A Kingdom Rises
Tarlan slumped facedown on Theeta’s back. His breath rasped in his smoke-scorched throat. His face was wet with tears.
Away, he thought. It’s time to go far, far away.
He pulled himself to the downy hollow that lay between Theeta’s warm neck and her huge, beating wings. After resting there for a moment, he stuck his head out into the open air and peered down.
Far below, the city of Idilliam burned. As Tarlan watched, the spindly tower rising from the ruins of Castle Tor crumbled and vanished into the smoke. Only moments earlier, he and Theeta had been swooping over the top of that very tower in an effort to save Gulph.
But we failed! My brother fell—and I never even got a chance to meet him!
Yet he hadn’t fallen alone. As they’d flown past, Theeta had shoved the undead monster King Brutan into the flames too.
Brutan the tyrant, father to Tarlan, Gulph, and their sister, Elodie, was now just ash on the wind.
“We got justice, Theeta,” Tarlan said through his tears. “Brutan killed Gulph, but he paid.” He swallowed hard. “It isn’t enough, though. It will never be enough.”
Theeta remained silent.
“What was it all for?” Tarlan sat up, wiping angrily at his wet face. “The battle at Deep Poynt? All for nothing!”
“Star story,” croaked Theeta. “Life light.”
The thorrod’s strange way of speaking frequently left Tarlan puzzled. Not this time.
“I don’t care about the prophecy! I don’t care about my so-called destiny. So what if some old legend says that Gulph, Elodie, and I are supposed to rule Toronia? Oh yes, our father’s dead, like the prophecy said, but things are worse than ever. Gulph’s dead! Elodie’s turned traitor! As for me . . .”
He broke off.
I won’t cry again! I won’t!
“I’m done with humans. Just give me clean air, and a stream to drink from. That’s all I had in Yalasti. I should have stayed there.”
“Fly far,” said Theeta.
“That’s right, Theeta. Far away.” Tarlan took in a deep breath, let it out slowly. “But there’s one thing I have to do first.”
Tugging gently at the ruff of golden feathers around Theeta’s
neck, Tarlan steered the thorrod away from the burning wreckage of Idilliam and back toward the green forest realm of Isur. Before long, they were circling over Deep Poynt.
As Theeta approached the slopes surrounding the fortified hilltop town, Tarlan’s heart lurched. Where it wasn’t scorched by fire, the battlefield was torn to mud. Tarlan saw that littering the ground, lying in pools of their own blood, were the bodies of bears and horses, tigrons and wolves. His loyal friends, who’d fought beside him. Who’d fought for him. All dead. He stifled a moan.
I had no right to lead them into battle, he berated himself. What did it matter to those poor creatures who rules this land? Toronians, Galadronians . . . what’s the difference?
Turning his attention to the town itself, Tarlan watched as a group of men erected scaffolding around a jagged hole in the circular defensive wall. Once, this had been the gateway to Deep Poynt. Now the townsfolk were laboring to repair the considerable damage caused by the Galadronian war machines.
Directing the work was the Defender of Deep Poynt, a giant of a man with a bright thatch of red hair, known as The Hammer. Beside him stood a wizened old man in a grubby yellow robe. As Theeta’s shadow passed over them, both men looked up.
Theeta opened her beak and screeched. The men repairing the town defenses clapped their hands to their ears. Even the
animals lying wounded or wandering among the dead raised their heads to see what the commotion was.
Among them were two more thorrods.
“Nasheen!” Tarlan shouted. “Kitheen!”
The enormous birds lifted their wings and screeched back their greetings. A little of the weight lifted from Tarlan’s heart.
My friends! My pack!
Theeta landed beside the thorrods and touched her beak to theirs, each in turn. As she was doing this, a blur of blue and white sprinted over the grass and leaped onto her back. Tarlan wrapped his arms round the young tigron’s neck and allowed her to cover his face with hot, slobbering licks.
Filos purred. “I’m glad to see you, Tarlan!”
“Enough, Filos! You’ll drown me!”
Filos tugged him to the ground, where Greythorn and Brock were waiting. Tarlan embraced the wolf and the bear in turn, taking care to be gentle with Greythorn’s wounds.
“How’s your sight?” Tarlan said, stroking the matted fur around the wolf’s left eye. The eye itself was filmed over white.
