Vistridir

What I’m working on now is this. As each of the stories I have exclusively on Amazon comes to the end of its KDP Select enrollment period, I’m going to add them to this site for visitors to read free. If you want to buy them, they’ll still be available, with pretty covers and all, but they will also be here.

This one wasn’t published here, not in its entirety, but it does include the final edit of Eagle Eye and the Worm of Shirith, as well as its companion story, Brother Fox and the Worm’s Bane. I wrote both stories as a prelude to The Periapt of True Seeing, which was never finished; I got too interested in Eagle and Fox, and wanted to begin at the beginning.

There is some NSFW stuff here.

VISTRIDIR

two stories by M.A. Ray

 

EAGLE EYE AND THE WORM OF SHIRITH

Eagle Eye could scramble a squirrel’s brain with a flung stone before he was out of nappies. His mother—her ashes feeding Yriah’s children and her soul flown to Iunder, bless her—when he was born, Mother had pleaded with Falcon Eye, his father. “Don’t name him Eagle Eye,” she begged. “He won’t be able to hit the broad side of a house.” But it was Father’s-Father’s-Father’s name, and Eagle Eye it had to be, and Eagle Eye he grew into like nobody before or since would ever be Eagle Eye, and he passed into legend even while he lived.

Before all that, though, there was the Worm. Eagle—Father called him Vo, which is Eagle in the Traders’ tongue—met the old monster when he had hair down his breeches to prove he’d one day be a man, but not his man’s height, and fourscore and two years exactly. Father had gone out with some of the Court, being that he was the High King’s huntsman, and that left Eagle to himself, which he liked. That morning he’d gotten his bow and quiver in order, making sure the wood was sound and packing extra strings in his pockets. You never knew. He whetted his hunting knife, stashed a currycomb in another pocket, and set off opposite the way Father had taken the High King and all the tall perfect nobles of the Court, into the wild country southwest of Shirith Valley.

He didn’t know the name of the mountain he rambled on that day, but he knew it in the bare soles of his feet, in his nose, in his eyes, every last inch. There was a great cave mouth in the side, but Father had told him not to go spelunking alone, and most times he did what Father said, especially out in the wild. You never knew, and besides, enough dangerous things lurked in the wood itself that Eagle didn’t particularly want to be screwing around down in the dark. There were plenty of things to talk to out in the sunlight, even if most of them didn’t talk back to him.

That morning when Eagle splashed through the easternmost stream snaking near the bottom of the mountain, the fairies that clustered around it brushed him with glittery fingers as he passed. He skirted the place where the winged serpents gathered; for all they talked, what they said dripped poison in the ear. And he avoided going directly upstream to the falls where the naiads clustered to comb their hair and giggle. Young as he was, Eagle’d been man enough for them some little while now, and he had no desire to be pulled underwater and shagged until he drowned. Instead, after he laid a couple of snares for dinner, he climbed a ways to Vercingetorix’s meadow. Since he was untouched, Vercingetorix didn’t mind him. The big unicorn even let Eagle come close and stroke his silver-white sides, though his pearly wicked-sharp horn was off-limits to curious hands.

Eagle paid his respects. The currycomb he’d put in his pocket was for Vercingetorix. He liked it sometimes, and when Eagle asked this morning whether he wanted currying, he said yes. Eagle brushed him down until his coat almost blinded at a glance. He talked about all kinds of nothing. For all his great dignity he was still a frivolous fairy creature, and vain. When Eagle got through he always had the feeling he’d been talked at by six of the Court’s serving boys at once, but he liked Vercingetorix better. The chatter was more about what was going on in the forest than it was outrageous lies about sex.

After he’d finished, he said good-bye to the unicorn and took his empty belly off to check the snares. One of them had caught him a nice fat squirrel, which he killed quick and roasted slow on a spit, stuffed with young wild onion. He collected some little strawberries while he waited, and ate them after as a dessert, lounging on the flat rock in his favorite sunny clearing. The fairies came to the sweet and to Eagle, and he sure as hell wouldn’t have told anyone, but he sang to them, a made-up story about a slight, dark, suspiciously Eagle-like hero slaying wicked trolls. They loved it, and sang along in their tiny voices with the sounds of instruments, fife and fiddle both, and they touched his skin wherever it lay to the air. They frosted between his collarbones and all over his face, hands, and forearms, even his feet, with glittery fairy dust. It tickled, and the story got lost in his laughter. They kissed his long pointed ears and flittered away, as quick as they’d come, and then Eagle heard other voices speaking hituleti, the People’s Tongue, which he’d grown up speaking.

He rolled off the rock into a crouch and straightened, frantically swiping at the glitter. The voices were young men’s voices, and he didn’t want to be seen like this. It was a rare man the pretty little fairies loved. Mostly it was kids and women.

Eagle hadn’t needed to worry. The three speakers passed by in the trees below. They didn’t notice Eagle in the clearing above, but he saw them, the Duke of Madoc’s twin sons and the Crown Prince.

