Ben Van Dongen
Jagged talons and a cracked beak snapped at Aen. The old Aquillo, Lethwin, flapped his leathery wings, but they smacked the inward curving walls. Instead, the old bird screeched, sending spittle like sea spray. The dim candle went out, turning the shadowy corner into a dark void.
Jumping back, away from the grasping talons, Aen saw no more than the shine of the bird’s eyes. His skin burned from within as he fought his urge to change form, the recent rebuke from his mother fresh in his mind. Instead, he took up a defensive hunting stance he learned from his human tribe. He had no spear to keep the beast at bay, but the reflexes drilled into him on the hunt helped him dodge the swooping attacks from Lethwin.
“Mother. What do we do?” Aen stepped behind a nearby table.
“Be quiet! The old fool cannot see properly,” his mother chided. In a flash, her own eyes reflecting the meager remaining candle-light of the room, she charged at Lethwin. Ducking under a swooping wing and sidestepping a raking talon, she struck the Aquillo in the midsection.
Aen heard the huff from the old bird, a half cough, half wheeze. He could not make out her actions in the dark, but heard her call out in pain. Lethwin laughed, making Aen’s blood boil. He felt his bones ache to change. To give him the power to cut down the foe who threatened his mother. A shrill cry escaped him as he fought the desire to transform.
“Mother. Back.” Lifting the table by its base, Aen charged at Lethwin, flattening the Aquillo between the tabletop and the wall. He heard a crack of hollow bones as the fight left Lethwin.
Standing next to him, holding her arm, Tartara eased Aen back, letting up on the pinned Aquillo.
Aen dropped the table. It hit the ground with a loud thunk, betraying its weight. His hands, burning hot, shook as he took control over his emotions. One of the lessons his mother drilled into him over the previous three months.
“This wrenched Aquillo attacked you,” Aen said, looking down on Lethwin, now crumpled to the icy floor in his human form.
With her uninjured arm, Tartara cuffed Aen on the back of his head. “Quiet, child. We are in a city run by our enemies. This scene will not go unnoticed.”
“He attacked us. You are hurt.”
“Superficial wound. It will heal rapidly. You did well to stay in your human form, but we must keep our wits and move quickly before the alarm goes out. See to the rest of the tavern. Do not let any remaining fools leave. We will speak to them before we depart.”
Nodding, Aen turned to the claustrophobic room. The bar was low, running half way between the floor and the ceiling. A few more tables were scattered around the remaining space, some overturned from when the altercation began. No other patrons remained, but the bartender, a middle aged man with a yellowed beard and black teeth, crouched behind the bar.
“I don’t want no trouble.” The bartender kept his head down.
Aen leaned over the low bar. “I just want to talk to you before we leave.”
The man grunted and spat on the floor.
“You did not see anything here, did you?”
“I ain’t no fan of the Aquillo, but I ain’t interested in goin’ ‘gainst them. One them monsters comes askin’ bout the ruckus, I gotta tell ‘em what I saw.”
“That would not be a wise decision.” Aen stood as tall as he could.
“Them birds in charge of everything ‘round here. Rule over the likes of us. Most of us are here ‘cuse they forced us here in the first place.” The bartender spat again, but did not meet Aen’s gaze.
Tartara came over helping Lethwin limp beside her. “Why have you not killed this man? He poses trouble for us.”
“I thought you said to speak with him.” Aen scrunched his eyebrows.
Shoving the limp Aquillo at Aen, Tatara reached over the bar and grabbed the man by the front of his shirt. “Either you forget that you saw us, or I tear your throat out now. If you do not convince me, I may tear your throat out anyway.”
Nodding, the bartender whimpered. “I did not see anything. Lethwin went crazy, like usual.”
“Good.” Turning, Tatara took Lethwin back and led him out the front door.
The light, shining brightly off the snow, made Aen squint. He followed the shape of his mother guiding the Aquillo through the narrow back streets of Nythland.
“Where are we going?” he asked.
“Be quiet. I can hardly hear this creature talk.”
Moving closer to his mother, Aen listened intently. Faintly he heard Lethwin mumbling instructions.
At each intersection the old bird would whisper the direction and Tatara made the move without hesitation. They scrambled down the paths behind buildings either carved out of ice or built into the frozen cliffs. They constantly moved upwards as well, as the city itself met and climbed the base of the mountain.
When they reached the edge of the city, at the highest point, Lethwin pointed a crooked finger to a small door set into a mound of ice.
“In there. Take me in there.”
Growling low in her throat, Tartara sneered. “This would not be some sort of trap, would it?”
Weakly, Lethwin shook his head. “No. I swear. It is a safe place were we can speak. It is close to your destination as well. So, very close.”
“If you do betray me or put my cub in danger, you will die long before I am slain.” Tatara dragged the Aquillo to the door and motioned for Aen to open it.
Swallowing, Aen took hold of a metal ring attached to the front of the wooden door. The cold of the ring hurt his hands, but he pulled, as instructed. It took all his strength to free the door from the build up of ice and snow.
It cracked open loudly, causing Tatara to peer around them, checking for any locals alerted by the sound.
Aen saw steps leading down that were swallowed by shadow before he could see any farther.
