By Christian Laforet
The fire swirled and crackled. A knot in the pine log popped, sending a small army of embers floating into the night. Aen, laying in his sheep-skin sack, watched as his mother stoked the flames. Tartara had only been in his life for a few months, but that time had been a whirlwind of instruction. She had taught him how to use his gift—to shift between the form of man and tiger—along with other useful traits. During all of those lessons, however, she had managed to carefully avoid his only real question: what happened the day the humans found him? Whenever Aen would broach the subject, his mother would give a vague, unsatisfying answer. His favourite being, It was so long ago, I cannot clearly recall.
Her refusal to shed light on that day, the day he went to live with the human tribe, had become so expected, that he stopped asking about it. That is why, while camped on the north road to Nythland, with freshly killed rabbit cooking over the fire with fat, lazy snowflakes danced to the frozen earth around them, Aen was shocked when his mother began to speak of the past without prompting.
“We had been travelling for many days before we encountered the group of humans. Your father, his name was Morga, felt that our safety lie in hiding amongst their kind.” As she spoke, Tartara, kept her gaze on the browning meat of the rabbit.
Aen pushed himself to sitting. “Why are you telling this to me now?”
Slowly, the woman, clad in a layered cloak, turned her attention to her son. “The event still hurts like a fresh wound. I would prefer not tell you at, but if we are going to continue on our quest, you need to know what happened.”
It was not exactly the reasoning Aen had hoped for, but it would have to do. Nodding his head, as if preparing for what he was about to hear, he asked Tartara to continue.
Her eyes twinkled madly in the snapping flame, she tilted her head back, looking up into the night sky. The stars and moons had been snuffed out by the clouds currently releasing their snow on the land. Aen watched as several flakes landed, then melted on his mother’s face. Finally, returning her focus back to him she said, “Have you ever heard of the Aquilo?”
Aen thought back to the limited knowledge passed down to him from his tribe. The people there had been a fearful, superstitious lot, and as such, almost never ventured far from home. After a moment, he shook his head.
“I thought not. Humans are a brazen species, but they are still new to the world, and their understanding of how it works, reflects that.” Tartara rose and walked around the fire. Her cloak left a line in the snow behind her.
“Long before humans, this world was home to two races. The tiger tribes, the Tygrys…our people, and the eagle empire, the Aquilo…our enemy. For many generations, our two great races battled. Wars ran across borders, across generations, until a day came when there were no more soldiers left to wage it. The Tygrys tribes had become thin, scattered, while the remaining Aquilo settled in the city of Skytop, nestled on the tallest peak of the eastern lands. Your father, Morga, pleaded with the few remaining Tygrys to join together and march on Skytop. His reasoning being that the longer the Aquilo had to tend their wounds, the more power it would give them over us. The tribes did not listen. And as sure as your father predicted, like wraiths in the night, the accursed Aquilo descended from the skies and felled the last of the Tygrys tribes. Your father and I, as far as we knew, were the very last of our race. Or at least almost the last, as we also had you.
“Rage flowed through Morga’s veins, he worked up a plain of action, one that would deliver a devastating blow to the Aquilo.”
“What happened to father…to his plan?” Aen asked eagerly.
Having circled the fire three times, Tartara returned to her position next to the flames. She reached out and pulled a chunk of meat from the smoking carcass. “He, and our mission, were the victims of poor luck.”
Aen waited for her to elaborate, instead she ate the meat clutched in her hand. “What do you mean?”
“Your father knew that the easiest way to pass across the great wilds, was to do so in our human form. We found a small group traveling between villages on the day I lost you…both of you. The humans, of course, had no idea of our true forms.”
“What happened? I mean, when you found the humans?” Aen, forgetting about the snow, and his dinner, leaned forward, focused on his mother.
“The Aquilo came just as night fell.” Once again she turned her gaze skyward, as if she could see the eagles now. “It was a small group, in search of slaves. Morga, fearing that we had been discovered, lashed out. His action was brave, but ultimately foolish. The Aquilo out-numbered us, quickly reducing the humans into nothing more than shreds of meat.”
Aen swallowed. His mouth and throat had become dry. “And what of father?”
“Morga fought bravely, he even managed to snag some of the cursed fowl from the very air, but it was not enough, he was plucked from the ground. I watched, helpless as a cub, as he disappeared into the night sky. I…I never saw him again.
“With Morga gone, I knew that all was lost. Thinking quickly, I hid you amongst the fresh corpses, transformed and ran off into the trees. Believing that I was all that remained of the group, the Aquilo gave chase. It took nearly three days to lose them. When I returned to the tragic scene, you and the dead humans were gone. For a long time I feared that some predator had stumbled across an easy meal, and that you had been ground to death between hungry teeth.”