He heard them talking a little. “We won’t wake him!” said Prince Brother Fox, laughing. “We’ll just go in and strike at his heart. Think of it! Wormsbane, we’ll be.”

At first Eagle thought it was just a brag, but Swift Snake and Swift Cat went on about it, and he saw the direction they headed, and all of a sudden it felt terribly real. How stupid were they? He went cold all the way out to his fingertips. “Never go in there, Eagle, you mustn’t,” he remembered Father saying when they passed the cave mouth together, time and time again. “The Worm would eat Shirith whole if you wakened him.” And Eagle had believed it, believed every word of Father’s stories about the great red fire-breathing Worm that slept beneath the mountain. “The last time he woke, Eleazar burned down half the royal palace and swallowed the flocks,” Father had said. “He carried off Crown Princess Liria and sucked the marrow from her bones in his lair. Just ask that unicorn if you don’t believe me.”

Vercingetorix hadn’t wanted to talk about it. Eleazar, the Worm of Shirith, with his teeth like daggers and his claws like swords, and his wings that blotted the sun! What would Father do?

What would Father say if Eagle didn’t try to stop them? He shuddered to think; and so he snatched up his gear and dashed higher, around the side of the mountain, concealed in the trees and silent on his bare feet, still shedding fairy dust. And in the end he slid down the sharp drop in front of the cavern mouth and fell through brush and trees to land lightly right there, blocking the entrance as best it could be blocked, though that was hopeless. It gaped in the side of the mountain, and even though it was overgrown in spots, still plenty of space remained for the young men to pass. “Don’t,” he panted, straightening.

“What have we here?” sneered Swift Cat, at the same time Brother Fox cocked his head and smiled a little with his hair spilling all to one side. Eagle saw—at the same time—Brother Fox’s face beaten and bleeding, like it was when he came down to Father’s house every so often. When that happened, Father always sent Eagle on some jumped-up errand. As if he didn’t know.

“Eagle Eye?” Brother Fox asked now, smiling that smile, which put a tightness in Eagle’s belly that Eagle didn’t quite understand. “Is that you?”

“Yes, Your Highness,” Eagle said, and then, rushing, “you can’t go down there, Your Highness, the Worm—”

“Who is this, Fox?” demanded Swift Snake, the other twin.

“Faralt the huntsman’s son,” Brother Fox explained.

“So—not even nobody. Nobody’s little boy.” Swift Snake laughed and shoved Eagle onto the rocks just inside the cavern.

“Snake,” Brother Fox said, reproving, and he was maybe about to say more, but Eagle picked himself up lickety-split, before they could get past him.

“My father’d tell you the same!” He blocked as best he could, squaring his shoulders and feeling small. “He always tells me to stay away from here. Don’t wake the Worm, he says. It could kill us all!”

When Brother Fox grinned that way, Eagle for one moment almost believed him. “It’ll be dead before it can rise. You wait. I’ll bring you a scale, little Eagle.”

Eagle’s nostrils flared. “You’re being stupid!” he blurted, and Swift Cat and Swift Snake narrowed their eyes at him, same time, same gesture, same face. “It’s not a brave deed like you were saying! It’s just stupid!”

“Little nothing boy with fairy dust in his hair,” said Swift Cat. “Maybe he should go first. Sparkly Worm bait.” And he and Swift Snake both laughed, nasty and rough.

Cat,” said Brother Fox, sharper. “Cut it out. He’s a good kid. Let’s go in and slay the Worm, and then—”

“Don’t do it!” Eagle cried, his voice cracking, now, when he least wanted it to. His accidental squeak echoed in the chamber behind him, and he flushed.

Brother Fox laid a hand on his shoulder and squeezed lightly, moving him aside while the twins walked right past. “Don’t worry. I’ll bring you that scale at home.” And then the dark covered him up, his left boot heel the last thing to disappear into the cave. In a moment one of the twins lifted a red blob of mage-light; that disappeared too, and Eagle turned back toward the valley, thinking he should run and fetch Father. But Father was clear on the opposite side. He’d gone the other way, and the High King too, and the God only knew how long it’d take to fetch either one of them back, if they even believed him anyways.

He looked out over waves of green, highlighted in golden summer sun, and the seams of little creeks and falls, the dangerous sweep of the wash directly below. Eagle bit his lip, then turned and padded into the swallowing dark of the Worm’s cave. It didn’t take him long to catch up with the little, bobbing red light; but he stayed a ways off, down and down through the twisting corridors, so they wouldn’t catch him following.

Even here the Worm’s chemical reptile stink reached his nose. They were in a chamber with a ceiling so high not even the mage-light could illuminate it, and the dark seemed to press on what light there was, so the three walked close together, whispering a susurrus of regret. Behind came Eagle with his heart jacking inside his chest so hard he thought it might explode.

