AT THE EDGE OF THE WORLD
Silence met the end of Thoralf’s reading, those who heard unsure of the meaning behind the story.
Milas walked to stand beside Thoralf and gently placed a hand on her forearm. “Mother? Is it true? Am I the daughter of Shwane?” Her mother nodded.
“It cannot be,” Kala whispered.
“You speak not true,” Micah declared.
Thoralf spun around to face the council member. “Why do you say thus? Do you not think I know my own husband? Do you not think I know his child?”
“That which you claim happened long ago. He of which you speak never served this Realm.”
The crone stepped forward. “You speak as one who knows Thoralf’s words to be truth, Micah. How can that be if the story be false? Your words betray you, just as the founder of your house betrayed Shwane.”
“No! You speak not true.”
“Then show us your mark,” the Crone demanded. “Show that you bear the mark of Feath’s curse. Is that not reason for the mark of the House of Oneida to never be witnessed by another?”
“I have no need to prove my bearing. All from the House of Oneida serve the Realm. You need seek no more proof.”
Mumblings both of agreement and disagreement stirred through the crowd.
Thoralf turned to address those gathered before the Council. “The House of Oneida is the oldest in the Realm of Arhdahl. Is it not?”
“You speak true,” someone called out.
Thoralf continued her questioning. “What name founded the House?” Many in the crowd turned to ask those around them while others simply shook their heads when the answers were not forthcoming. “Speak, Micah. Speak the name,” Thoralf demanded of the council member. “Does the name shame you?” she asked when Micah remained silent.
Calls for Micah to comply came from the crowd.
“I would speak the name with honor,” Micah declared boldly.
Though his voice was strong, Micah’s hands shook nervously. He glared at Thoralf, silently demanding she retract her question.
A collective gasp issued from the crowd. “The story be true,” someone declared then many others began shouting questions until no single voice could not be discerned from the others.
Daidam raised her arms, asking for silence. “There is much we question,” she said when the crowd quieted. “Much we have a right to know. But first…” She took the book from Thoralf and held it high above her head. “First, we must know the book be true. Micah, in the name of Shwane, leader of the Two-Leggeds of the Realm of Airhini, I demand you show us the mark of the House of Oneida.”
“I will not. You have no—”
“You must comply,” the Crone demanded.
“You know not what you ask of me?”
Kala looked out at the sea of faces before the council, each anticipating the response to Daidam’s request. “It is the way of the Realm,” he told Micah, “a request made of the Council may not be refused.”
“You risk what may become?”
“The truth of the prophesy stands before us, Micah. Show your mark.”
Micah untied his sash then pulled his shirt free. Turning to stand with his back to the crowd, he slowly revealed his birthmark.
“I’ve not seen such an object,” a voice near the front of the crowd cried out. “How know we this is the mark of which Thoralf spoke?”
Milas removed the feather she had tucked safely into her belt before leaving the Realm of Airhini, she held it up for all to see. It matched the mark on Micah’s back exactly.
“What be it?”
“The mark of the Wing,” Daidam explained. “He bears the mark of the curse for all the Winged who fell before Phante’s blade.”
“And the shame,” Milas added.
Micah let his shirt drop as he spun to face Milas. “Speak not so boldly. You bear the mark same as I. You were born of the House of Oneida.”
“No!” Thoralf cried out. “Milas is of the blood of Shwane. I bore her in the Fortress of Arhdahl for the House of Alasdair. You, Micah, declared her to be fair.”
“No. Two were born that day. One of Oneida and one of Alasdair. The Crone will give witness. She tossed the bones and declared that the child of Oneida would breath life into the prophesy.”
“Then Milas was not that child,” Thoralf declared.
“Aye, she was,” Kala stated. “The second child, the one of Alasdair, the bones gave no such reading.”
“I do not understand,” Milas said. “I am of the House of Alasdair. Do I not bear its mark?”
“The marks were changed to defeat the prophesy,” Kala explained. The child of Oneida was given to Thoralf.”
“You speak not true,” Thoralf challenged. “Shwane’s blood flows in Milas. Not the traitor’s.”
“It cannot,” Micah proclaimed. “Speak true, Crone. Tell of that day.”
