I sat at the corner table in a dreary inn in Swanknoll, very aware of the eyes that found me. The small mountain village was used to passersby almost every day, most traveling from Ríse to Kruh Zivota, and still, their glares painted a vivid picture of how welcome I was.
If there was another way through the mountains, I would use it, but I was here, instead. Talons wrapped around the mug, I brought it to my beak and swallowed, shuddering at the ale’s bitterness. Its taste twisted with the inn’s odor of sweat and smoke in my mouth as I took another pull. As unpleasant as it was, I craved the thought of my torso filled with warmth and my mind filled with things to distract me from where I currently found myself. The townspeople had kept their distance thus far, and as long as they continued to do so, giving a wide berth to the towering stark black eagle wearing a bear headdress and steel talon gauntlets, my pass through Swanknoll would be uneventful and well behind me by morning.
Then, there was a commotion outside, and the violence of my destiny began to pull its strings into a thick web once again.
My eyes met the door, as other people turned and looked up from their drinks, dinners, and conversations, and three men dressed in frills, fur coats, and lots of gold accents strode inside, bringing with them a biting wind and drunken tongues. Someone cursed and yelled to shut the door, then cut himself off when he realized who they were.
Noblemen, probably riding through from Ríse.
I followed the men, their gaits wobbling, toward the bar. One of them, a younger man with dirty blonde, well-kept hair and an entitled, nasally voice ordered drinks. The barkeep nodded profusely, gathering up three mugs of a frothing, amber ale, then lowered his eyes as the blonde nobleman collected the drinks and left.
I stiffened as they found an empty table toward the center of the rectangular room, three tables from where I sat. After getting comfortable and beginning to drink, or rather resuming to drink telling from the flippant air that settled around them, my eyes turned back to the barkeep. He argued in hushed tones with an older woman, perhaps his wife. His face was apple red and his grey locks swayed as he shook his head, his hand gestures tight and frequent. That was when I realized the nobleman hadn’t paid but merely left the bar. With a sharp intake of breath, putrid stink swelling through my nares, I rose from my chair and felt the head beams close above me.
When I turned back to the noblemen’s table, their eyes had found me, their looks predatory and sinister.
The blonde one made the first move to approach, the other two, a lanky man with sunken eyes and snarling lips, the left side of his face pulled up and mangled as if he had been burned long ago, and a shorter man with a thick, dark beard, his tunic’s buttons straining to not pop from his girth, trailing close behind. My eyes immediately followed their hands as they rested on pommels of sheathed swords at their hips.
“Look what we have here, gents,” the blonde man said, cocking his head quizically, and making a gesture with his free hand. “I haven’t seen one of you around here before. What’s your name?”
I didn’t move—couldn’t move, every muscle in my body tensed to breaking. I was locked in place, staring down three Duchy noblemen. The way he talked, perhaps he wasn’t from Ríse, and instead, these men were from Swanknoll itself.
“Now, I asked you a question,” the blonde man said, his voice growing louder and firmer. “You answer me, bird, or you’ll see what happens to those who refuse me.”
My talons scraped the wooden floor in retaliation, making a dull grating sound that reverberated through the now silent room, the sharp metal points that my talons were encased under peeling slender ribbons of wood up as they went. The noblemen didn’t move, the blonde man staring daggers at me, his head raised back to meet my eyes.
“You’re from the Northern Mountains by my guess,” the man said, “near Evermill. My father knows the Duke of Evermill—an ancient bastard—eighty-nine years old. Can you believe that, gents?”
His lackeys chimed in their thoughts, wishing swift death upon the Duke nonchalantly, and peace and prosperity for his son’s inheritance of the title—a good friend of theirs, by the sound of it.
“Duke Reginar told my father stories of these creatures living in the mountains. They’re nuisances, coming from the peaks and hunting his game, even killing his men and having their fiendish ways with his women, if the mood strikes them. And those—” he glanced at my gauntlets, “are more gruesome than a dozen swords.”
The fat man on the blonde’s left spat, twisting his grip around his sword’s hilt. “Let’s send him back to where he belongs, Neith. It’s got no business here.”
“Yeah,” agreed the burned man, “this is our town, and we’ve gotta protect our women.”
The more the other two spoke, it was evident that only “Neith” was a noble, and these men were nothing more than his lessers.
And Duke Reginar—the mention of his name stowed a fire within me. I was numb, my entire body stuck with fine needles, the flames raging behind my eyes, searing my brain. And I didn’t move a muscle. I didn’t speak a word. No longer because I couldn’t, but because this man deserved nothing from me. Neith raised a hand, silencing the jeers from his men as he shook his head slowly, his eyes alight, as well.