What was he going to do about an ancient Worm anyway? A little nothing boy with fairy dust in his hair. What could any of them do? He wished they’d listened to him. Maybe they didn’t see how the mage-light played crimson over hanging rock formations, staining them bloody, but Eagle did. He crept along, bare feet whispering on the stone, and kept his distance, no matter how much he felt like running up and squeezing himself next to Brother Fox.

The caverns opened vaster now, and Eagle could feel the wide emptiness on either side of him, almost as if it pressed on his skin. Rather than growing cooler as they went farther underground, like every cave in Eagle’s memory, this one grew warmer and then baking hot, sending sweat rolling down his back. He was terribly thirsty, and he drank from the small waterskin on his belt, but not much. He didn’t want to risk being heard. Up ahead, the older boys glistened ruby, and more than one wiped a sleeve across his brow. The stench of the Worm overpowered Eagle’s sense of smell, and then Brother Fox and the Swifts disappeared around a bend. Eagle scuttled after.

They had come into the chamber where the Worm lay sleeping. A draft of fiery air blew at intervals: Eleazar’s thunder snores. Eagle felt it, even though the mage-light had only just begun to unveil the massive evil head, big enough to climb. He could’ve fit in one of those nostrils up until a few years ago, and the black horns that curled back from that massive forehead gleamed like obsidian. The Worm’s breath was ancient meat and brimstone and one of his forefeet could have flattened six of Eagle at once. He slept on a mound of gold and jewels and bones.

And Brother Fox and his friends walked right by like it was nothing. Eagle could hardly breathe for fear. He kept along behind, but hunched in small. The closer he got, the more he wanted to turn and run; by the time he walked past the terrible mouth, he wasn’t breathing at all.

Up ahead there was a sharp crack and a jingle of coin, so loud in the chamber Eagle jumped out of his skin and barely managed to swallow a childish scream. And he froze in place, trembling and hugging himself, ’til he could recover a little.

A strange slithering sound made him look to his right, and what he saw—he so near shat himself—he let out a toot of wind and a little whimper, gazing into a glowing yellow eye taller than he was. The slither came again, and Eagle’s breath snagged watching the thinnest membrane flick across that slit-pupil snake eye, and back again. Eleazar lifted his head slightly. “I smell Vercingetorix on you, rodent.”

“He’s—he’s my friend,” Eagle stammered.

“Eagle Eye!” That was Brother Fox, horror in his voice, but the Worm ignored him, snuffling at Eagle’s tunic with a snout at least as big as a cow.

“Unicorns and fairies. Child, they won’t help you here.” Eleazar ran out a tongue black in the red mage-light and tasted Eagle soles-to-scalp in one sloppy lick, closing his massive eyes with pleasure. “Too bad there isn’t more of you. You’re delicious.” He smacked his chops together, and Eagle didn’t think. He bolted, feet slewing on the treasure as he skidded for one of the rock formations nearby. Eleazar’s great head rose on his neck, up, up, when Eagle glanced back.

“Leave him alone!” Brother Fox yelled. “I came for you, Eleazar, you disgusting old earthworm!” And the Worm of Shirith cocked his head to look at the Crown Prince. Eagle’s blood ran chilly. The Swifts cowered behind Brother Fox, like stone, and Eagle tried to wave them over behind the pile he’d found, but they didn’t even look his way; fascinated, they were, by the wicked magnificence of Eleazar, the sheer size of him. The red mage-light flickered out. Eagle clutched at the rocks in front of him. It was so dark, blacker than night, and the Worm’s laughter shook the mountain.

A sound like a drawing bellows on a terrific scale—and fire, blinding, blue at the heart, a blaze no Longnight bonfire could equal, belched from Eleazar’s mouth. The Swifts’ skin blackened under it. Their screams echoed through the roar of the flames. Brother Fox fell to his knees, head down, arms crossed in front of him, and the flames bowed around his shield of magic, a shimmery half-sphere.

Blackness again. Eagle trembled, and then came a whisper and golden mage-light shone out from Brother Fox’s hand. In the other hand he held his long slim blade, and smoke curled up from the bodies of Swift Snake and Swift Cat behind him. The Worm lunged, and Brother Fox dashed aside, but the serpent tongue slithered out for one of the twins. Fast as a lash, the body was in the Worm’s jaws, and the huge scaly throat worked, swallowing.

Eagle touched his bow, and he still wasn’t thinking, at least at the top of his mind. He started to climb the high tower of rocks he’d hidden behind. The other twin disappeared down the Worm’s pale-red throat.

“Come on, you filthy beast!” Brother Fox screamed. Eagle didn’t dare look at anything but his climbing. He reached up to the next hold, set his foot, went to the next and the next. His bare feet carried him up soft. His leather bracer hugged around his arm, reassuring. One shot. He knew what he had to do. He couldn’t listen to what was going on below, the snapping jaws, the roaring, the insults Brother Fox shouted at Eleazar, the Worm of Shirith.

