time you tell us your name, stranger as you know ours," Chrijo demanded.
"You know me, though you doubt your mind as you think yourself the only survivor of that battle at the Northern Reach, as did I until my eyes fell upon you, my friend," the man returned. "For the sake of these sons of your heart, I am Friezen of the House of Galien."
"It cannot be," Chrijo whispered. "I saw you fall with Talven."
"Talven took the brunt of the blow," Friezen told them. "I tried all I could to save him, but the wound was too great, and I was exhausted from the battle myself. As I knelt over him, I was clubbed about the head with a war hammer from one of the hordes we fought. I am now doubly bound to serve you, young master Tarel. Beyond the life that is owed to you, I am bound by a vow made these many years ago to a dying friend to protect and care for his great love."
"He spoke of me at the end?" Chrijo choked out.
"How could you doubt that his last thoughts would be of you, when of a truth, all his thoughts were of you?" Friezen countered softly. "He looked into my eyes and grasped my arm with all his remaining strength and ordered me to find and protect and care for you, his great love, as he always called you."
Chrijo broke into sobs and his body shook with grief he had not experienced in many years. He suddenly looked up at Friezen. "You said you were injured as well."
"I was," Friezen confirmed. "Yes, I was aware that Mogren went to fulfill my vow in my stead. I saw him fall at your side, and watched you avenge him before I was lost to the darkness of my wounds for a time. I searched for you when I was able, but found no sign of you, nor of any surviving the battle save me."
"After I saw you fall, and Mogren fell to protect me, I finished what had to be done and took my leave of the battlefield," Chrijo explained.
"Then the stories I heard after the battle were true," Friezen marveled.
"What stories?" Orien asked ever the eager one for a great tale.
"Those who had witnessed the end of the battle, hiding in the forests nearby spoke of a horrible and powerful cry going up from a lone soldier left to face an unnumbered horde. They believed it to be his wail of defeat and thought themselves and their homes to be lost to the dark forces invading them," Friezen told the young boy. "This was no wail, little eagle."
"Was it not? You spoke of the unnumbered horde? How could one warrior stand against such a force?"
"Perhaps you should ask him, little eagle, as he who is worshipped to this day as a God of War, sits beside you now as your father."
"Father?" Tarel and Orien both gasped.
"God of War indeed," Chrijo scoffed.
"Shall I show you the shrine, old friend?" Friezen said, but he clearly was not teasing.
"Tell us, Master Friezen, share with us the tale they tell of our father?" Tarel was the one pleading for the story now.
"I was unknown to this world at the time from my own injuries, but as the townsfolk nursed me back to health, I heard the bits and bobs of it," Friezen began. "Alas, but I hunger and am weary from my long travels. Perhaps our tale would be better shared over a meal among friends than as told from one stranger sitting his sore behind on a horse's saddle for too long."
"You were never one to sustain discomfort long," Chrijo laughed. "Come boys, I think we make camp here for the night, so that my very old, very soft friend may rest his precious weary ass."
"How very crude you still are, Chrijo," Friezen pouted. "And you call me old, adding insult to injury."
"Father, we have no meat for our meal," Tarel pointed out.
"I saw rabbits in a field not far past," Orien practically bounced with excitement. "I can get them, oh please let me, Father."
"Hunting a rabbit should be safe enough a chore, go and be quick, but above all be safe, my son," Chrijo reluctantly agreed. The boy leapt out of the wagon with a delighted yell. "Wait, do you not want your bow?" his father asked.
"I will have no need of it, nor be able to use it, Father," Orien grinned as he shifted into his eagle form.
"A moment young eagle," Friezen called out. He walked over to the giant bird and placed a necklace with a pendant about his neck. The necklace and pendant faded into a pattern in the bird's feathers. "This will keep you from being shot by arrows while in the air, little one."
Orien trilled a happy response, then jumped into the air and flew away. Instantly, Tarel was out of the wagon taking only long enough to say that he would keep an eye on his brother before he too transformed into his animal form and ran into the distance, following his bird.
"You have fine strong sons for a man who never looked on a woman with anything but scorn," Friezen said as he smiled at his old friend. "You must tell me the story of them."
"For you, I will speak what I know, but I do not know all," Chrijo told him as he climbed down from the wagon. "Now climb your delicate ass down from that horse and put your skills to use making a fire."
"Always the commands," Friezen teased. "And as I recall, you have no knowledge of how delicate my ass may or may not be, though not for the lack of offers in our youth."
"You well know that I only had eyes for Talven," Chrijo returned.
"Yes, well, it was not your eyes that I sought after," Friezen continued to smirk.
"You will hold your tongue of such around Orien, or I will cut it out, friend or no," Chrijo scolded.
"No humor in your youth, no humor in your age," Friezen pouted.