“Your words tell not all,” the Crone began. “It be true that two were born that day— the first of Oneida, the second of Alasdair. They were brought to the chamber for the bones to be tossed.”
“It is as I said.”
“That is how they were born,” the Crone continued as if Micah had not spoken. “It is not as they were brought into the chamber.”
“That cannot be. They bore the marks of their Houses.”
The Crone smiled. “Marks can be changed, can they not, Micah?”
Micah took a moment to understand the meaning of the Crone’s words. “You tricked us. You changed the marks so the prophesy would breathe.”
“Aye, I changed the marks but the prophesy took first breath the eve the Winged took last. It needed only for one to believe in the ancient wisdom to be born for it to take life.”
“I am that one,” Milas said proudly. But the Crone shook her head. “Am I not to lead the two-leggeds back to the Realm of Airhini?”
“Aye. But another’s belief opened the path.”
Milas looked around at those standing near her. “It be Daidam who saw the path and followed it to the Realm below.”
“No,” Daidam protested. “I serve not the prophesy. Do I?” she asked the Crone.
“Aye. You serve. Your heart sees truth, even when your eyes do not. You did not strike when you discovered Milas in the forbidden zone. You strove to save her from the blade.”
“Yet, she fell. As did Father.”
“You followed, did you not?”
“Aye. But to bring Father home.”
Kailen rushed forward. “Yet, you did not. Why did you not bring him home?”
Daidam paused before answering her brother. “He is home.”
“You speak not true. The Abyss—”
“No. Airhini is our home. It is where the two-leggeds belong. Not high on this butte where food is little and holes must be scraped into the rock for shelter. I have seen the forests of trees standing tall. Fields of grain and orchards bearing such plenty their crops fall to the ground to rot before it can be eaten. And rivers that flow deep and wide with endless source to quench our thirst.”
“How know you we belong there?
“I have seen the huts of two-leggeds of long ago. Cut from trees not stone. With beds that are soft not hard. And each with a pit for fire to cook and warm.”
“Do you speak true?”
“Aye, Kailen. Long ago, Airhini was home of the two-leggeds.”
“Daidam speaks true,” Milas declared. “Airhini offers plenty when we have little.”
“Then we are to live there again?” someone asked.
“Aye. But different from Arhdahl. The four-legged serve Airhini, both before and since the time of Shwane. As did the Winged before Phante betrayed them.”
“If we leave the butte, how will we serve Arhdahl?”
“We serve Airhini,” Milas answered. “Arhdahl will be no more. The butte will return to the Winged.”
“Yet, they are no more.”
“The butte will honor their memory. Their bones will return to their home.”
The Crone raised her staff high above her head. “Arhdahl has fallen,” she pronounced in a strong voice that spread over the entire surface of the butte. Not one in the Realm escaped hearing the Aged’s declaration. “The prophesy has become.”
“You face a journey of great length,” Thoralf told Milas. They were standing before the Council platform, now empty. Daidam waited nearby. All others had returned to gather their meager belongings in preparation for leaving the next morn. Seeing the look of concern on her daughter’s face, she asked, “You doubt?”
“I am yet young.”
“Aye.” Thoralf reached out and caressed her daughter’s face. “You are your father’s daughter. His strength is here,” she said as she placed her hand over Milas’ heart. “His wisdom here,” she moved her hand to Milas’ forehead.
Milas nodded. “With you beside me, my doubts exist no more.”
“No, daughter. I cannot make the journey with you. My place is with my husband.”
“I do not understand.”
Thoralf hugged her daughter then turned Milas in her arms. “Look.”
A man unknown to her stood near the stone gate to the fortress, his features easily seen in the bright moonlight. He smiled.
“Aye. He has waited much time for this eve. As have I.”
“You are to leave me?”
“My time passed long ago. My bones are weary and my heart yearns for my husband. Do not doubt your way, daughter. Your heart beats true.”
“My heart will mourn you, Mother. As it will, Father.”
“As ours will you, Daughter. Your father waits.”
Milas wrapped her arms around her mother and hugged her tightly. “Go. Father should wait no more.”