When the door was open wide, Tatara threw Lethwin inside, leaving her with her son for a moment. “Listen to me child. You are starting to see our true power. Even in human form, we can tap into some of our abilities and strength. You did so in the tavern subduing the Aquillo. You must again draw upon that strength to change your eyes, and only your eyes.”
Aen creased his brow. “Why, how?”
“Listen and I will tell you. This room, like the way up the mountain, will be dark, nearly black. Our Tygry eyes will guide us. Concentrate on seeing the wretched Lethwin inside that room. Do not worry about how, just do it.”
Looking into the darkness beyond the open door, Aen was able to make out spots, like shadows, then familiar shapes, then the outline of the Aquillo.
“I see him. He is like a shadow, but with some detail.”
“That is a good start.” Tatara put her hand on his cheek. “You have done so well. It will improve in time. Do not force it.” Gently, she guided him forward.
Aen walked down the steps to a dirt floor. He saw Lethwin huddled against a wall, holding his side.
“You did a number on me with that table, young Tygry.” Lethwin coughed and winced.
“You attacked my mother.” Aen snarled.
Opening his mouth wide, Lethwin guffawed. “I suppose I did. I am sorry. I am old and instinct is powerful with our kind.”
“Our kind. I am nothing like you.”
“We can both change form, we have trouble controlling our emotions, I can see that plainly on you, and have power that separates us from the humans. We are not so unalike.”
The light from the open door was cut off and Tatara descended the stairs. “Do not tease the boy. He has only just learned of his heritage and our past.”
Lethwin frowned. “I have no love for Tygry, but the feud has been dead for me for many years. My opinions have softened with age, along with my bones. I sometimes struggle to remember how the war began. Undoubtedly it all grew from something trivial. But then, here I am with the last two free Tygry, who I have attacked already, about to engage in subterfuge to overthrow my own kingdom.”
Aen snorted. “What is your point?”
“The world is a strange and dangerous place cub. Not all things have meaning. Some simply require consideration from time to time.”
Tatara stood next to Aen and stroked his hair. “Enough with your running mouth, bird. I came here because my husband said he had dealings with you at one time and you sent word that you would help me kill the king and throw your people into ruin.”
“Not ruin.” Lethwin put up his crooked finger. “No doubt the death of the king will cause a great clamour, but the result will be the rightful family taking control of the kingdom once again.”
“Your family.” Tatara watched the Aquillo intently.
“Certainly. I myself was once in line for the thrown. Clearly, the option for my own rule has passed, buy my lineage could once again lead the Aquillo into the future.”
“I care nothing for your future. I will be satisfied with revenge.”
Lethwin chuckled again.
Tatara growled. “What do you find amusing about that, coot?”
“Your desire for revenge. It is so short sighted.”
“I grow tired of your Aquillan sense of pretention. Speak your mind or move on.”
“I assumed you agreed to meet me because you knew of the others. It makes no difference to me, of course. I am only concerned with the rightful rule of the kingdom. I would, however, think you would wish to free the Tygrys that the Aquillo keep captive.” Lethwin smiled, showing broken teeth stained red from the earlier encounter. In the darkness he looked like a demon or specter.
Aen looked to his mother.
Tatara charged at Lethwin. “Liar. You insult me and taint the brief goodwill I grant you.”
“It is true, dear girl.” Lethwin held his smile against the anger of Tatara. “I would not have thought your people’s bloodlust would be enough to get you to throw you and your child’s life away. If I did, I would have gotten Tygrys to do my dirty work for years.”
Tatara leaned over the Aquillo, moving her face within inches of his. “Tell me of these Tygry. Quickly before I let my bloodlust drive me to take my revenge on you.”
“On top of the mountain, in the palace, at the inner most point, is the dungeon. Along with the humans who cause us trouble, or those we required to keep their families cooperative, is a cage. A cell within a cell. It is under constant guard, and filled with nearly a dozen Tygry.” Lethwin shrugged his bony shoulders, “Except when the king demands one of them for his entertainment. He has recklessly lost quite a few captives to his boredom.”
“And you would let these Tygry go free?”
“Of course not. Though, what happens while the palace is under attack and the king is slayed, I have not control over. If one of you were to free the prisoners while the other attacks the king, one or two may even manage to escape, though I doubt it. More realistically, you will be ending their suffering.”
Tatara hulled Lethwin to his feet and slammed him against the wall. “If you are lying to me I will ensure your death is slow. More realistically, I will kill as many of your lineage as I can before I breath my last.”
A fresh spat of blood oozed from Lethwin’s mouth. “Understood. Shall we proceed?”
“What is the plan?” Tatara let go and stepped to her son.
“The path to the top of the mountain is mostly unguarded. We can make it most of the way with no trouble by simply posing as human servants. Your smell may give you away when we reach the city, though. From there, I will cause a distraction, giving you just enough time to make it to the palace. You may be requited to kill some guards, but that sacrifice is justified in the long run. From there, I don’t care what you do, as long as the king is dead.”
“Very well.” Tatara walked to Aen and gripped him tightly. “Where is the entrance to the path?”
“We are already here.” Lethwin smiled again, showing his bloody teeth.