Tartara let a tear roll down her cheek before catching it on her thumb.
Aen was stunned. His whole life, there had been a piece missing, a moment of mystery that followed him every second of his being—an unwelcome shadow. He wanted to know more, but his mother silenced him with food. The rabbit was cooked through and she had pulled off a succulent selection of its flesh. He knew he would get no more about that fateful day, so decided a different tactic. “Why are we going to Nythland?”
Looking over her own dinner, Tartara replied, “We will finish what your father and I started all those years ago.”
Aen shook his head, it all seemed too grand to comprehend. “How?”
“An old friend,” Tartara smiled as she replied. “He holds the key to reaching the summit of Skytop.”
“Skytop? We’re going to Skytop?” Aen was stunned.
“Enough for tonight, I am tired from our travels, and weakened from the horror of the past. It is time for sleep.”
They reached the icy city of Nythland late the following day. Tartara had done her best in describing the city before they arrived, but her words did not succeed in preparing Aen for what his eyes beheld.
A sprawling expanse of ice carved structures stretched out across a frozen plain. Thousands of people—clad in heavy furs and skins—filled the streets.
“Be wary, frigid air of Nythland attracts those with equally cold hearts,” Tartara whispered, all the while keeping her eyes on those around them.
It did not take Aen long to understand the meaning of his mother’s warning. A group of men poured from a pub, knives drawn, and quickly descended on a passerby barely a few paces from Aen. His reaction at the sight was one of anger, and before he knew it, he could feel his body begin to grow hot, transform.
“No,” Tartara said firmly, placing a strong hand on his wrist. “We must not reveal ourselves.”
“But Mother, these people are savage. They would do well to learn that there is always a more frightening animal around the corner.”
Aen expected a rebuke, but when he turned to face his mother, he was greeted with a small smile. “Maybe so, my son, but that will have to wait. Tonight, we need to find Lethwin.”
“Lethwin? Is that your friend you spoke of?”
The woman nodded. “Lethwin is…an unusual ally, but an ally none the less.”
The name meant nothing to Aen. He pushed for more information.
Tartara sighed. “The Aquilo are vicious, but they are also lazy. They built, and maintain their mountaintop city by using human slaves. Because of this, there needed to be a secret passage up through the mountain, so that their work force could reach the summit. Lethwin knows the location of that secret entrance.”
This time it was Aen’s turn to grip his mother’s arm. “Mother, stop. You have kept so much from me, it is time to speak the truth. What is our goal in Skytop? Why is it so important?”
Tartara hesitated a moment as a drunk man, entombed in wolf skins, shuffled past, each arm draped around the back of a prostitute. Once the area was clear, she pulled Aen into a narrow alleyway. “You are right, my son. Our goal, the one started by your father, was to slip into Skytop, and kill the Aquilo king, Orvic. The old bird has been ruler of the Aquilo for many moons, his death would create a hole that would spark an Aquilo civil war.”
It seemed so pointless to Aen. With the Tygrys all but extinct, who cared if the Aquilo eliminated themselves through in-fighting? As if reading his very thoughts, Tartara said, “All we have left is vengeance. The death of Orvic will be enough.”
The journey brought them to a particularly run-down tavern. The ice carved walls leaned inwards ever so slightly. To Aen, it looked like a box-trap his human tribe used to catch rabbits.
Thin, pale candles stood around the interior. Tartara had explained to Aen that the wax was of a special blend that reduced the heat of the flickering flames by more than a half.
Aen mistakenly thought the tavern was empty, until his eyes adjusted to the low light and he saw an old, withered human slumped in the corner. “Please tell me that is not Lethwin.”
“Looks can be deceiving. Stay close.” Tartara moved slowly, almost cautiously towards the man.
Just before they reached him, the old human jerked up, as if from a bad dream. “Who’s there?” Spittle flew from his lips as he spoke.
Tartara opened her mouth to respond, but before any words could leave her, the man leaned forward on the table and took a large sniff of the air. In an instant his posture changed, he was no longer the broken drunk, but now sturdy, powerful.
“Tygrys,” Lethwin growled. His dirty fingers gripped the edge of the table and in a great show of strength, flipped it towards Aen.
Aen dove out of the way just as the table smashed to pieces against the far wall. He could already feel his body begin the transformation process. Whoever this Lethwin was, he was not ready to face something as formidable as a Tygrys. It only took Aen a moment to realize how wrong that thought was.
Lethwin stood before him, except he was no longer an old man. The skins that he had just been wearing pooled around leathery, taloned feet. Lethwin is an Aquilo, Aen’s mind screamed. The great, winged creature—which was just as tall and wide as a full grown human—spread its wings and dove at him.