Daidam watched Thoralf walk toward the fortress gate where a mist of light beams, too numerous to count, tightly spun to form a misty cloud roughly the size of a grown man. Thoralf walked into the mist then both disappeared.
“It was Father,” Milas said in response to Daidam’s shocked gasp.
Daidam was surprised to find Milas standing beside her. “Their hearts beat as one?”
“It is as it should be.”
SEVERAL MORNS LATER
Daidam stood at the edge of the butte where the beginning of the path to the valley floor dropped over the precipice. The last of the Two-Leggeds had begun their return to Airhini leaving only herself and their new leader, Milas, atop the butte.
“Who comes?” Daidam asked as the sound of pebbles scattering on the path announced an approach.
“I am a friend.”
“Crone, you speak true.”
“The butte is empty?”
“Aye,” Daidam assured her. “The Realm of Arhdahl is no more.”
“As it should be,” the Crone said before shuffling over to where Milas was perched on a boulder overlooking the valley. “You seek an answer,” she stated.
“You knew of my father?” Milas asked.
“I am troubled.”
“Do not seek what is not in your future. Shwane served Airhini well, as will his daughter.”
“You speak true?”
“Aye. Your young shoulders bear much, Milas. It would be comfort to share the weight.”
“There are many to serve Airhini.”
“But only one with the true heart.”
Milas gazed upon her friend when Daidam joined them. “Badger spoke of one to trust,” she told Daidam.
“Aye. She spoke of Thoralf.”
Milas shook her head.
“She spoke of the Crone?”
Again, Milas shook her head. “Only this morn, do I understand her words. She spoke of you, Daidam. It be your birth that brought life to the prophesy. You see what others would not. You hear what others refuse. Your heart beats true, Daidam, I understand and I seek your strength. I seek your wisdom. Stand beside me as Two-Leggeds return to Airhini. I ask.”
Without hesitation, Daidam dropped to one knee and bowed her head. “Milas, Leader of the Two-Leggeds, I serve.”
Milas stood then gently pulled Daidam upright. “The Realm of Airhini, we serve.”
“Aye. For the Realm.”
“It is time we join the others. Come, Crone. The eve nears.”
“Two-Leggeds and Four-Leggeds will serve the Realm. There is another to awaken.” The Crone stood but instead of moving toward the path, she shuffled to the edge of the precipice. “Milas, daughter of Shwane and Thoralf, witness the return of the Winged.” Once the words had been spoken, the Crone leaned forward until her weight carried her off the cliff.
Milas and Daidam rushed to the edge of the butte.
The Crone fell headfirst, her arms outstretched. As she gained speed, the wind ruffled the folds of her robe and it transformed into thick feathers. Her bent body straightened and grew. Gnarled and twisted hands became talons, sharp and strong. The furrowed and creased features of her face became sharp and distinct.
The Crone was no more.
Feath plunged downward, his feathers rippling with the strength of the wind that blew through them. He rushed toward the sacred bones at the base of the butte. Testing muscles unused for generations he beat his powerful wings against the air to halt his descent. Swooping above the pile of bones, his wings almost touched the ground as he circled the butte. In his wake, ancient bones and feathers stirred and lifted into the air. Bone connected with bone and feathers weaved together to cover them.
Badger sat beside Wolf and Coyote. Stretching out to either side of them were all the Four-Leggeds of the Realm, their heads upraised. As they watched, Feath completed his cycle of the butte and began his return to the top of the massive cliff. Slowly, first one, then another, and another Winged joined their leader until there were too many to count. Their ascent measured by a dark ring of Winged that rose from the foot of the butte to its rim.
Before they could see the Winged, Milas and Daidam heard the thunder caused by their beating wings. Feath led the Winged over the lip of the butte then, as one, they flew the length of the butte before returning.
Feath dropped lightly from the air to stand before them.
“I welcome your return,” Milas told the Winged Leader.
“As I yours. It is time for you to leave the butte. Go before the eve falls.”
Milas nodded. With quick steps, she and Daidam hurried to the path and down to the valley.
With each step, the eve grew darker.
Unseen in the darkness, Fox trotted behind. Her bushy tail sweeping away all evidence a path had ever been.
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