At last, Eagle reached the end of his climb. His balance didn’t fail him. He stood at the very top of the rock tower, higher than all the rest, as high as the Worm’s head when he reared back to lunge at Brother Fox again. It wasn’t quite a man’s bow Eagle had, since he didn’t quite have his man’s height, but it was stout and flexible, and made just to his size, with as much pull as he could possibly manage. He needed both hands to string it.

He nocked his arrow as Brother Fox flung his glob of golden light straight into Eleazar’s face and conjured another. Eleazar slashed out with a claw, snagging Brother Fox’s shirt and tearing cloth, but not flesh.

Eagle couldn’t watch. He let the world collapse to his eye and the eye of the Worm. If he could sink an arrow into that great glowing orb, they might have a chance. He drew full. His foot shifted and the Worm, enraged now, whirled on him. But Eagle had already loosed.

Eleazar batted the arrow away, or so Eagle thought, but his heart didn’t have time to sink before the claw hit the ground and the fletching of the arrow disappeared into the black slice of a pupil. The Worm let out a shattering roar: “You dare?” And he came after Eagle on top of the rock tower. There was no other choice. Eagle flung himself down, tucking and rolling, as loose as he could. His bones shook and he felt himself cracking every time he bounced. At last he lay curled on the floor. Silence now, but for his own hammering heartbeat.

“Hey-la-hey!” Brother Fox shouted, unflattering surprise in his voice. “Eagle, brave Eagle, you’ve done it!”

Eagle tried to stand, but his leg erupted in pain, and he cried out and fell again. He lay back on the cavern floor, staring up at the Worm of Shirith with his mouth cracked wide over the rock tower, gold-red in Brother Fox’s mage-light. Eagle floated into oblivion.

When he woke, it was in a white bed and morning streamed in the window. Brother Fox slept in a chair on one side of the bed and Father snored in one on the other side. On the nightstand was a perfect ruby scale, as large as his hand. His leg was only a little sore, and the room had the green, nose-pricking scent of all-heal salve.

From the door, the High King said, “Well done, Eagle Eye Wormsbane.”

 

BROTHER FOX AND THE WORM’S BANE

The scents of honeysuckle and jacaranda mingled on a sweet breeze; the stars sparkled down between blooming magnolia boughs. Fairies skimmed the surface of an ornamental pond, and the black water reflected their twinkling trails of colorful sparks. Overhead, clouds drifted lazily across the white face of the moon.

Fox lurched through the dark garden, cradling his left elbow, trying not to cry. He couldn’t be gentle enough with his arm, see out of one eye, or breathe too deeply. He staggered across a delicate white bridge curved over a decoratively-snaking stream. His goal lay just around the bend in the cobbled path, on the other side of the yellow rose hedge: Falcon Eye’s cottage.

He couldn’t remember the first time he’d come here. This probably wouldn’t be the last. The huntsman had gentle hands for his injuries, and kind words for his deeper hurts. He never felt as if Falcon Eye might be disappointed in him. He hobbled past the yellow rose hedge and up the path. The cottage was cloaked in deep shadow and silver light: the moss and flowers growing wild on the roof, the rough-looking boards on the outside with bark still on them, spoke of safety. There was no smoke from the chimney on a warm night like this, but the pale glow of a mage-lantern shone from every window.

His eyes burned so fierce with relief that he couldn’t see out of the good one, and he nearly tripped over the stool by the front door and the unassuming figure that sat on it.

Voalt Vistridir.

Fox didn’t know what to think of Eagle Eye just now. He could hear Father again, saying coldly that he’d never be anything more than a disappointment if he let a little boy snatch the Wormsbane title from right beneath his nose—but Eagle Eye wasn’t a child, not for much longer. And he’d saved Fox’s life in that cave.

“Your Highness!” Eagle Eye said now, surprised, overturning the stool in his haste to rise and bow.

“Please don’t.” He didn’t deserve to be bowed to, let alone by Wormsbane. “Is your father here?”

Eagle Eye bit his lip. Fox didn’t wonder why. What he must look like! “No, Your Highness. Come in.”

Fox stepped into the huntsman’s little cottage. He managed to kick the door shut behind him. It wouldn’t do to have Snake or Cat— But the twins were dead, burned to a crisp in the Worm’s fire. “Where’s Falcon Eye?” he asked, his voice coming out strained.

“I’m sorry, Your Highness,” Eagle Eye said, very softly, like he said almost everything, kneeling in front of a chest. “He went out this afternoon. Hunting. He hasn’t come home yet.”

“I thought he always took you with him.” The God, his arm! It felt like a backfired spell had struck through it—worse.

“Your Highness?”

“What?”

“I can help you, if you want. My father taught me. But it’d probably be better if you sat down.”

Fox nodded, but didn’t sit. Sitting sounded painful. Everything sounded painful—even the air on his face hurt like hell.

“Your Highness,” Eagle Eye repeated, setting things on the window seat now: a pot of all-heal, a bowl of steaming water, a stack of cloths. “Please—”

“Fox.”