“For all I care, Reginar lets these things terrorize his county,” Neith said. “But we aren’t in Evermill, now are we, friend? In Swanknoll, we go about things a little differently.”
He took a step forward, the first move in minutes, and even as tense as the room had become already, it grew thicker the closer this man came to me—this peculiar stranger. If his ego matched his height, we’d be at eye level, but as it stood now, I was a little over two feet taller than Neith was. And still, he was the one who took that step across the line between drunken jeering and intimidation. I didn’t move. The other two men, those whose names were still unknown, spread out, following in their leader’s thoughts, and ensuring that I was cornered and my escape would have to be through one of them.
“Ole Reginar went on for hours about how this one’s kind rebuff the Grand Duchy, telling wild tales about how they’ll attack anyone with gold sewn in their clothes without hesitation,” Neith said, loud enough for everyone in the inn to hear.
A grin pulled at the corners of his lips, revealing straight, white teeth—too white. He knew it as well as I—there’d be no refuting his claims from me. Singlehandedly, Neith Knoll had just banished me from Swanknoll and ensured that if any Eagles came here, they would no longer be merely avoided, but possible violence would find them, the people wanting nothing to do with “savages and killers”.
“So, I’ll tell you what, bird; you love our ale so much, and gawk at our women, and all you need do is pledge your allegiance to the Grand Duchy and me.” Neith paused for effect. “Pledge allegiance and you won’t be shackled and shipped back to Duke Reginar for the chopping block.”
Silence spread through the room, masking every inch until the absence of sound was nauseating. Neith stared at me, his grin at its full arc.
Neith’s grin curled into a snarl, not used to being denied. He took another step forward, now but a foot away from me, his breath stinking of liquor. “Pledge allegiance to the Duchy or I’ll have your head mounted on my wall.”
The room erupted into chaos—Neith shoved me back, but I didn’t go far, my talons dug securely into the floor. He stumbled a few feet back as the fat man came rushing me with a knife, and the burned man clambered forward proffering fists.
I threw my wings apart, whipping both men in the face, and leaped upward, twisting myself into a spin, and bringing a clutched steel talon down across the burned man’s head. He collapsed in a heap to the floor, his temple split and gushing dark blood. As I landed, facing the wall, the fat man was now on my left and Neith was behind me.
Steel slid against leather behind me as the fat man charged again, swiping madly at my wing, knowing that cutting one of them to ribbons would render me useless. But I was quicker, shifting my weight and jumping back at each attack, hopping over the burned man lying motionless, and finding the wall. I cursed, then spread my wings and sent myself up, curling my torso, and kicking off the wall to dive over the fat man. I landed and thrust a kick behind me, shoving the fat man into the wall with a thud, a few paintings a ways down falling to the floor with a crash.
Neith’s blade sliced diagonally down my chest, and I sucked in instinctively. Our eyes met in that moment, realization flooding his features, shifting rage to shock as a stinging pain gripped hold of all my senses. I came to the same realization only a moment later.
He had misjudged his distance—an amateur mistake.
Instead of driving the middle of his blade across me in a deep, killing blow, he had missed a step and the tip of his sword had found my skin and cut me from furculum to hip. It was still excruciating and was beginning to bleed, but nowhere near deadly as long as I applied healing salve afterward.
I leaped and drove a clenched talon into his chest, then another into his face as he fell. His head hit the floor with a sickening crack, half a second later I landed, my gauntlets clanking dully. I was breathing heavily, tensed, and scanning the room for more combatants. But no one was near me. Every one of the inn’s common room occupants cowered in the corner opposite me, as far from me and my wrath as they could get. As my eyes found them, they trembled and averted their eyes, shielding their faces with their hands and arms, some holding up chairs to try and stave me off.
I seethed with each breath and glanced at the three men lying on the floor around me. One was a nobleman—the son of the Duke of Swanknoll, while the others could be Counts or their sons, or nobody street thugs. Either way, I sighed, knowing that one way or another, I had played right into Neith’s game. I had doomed all other Eagles from traveling through Swanknoll. My body hardened as I straightened my posture from my rather hunched fighting stance. I started to the door.
The Duchy was the same everywhere, their violence toward my kin was no different here than in Evermill. I felt the rage building in me as I pictured Duke Reginar, and now Neith Knoll beside him. The Duchy was all the same, and this proved it. Why would any of my kin want to travel through Swanknoll? If they did, they’d find the same Duchy hospitality I did.
I opened the front door, the cold wind meeting me, blowing back my headdress and cloak underneath, and I stalked out into the night, leaving three men bleeding behind me.