“One eye does me well enough,” Greythorn replied.
“Brock killed many enemies!” thundered the bear. He flexed two sets of massive claws in front of Tarlan’s face. “Brock will fight whenever Tarlan commands!”
Tarlan pushed Brock’s paws firmly away. “I won’t be asking you
to fight again, Brock. I won’t be asking anything of you at all.”
The big bear’s brow contracted into shaggy confusion. “Brock does not understand.”
Filos nuzzled his hand. “Tarlan? What’s wrong?”
Tarlan ruffled the fur behind the tigron’s pointed ears. “Nothing. Everything’s going to be all right.”
They were all looking at him expectantly: Filos and Greythorn, Brock and the thorrods. Behind them, a much larger group of animals and birds had begun to gather, the survivors of the animal army Tarlan had led against the invading Galadronians. His pack.
A bony hand planted itself on Tarlan’s shoulder and spun him round. Tarlan found himself face-to-face with the old man in the yellow robe.
“Melchior,” he grunted. “I’m not staying.”
The wizard frowned, multiplying the wrinkles on his age-worn face. He rubbed a bony hand through his matted white beard. “What do you mean, Tarlan?”
“Leave me alone!”
The frown became a look of concern. “What happened in Idilliam? Did you find Gulph?”
Tarlan pulled away. “I was too late! He died! Are you satisfied now?”
A ripple of growls moved through the watching crowd of animals. Melchior’s eyes grew wide.
“Dead?” said the wizard, leaning heavily on his wooden staff. “Do you mean . . . ?”
“What do you think I mean? Gulph is dead. So your precious prophecy is dead too.”
Tarlan glared at him. “What does it matter?”
“He fell into the fire. Is that enough for you? The whole city was burning and Gulph fell into it.”
“But did you see him die?”
Tarlan shook his head. “I didn’t need to. Nobody could have survived those flames. Nobody! Gulph is gone! And soon . . .”
Tarlan bit back the words. Turning his back on Melchior, he knelt before his pack.
“I’m sorry,” he said, bringing his anger back under control. “I should never have asked you to fight for such a worthless cause. You’re better off without me, all of you.”
Both Greythorn and Filos stared at him in shock. Brock the bear shifted uncomfortably from one paw to the other. Nasheen and Kitheen lowered their heads. When Tarlan looked toward Theeta, she fixed him with her most piercing glare.
“You’re free,” he went on, the words choking in his throat. “All of
you, free to go your own way. You don’t have to follow me anymore.”
Silence descended. Dampness from the grass soaked into Tarlan’s worn leggings. He waited for them to reply. At the same time, he hoped they would say nothing.
“When you found me,” said Greythorn at last, “I was a prisoner in Vicerin’s castle. You released me.” The gray wolf fixed Tarlan with his one good eye. “You freed me long ago, Tarlan. If I follow you now, it is because I choose to.”
“You saved my life,” said Filos. “Where you go, I go.”
“You opened Brock’s cage,” rumbled the bear, looking lost.
From behind them—seemingly from across the entire battlefield—a discontented growl began to rise. The collective unhappiness of Tarlan’s pack.
Exchanging an inscrutable thorrod glance, Nasheen and Kitheen stepped forward together. To Tarlan’s surprise, it was the black-breasted Kitheen, normally so reluctant to speak, who voiced their thoughts.
“Stay, boy,” cawed the giant bird. His eyes were dark and ferocious.
I can’t, thought Tarlan, scrambling to his feet. One moment longer and I won’t be able to go through with this.
He turned to Theeta, only to discover she’d flown silently to an empty spot on a nearby slope. From that distance she stared at him, her expression unreadable, her wings wide and poised for further flight.
“I’m sorry,” he said to the others. “Good-bye.”
His heart breaking, he turned his back on them and walked toward where Theeta was waiting. No sooner had he begun to move than Melchior was blocking his path.
“Tarlan, you’re wrong.” The wizard’s voice was soft but strong. “The prophecy is not over. If you leave now—”
“I am leaving!” Tarlan tried to push past the wizard, but Melchior’s hand seized his wrist. “Let me go! Didn’t you hear me? Gulph’s dead! Elodie’s gone back to the Vicerins! It’s over!”