The boy reached up and pressed on Fox’s shoulders. “Sit down, Your Highness.”

“Call me Fox.” He let his knees buckle, and moaned when his ass hit the window seat, jolting everything. “If you’re—if you’re familiar enough to help me after—this—you’re familiar enough to call me Fox.”

“All right. Fox.”

Fox mustered a smile for the huntsman’s son. He was in a good place, with the redolent breeze cooling his back through the cracked-open window and the plain brown carpet, with its border of green leaves, plush under his boots. A spare place, but nicely done-up for all that, clean, not overblown like the palace. A small kitchen lay off to the front, and a bathing-room to the side, and in the back corner a dark wood cupboard containing bed and wardrobe together. A good place, and Eagle Eye belonged here. Bitterness mingled with the copper taste of blood on his tongue.

“Father calls me Eagle.”

“How old are you, Eagle?”

“Fourscore years and two. Hold still now.” The press of Eagle’s fingertips on his arm drew a loud moan of pain from his lips. “This is broken.”

“I know.”

Eagle wasn’t, as it happened, a lot younger than Fox, but he seemed younger than he was. Maybe it was his compact body: small, lithe, tough. Maybe it was that Fox couldn’t remember ever seeing him wear shoes or boots. Or maybe it was the innocence. Fox couldn’t recall being innocent. Ever.

“Wait here.” Eagle went back to the chest and brought out a leather strap covered with little dents. “To bite on,” Eagle explained.

“I know.” Fox had left some of those marks. “Talk to me. What’s it like being Wormsbane?” When he’d been about Eagle’s age, Father had locked him in a room with Stooping Falcon of Long Knife and Brother Elk of Green Glaciers. They hadn’t hurt him. Not physically. He couldn’t imagine having slain a dragon when he hadn’t been able to keep their hands off him. With a sigh, Fox fit the strap between his teeth.

“Oh, well…” Eagle rubbed the nape of his neck. “I’m not really sure yet. It’s only today. I was talking to Vercingetorix, and he said—”

“Vercingetorix?” Fox asked, taking the strap out. “The unicorn?”

“Bite down.”

Shaking his head, he obeyed. Without warning, Eagle set the break, and Fox screamed around the leather. He would’ve thought he’d be used to it by now. While Eagle scooped a dollop of all-heal from the pot, he took the strap out again and laid it aside, gasping. “You—can still talk—to Vercingetorix?” At his age?

Eagle flushed. The all-heal sank into Fox’s skin under slim, hard fingers rough with calluses and flecked with tiny scars. Fox’s own hands were soft and smooth and perfect. The salve began to work, itching like a demon down to the bone.

“It’s nothing to be embarrassed over,” Fox said.

“Well, it’s just… nobody notices me. Only Father.” Eagle leaned close, intent, with a wet cloth in those fascinating hands and his lower lip caught between white teeth. He wore no scent, only his own smell, a faint dark petrichor, greenery, earth. Desire bloomed red-poppy bright in the pit of Fox’s belly, and the touch of the cloth on his mouth and chin woke every nerve.

He managed another smile. “You’re sort of small.”

“And quiet,” Eagle said, without rancor.

“I see you.”

“Mm-hmm.”

“I do. I see you around. Working with Falcon Eye.” Fox paused. “He loves you.”

“He does.” Something that was almost a smile twitched at Eagle’s lips.

“Why are you so serious? I never see you smile. But your father loves you and teaches you. You get to talk to unicorns. If anybody has a reason to smile, you do.”

“I guess I just don’t need to.” He rinsed the cloth and wrung it out, then stroked it gently over Fox’s neck. If Fox were Eagle, the smile would never leave his face. “Why do you smile all the time, when your father does this to you?”

“I—I’ve never thought about it.”

Clear hazel eyes cut right to his core.

“I suppose… I need to, because if I don’t, I’ll cry.”

Silence stretched between them. The only sounds in the cottage were the dribble and plink as Eagle rinsed and wrung out the cloth again, the flap of wet fabric, and the hush-hush friction when it passed over Fox’s skin. He didn’t want to think about this, definitely shouldn’t think about kissing Eagle.

“It’s wrong, you know,” Eagle said suddenly. “What he does to you. It’s evil.”

“If I were a better—”

No. Shut up.” He took a deep breath. “It’s not about you. He’d do it if you were perfect, because it’s all and only about him. You think I never make my father angry? Difference is, I don’t look like this after he punishes me.”

Fox found himself at a loss for words. He stared at the cabinet bed simply because it was in the way. His eyes stung again.

“Why don’t you just leave?” Eagle said after a breath or two.

“Where would I go?”

“Where wouldn’t you go?” Eagle stepped back, and his eyes gleamed with excitement; now a wide grin cracked his reserve. Fox found his face utterly enchanting: lovely, with the long straight nose and lean architecture beneath the last vestiges of childish roundness. “Anywhere. Everywhere. You could have adventures, all kinds. Save beautiful princesses, and find buried treasure, and slay dragons and—and—why are you looking at me like that?”

“Because,” Fox said, “I just figured out why you don’t smile. You don’t want to be here any more than I do.”

He blushed, so Fox knew he was right. Having adventures didn’t hold as much appeal as the idea of leaving and having an excuse to be gone. But when it kindled Eagle like that… it sounded exciting.

“I want to see where the round-eared sailors come from,” Eagle said, softly and serious again, fidgeting with his hands. He stepped close again and dipped his fingers into the pot of all-heal.

“Which ones?”

He dabbed a little salve under Fox’s eye. It tingled and itched. “All of them.”

Longing hit Fox like a fist, knocking out his air. He wanted to see, too. More—he could hardly bring himself to admit—he wanted Eagle Eye with him, wanted all that gravity and dignity, wanted more than anything to see all the light that could come into the serious face, again and again. “What if I went?” he heard himself say. “If I went away and had adventures, would you come with me?”

“Sure I would.” Whether he said it to humor Fox, or whether he meant it, that didn’t matter.

All he had to do was convince Father. He didn’t seek company that night, but went to his bed in the hall alone, closing himself into the dark. There he lay, in his pillows and furs and cashmere blankets, staring into the pitchy depths above him. His own scent permeated the bed with spice and fucking. He’d said only “good-bye” and “thank you” to Eagle Eye before he hurried away.

He’d wanted to rob Eagle of Vercingetorix forever, right there on the plain brown carpet. He was no better than Brother Elk after all. The thought set him to tossing and turning, that or the fascinating speculations on how Eagle would look with Fox’s hands on his bare skin, and what he’d sound like when Fox kissed him there, or there… Finally Fox took himself in one hand and stroked lazily, thinking of slight, spare Eagle Eye. Slow didn’t last long, not when he remembered the forest-floor smell, and he came with that not-quite smile on his mind.

 

***

 

“All right,” said Father. Fox stood before the High King in the morning, in his very best clothes, in his very neatest parade rest, prepared to beg, and Father said, “All right,” just like that. It was almost a letdown. “Let me arrange your guard.”

“Sire, I thought—what about Eagle Eye?”

“The little boy?”

“Wormsbane,” Fox reminded him, though that certainly wasn’t necessary—given the look Father sent him from hard, pale eyes.

“I know it, Bearach,” said Father, and then again: “All right.”

It took some time to find Falcon Eye and his son, and to summon them before the throne. Fox waited on a bench carved from mahogany in the likeness of a dog-fox, drumming his fingers on its perfectly-shaped head and shifting his legs every half-minute. When at last the doors opened to admit the huntsman and Eagle, he put his feet flat and sat forward.

Falcon Eye went to one knee on the plush scarlet runner before the mountain throne, and Eagle copied the genuflection, a perfect mirror—but he glanced at Fox under cover of his brow. Fox grinned hugely.

The High King gazed down at them as if he were the bird of prey, and they little mice. “Falcon Eye, have I yet offered my congratulations to you?”

“Yes, Your Majesty,” said Falcon Eye, lifting his eyes at the address, “and I thank you again for your kindness in allowing Eagle Eye to take the title of Wormsbane.”

“Merely an acknowledgment of Eagle Eye’s brave deed. It’s no more than his due. Child, rise and approach.”

Eagle stood, graceful as any lord in spite of his youth and his small peasant’s body, and stepped closer to the throne. The High King motioned him closer yet, within arm’s reach, and Fox went cold from the inside out. He felt like a block of ice when Father’s fingers cradled Eagle’s face. Even sitting, he was taller than Eagle.

But Father wasn’t Wormsbane. Fox reminded himself of that again and again, fighting his urge to vomit, to dash across the throne room and slap Father’s hand away, to scream Don’t touch him.

“You’ve done well, little one,” Father said kindly—falsely.

“Thank you, Your Majesty,” Eagle said, in his so-soft voice.

“Now I’ll ask another service of you. I expect you may find it onerous,” and that was with a darting look at Fox, “but I also expect you’ll do as well now as you did preserving my line not three days past.”

“I’ll do my best, Your Majesty. What—” He bit his lip and flicked his gaze to his own father, who inclined his head. “What will you have of me?”

Father sat back, letting his hand slide from Eagle’s chin as though enjoying the feeling, and that predatory stare churned Fox’s stomach again.

“You will accompany my son on his travels,” the King said, and Fox swallowed. He knew what he’d halfway expected to hear, and the relief when it didn’t come brought tears to sting behind his shut lids. “You will protect his life with yours, and serve him as if he were me in very fact. Do you understand?”

“Yes, Your Majesty,” Eagle said, softer than soft.

“Very good. Falcon Eye.”

“Yes, Your Majesty?” Falcon Eye remained on bended knee. It was impossible to mistake the thickness in his voice for anything but sorrow.

“In this you serve me better than you ever have—that you don’t withhold from me even your only son. I praise your devotion.”