“But don’t you see? Gulph might still be alive. You and Gulph and Elodie are destined to rule Toronia. The prophecy says so, and the prophecy is powerful. More powerful than the fire you saw, more powerful than any of us can comprehend. Even an old wizard like me.”
“Yes! Listen to the wizard!” boomed a new voice.
Over Melchior’s shoulder, Tarlan saw The Hammer striding up. Behind the big man came a straggle of Deep Poynt townsfolk. Tarlan groaned. So much for leaving without a fuss.
“The prophecy brings hope,” The Hammer continued. “Without hope, we are nothing.”
“Then we’re nothing,” cried another voice from the crowd. “The boy’s right. It’s all been in vain.”
More shouts rose up.
“What about the prophecy?”
“Forget the boy! We’ve a town to rebuild!”
“Listen to The Hammer!”
The voices blurred into meaningless chatter. Tarlan wrenched free from Melchior and ran to Theeta. He pressed his forehead against the huge, hooked beak of his closest friend.
“Tarlan go,” Theeta croaked softly. “Theeta go.”
You think you understand, Tarlan thought. But you don’t.
“I’m sorry, Theeta. But I have to leave you, too. I’m . . . I’m not safe to be around.”
“Theeta go,” the thorrod repeated.
“No. Stay with the others. Look after them. They’re going to need you.”
Theeta swiveled her massive head to stare down the slope to where the other thorrods stood. The rest of Tarlan’s pack pressed close against the flanks of the giant birds, looking confused and anxious. The people of Deep Poynt, including The Hammer, had fallen silent and were watching Tarlan with open curiosity. And why not? Had he not so long ago told them he was their king?
Melchior, the wizard who seemed always to know what to do, stood motionless, his wrinkled face drawn down into a mask of sadness.
Tarlan looked deep into Theeta’s eyes.
You found me. He didn’t trust himself to speak. If he opened his mouth, all that would come out would be the splintering sound of his own breaking heart. You saved me when I was a
baby, lost in the snow. You brought me to Mirith, the frost witch who was like a mother to me, when my own true mother was lost.
But you, Theeta . . . it was you who really brought me into the world.
He cupped his hand against the lethally sharp tip of Theeta’s beak. The tiniest movement from the thorrod would have driven a hole through the middle of his palm. It was the ultimate display of trust.
His feet dragging through the mud, Tarlan walked away.
For the first fifty paces, he had to pick through the ruts and scars of the battle-torn earth. Eventually the descending slope turned to rough pasture, and the going became easier. Ahead rose the waiting wall of the Isurian forest. All the way to the trees, Tarlan plodded with his head down, each footstep a dull echo of his thudding pulse. There were no thoughts in his head, just a thick roaring sound. He wasn’t stepping out into the world, he was sinking into it, as a boy might sink into quicksand. The world would draw him down until it closed over his head. After that, all would be dark.
A faint rustling sound penetrated his daze. Blinking, he looked first around, then up. A shadow flitted over his head. Warm air wafted his face. Sunlight flashed, dazzling him.
Shielding his eyes, Tarlan watched in wonder as Theeta dropped from the sky to land an arm’s length in front of him. Her golden feathers were ablaze. The sun reflected in the depths of her piercing black eyes.
“Tarlan go,” the thorrod croaked. “Theeta go. We go.”
“No speak. We go.”
The golden light filled Tarlan’s head, driving away his powers of speech. No words, no thought. No people, no pack. Just him and Theeta.
Tarlan climbed onto her back. The thorrod kicked the ground with her huge talons. Her broad gold wings pumped the air once, twice, a hundred times. The world fell away. The high air was pure, like a cold mountain stream. Tarlan breathed it in and felt clean.
“Thorrod fly,” said Theeta. “Fly far. Never stop.”
It wasn’t in the nature of thorrods to ask questions, but Theeta’s slow circling told Tarlan she was waiting for instructions. He looked down at the forest, now a sun-dusted patchwork of green, then back over his shoulder toward the south, where his icy homeland of Yalasti lay.
Tarlan turned his attention north. He had no idea what lay in that direction. He’d never been there.
“That way, Theeta.” The feel of his voice was amazing in his throat, as if he’d never spoken words before. “North, until the sun goes down. Then we’ll stop to rest. After that, we’ll go on.”
“Never stop,” said Theeta, powering ahead through the crisp, bright sky.
“That’s right, my friend. We’ll never stop.”