“High praise indeed, Your Majesty,” Falcon Eye said, and Fox could swear he heard an edge on the words.

“Tomorrow, with the early tide,” said Father, and Fox’s heart took wing. So soon! “Go and prepare yourself.”

Eagle bowed his head and walked quickly down from the dais, backing out of the High King’s presence, but when Falcon Eye rose to leave, Father beckoned him to stay, and he approached the throne.

Fox rushed out through the palace and caught the huntsman’s son on the oak lane outside the main gate. “Well?”

“I didn’t think you were serious.” Eagle Eye rubbed the back of his neck, looking at the lane beneath his bare feet, and Fox’s shoulders dropped.

“You don’t want to come.”

“I never said that.” When Eagle looked up again, he wore that not-quite-a-smile Fox couldn’t get out of his head. “I’m kind of surprised, is all. I don’t know why you’d want me along.”

“Because I do,” Fox said. “I like you.”

“Your Highness—”

Fox.

“I’m your servant. It’s not proper.”

“Damn propriety!” Fox shouted, throwing up his hands. “I don’t want a servant. I want you to be my friend!” He didn’t mean to say it, but it popped out anyway.

“Fox, then. I don’t understand.”

“I don’t have any friends,” he said, a little desperately.

Eagle put his hands in his pockets, shrugging. “Nor do I. Just Vercingetorix when he feels like talking.”

“And the fairies.”

“They don’t really count.” Even as he said so, a blush-pink fairy landed on his shoulder and cuddled up to his neck, piping with delight. “What about His Grace’s sons?”

“The dead ones?”

He grimaced. “Sorry.”

“I’m not. Not very. I mean, I was fucking Snake, but…”

“Could you tell the difference between them?”

Fox couldn’t work out whether he was serious or not. “Yes. Cat had a piercing. I didn’t like it.” At Eagle’s curious look—he read that well enough—he added, “In his prick.”

Eagle started. His eyes went as big as china plates. “Who would do that?”

“Lots of people. Anyway, it wasn’t so much the piercing. That can be fun. It was that he didn’t know how to use the damned thing, and he always—ah—” Fox cut himself off. Eagle was rather pale. “Maybe you don’t need to hear all that.”

“Do—do you have—?”

His face was a perfect study. Fox laughed. “I’ve done a lot of things with it, but sticking a needle through it is a little much, don’t you think?”

Eagle gave a delicate shudder.

“So, no. I haven’t got any nether jewelry. You must have heard a lot about me.” That last came with a bitterness that surprised him.

“I wouldn’t say a lot. I don’t have any friends. Remember?”

“I won’t hurt you,” he blurted, and he didn’t know why he’d even thought it. Probably because he was also thinking of things that might hurt Eagle.

“Father wouldn’t treat you the way he does if you would.” Eagle lifted a shoulder. It was that easy for him. “I’ve got to get ready. See you in the morning. Fox.” His not-quite smile flickered again, and he left Fox envious and aching, even though he hadn’t meant to.

Father didn’t issue a summons that evening. After he’d said good-bye to his little brother—Stag wept—Fox got drunk and thought about Eagle’s hard slender hands, and the straight lines of his lithe body. “Who are you with, Brother Fox?” said Pink Petunia, Countess of Tiennengarm, from her position astride. “I know it isn’t me.”

“Nobody,” Fox said, giving his best, most winning grin. “Don’t stop, Petunia.”

She giggled and flopped on his chest. “Give! Who is it?”

“Nobody,” he insisted, and rolled her under him.

Father didn’t come down to the harbor to say good-bye, either. When Fox got out of his cupboard early that morning, there was a purse on his nightstand, and an envelope containing two tickets of passage on a caravel bound for Rodansk. He was tempted to tear the tickets up and go somewhere completely different, but—he’d ask Eagle.

Down on the beach, just to the south of the piers and offices, Falcon Eye waited with his son. Fox’s feet crunched on the gravel; Eagle, he saw, wore high boots today, brown leather laced to his knees. They looked brand-new; the battered pack on his shoulders looked ancient. As Fox approached, Falcon Eye pressed Eagle into a tight hug.

Fox hung back. It was like watching the natives of some strange land.

“Be careful, son,” Falcon Eye said.

The smile that had disturbed Fox’s fun last night brushed Eagle’s face. “I probably won’t,” he said, and Falcon Eye laughed. His hand came up, and Fox went cold, at least until Falcon Eye ruffled his son’s hair.

“Love you, Eagle.”

“Love you, Father.”

They stood, looking awkward, and then Falcon Eye turned away. His eyes were wet, but instead of simply passing, he squeezed Fox in an unexpected hug. “I’m trusting you,” he said.

“Of course,” Fox said, backing off, grinning. “He’ll be fine. I promise.”

“Fox. Be good to my boy.”

“I will! I will.”

“I love you, Brother Fox,” Falcon Eye said. “Behave yourself.”

Fox froze. “I—”

“I know. Don’t keep him waiting.” The huntsman looked over Fox’s shoulder at Eagle, who, when Fox turned, was already watching the ships lying at anchor in the clear bay. Sailors and porters bustled around the four piers, and people waited in line at the port office.

“Good-bye,” Fox said.

Falcon Eye said, “Good-bye,” and left.

The worst part of Fox rubbed its hands together. Eagle all to himself. He crunched over. “What do you think about Rodansk?”

“Maybe we’ll meet a troll.”

“That’ll be nothing for Wormsbane. Come on.”

Eagle followed him across the beach to the pier where their ship waited. His feet made little sound on the pebbles, even in the new boots, and none at all on the boards of the pier, but Fox was painfully aware of him all the same.

“I’ll get us settled,” Fox offered once they were aboard, seeing that Eagle passed hungry eyes over every last detail of the ship. “Why don’t you have a look about? Give me your things.”

“Thank you,” Eagle said gravely, and handed everything over: pack, quiver, and bow. It didn’t seem like much. Eagle was gone in a blink, and Fox went off to find directions to their berths, only to discover they were sharing a tiny cabin under the stairs to the forecastle, probably the mate’s. His legs buckled, and he sat on the single, narrow bed with its faded coverlet, hearing the shouts of the crew as the ship got underway, feeling the deck shiver and toss under his feet.

One room. One bed. He should have counted on Father’s knowing every damned thought that crossed his mind.

Eighteen years until Eagle came of age. If he waited until then, he’d be able to show Eagle exactly what he wanted. He rose from the bed and stowed their belongings, trying not to daydream. Eighteen years. He hoped he could find enough distraction. He hoped Eagle would initiate something—then it would be all right—but that seemed very faint hope indeed. Vercingetorix!

When he went back out, Fox heard sweet singing: “Eagle Eye… Eagle Eye…”

At first he thought it was in his head—it certainly wouldn’t have surprised him—but there was Eagle on the quarterdeck, backing up from the rail into a neat, courtly bow, backing away from a mermaid with a sheeny silver tail. She had already slithered over the railing, and she bellied, slippery and graceful, toward Eagle. “Eagle Eye, won’t you come down?” Fox’s heart staggered with horror. Eighteen years would never happen at this rate.

Sailors scattered away from her. Nobody moved to help Eagle. The mermaid rolled to sit up in front of him. Her skin shimmered like oil on water. “Come down with me, come down…” trilled through full, dark-blue lips, and she showed her pointed little teeth in a smile. She took his hands in hers.

If Eagle was afraid, he didn’t show it. His lips flicked ever so slightly up at the corners. “My lady, you’re beautiful as anything I’ve ever seen, but I can’t breathe in your house.”

She pressed his hands over rainbow-gleam breasts; held them there. He blushed faintly, but didn’t otherwise react. “You’ll love it,” she sang, “I promise. Come down, pretty Eagle Eye, come down with me…”

“I don’t think so, my lady, but—”

Fox leapt forward and snatched Eagle under the arms, trying to drag him back. “Leave off!” he shouted, and, when she wouldn’t let go of Eagle’s wrists, summoned a fire orb to his palm.

“Is he yours, lovely Prince, is he yours?” she sang, laughing, and released her grip so suddenly that Fox lurched back, slipped in her puddle of water and slime, and fell in a heap with Eagle. His orb winked out along with his focus. The mermaid lunged over them both and gave Eagle a smart little bite where neck met shoulder.

Eagle cried out, and Fox kicked at her. She raised her head, licking Eagle’s blood from her lips.

“Good-bye, Eagle Eye, good-bye,” she sang, slithering toward the rail.

“You told her your name,” Fox groaned, as she pulled herself up. “How stupid are you?”

“I didn’t,” Eagle said, and the mermaid perched her shapely, scaly bottom on the railing, strong hands on the wood.

“The fairies sing his name under the moon,” she said musically, smiling like an old killing thing—like Father—and was gone in a flash of tail.

Fox lay back on the deck, breathing hard. He didn’t let go of Eagle, wiry and warm against him, if passing strange. “What did you think you were doing?

“I didn’t do anything,” Eagle insisted. He pulled away and stood, reaching down to help Fox. “She came to me. And you should be more worried about the man who followed us onto the ship.”

“There was a man? Where is he now?”

“Don’t look around like that.” Eagle fished a tiny jar of all-heal from his pocket and spread salve on the bite, grimacing. He went back to the rail and leaned his forearms on it, watching Shirith Valley blur into a smudge on the horizon. The wind played with his dark hair, and Fox joined him, liking the look of it. “Where do we land in Rodansk?”

“A place called Whalehame. Why?”

“Is it a city?”

“Sort of. It’s a port town.”

“We’ll slip him there, then,” Eagle said, and when Fox glanced over he wore a grin wicked enough to rival the mermaid’s.

It was going to be a long eighteen years.

 

~*~

The story continues in Steel for the Prince: The High King’s Will, which is available now.

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