Why were the raptors always so agitated?
Or, more importantly, why were they the ones sent to tend the ill? He was certain he’d fare much better with quiet, a serpent nursemaid, and the chance to simply sleep.
But rough arms were around him, forcing him to sit up and drink. The herbs were suspended in what felt like raw power, and he sputtered and gagged on the strength of the spirit.
The falcon swore at him, called him an ignorant hatchling as she rushed to clean the mess from her skin. What could they possibly fear from touching something they expected him to drink? But it was true, under all the prickly agitation and the hot anger, there was a thread of fear.
He took what little energy he had and wrapped the remains of the potion in a venom crystal. He spat the little pearly lump out onto the bed and covered it with his hand.
He gritted his teeth in an attempt to stifle his growing agitation as Sybil calmly batted his spell away, again. They’d been at it for what felt like days, and the only thing he’d set on fire was the room around him. The smothering heat surely was not helping his mood.
But they could not leave until burned away the spelled rope that bound her, proving him an acceptable student and her a capable teacher.
“It’s still lacking substance, naja. Just get angry already and try to burn me, will you? I assure you, your little fireballs will have no effect on me.”
The golden hawk met his gaze with an almost bored nonchalance, but he could tell she was losing her patience. Had she never worked with serpent-kin before? If so, she was failing this test as surely as he. Her emotions were plastered across her aura, digging and niggling at him every time he tried to hold a thought. She angry, aggravated, impatient, haughty—everything he’d come to expect from raptor-kin. But laying over it all like a slick mildew was fear. He never seen that in a raptor’s aura. Never. It was the first thing they learned to hide as children, and the last thing they’d ever admit to feeling. How precarious was her position that the clearly high-born hawk hen was all but sweating her fear?
It wasn’t him—most of the raptors had hardly given him any notice when he’d traveled with his father to the h’somu of the D’ahnkkhna priesthood to establish peaceful intent. Only the serpent-kin of the mixed group would speak to them, after the initial presentation, and Seth was certain it was only their constant guard that had granted them entrance to towering mountain stronghold at all. No, none of the feathered folk he’d encountered then or now had paid him any mind—so what was Sioban afraid of?
He couldn’t attack her, not like this. He couldn’t strike at anyone resonating so strongly with fear. With a tired sigh, he pushed himself up from the cross-legged position he’d been instructed to sit in and climbed down from his raised dais. As he approached hers, the hawk froze, not even a hissed breath marring her perfect stillness.
“Wh-what are you doing?”
Seth stilled, not the motionless terror that she was caught in, but the quiet emptiness that all serpents could assume. He counted heartbeats, one, two, three, until taking another step forward. Her wrists surged against the bonds pinning her to the altar, eyes growing to show whites all the way around, but still she did not breathe. Was she drawing power?
Still, Seth could not raise a hand against her, even if she claimed it was the only route to free them both. He could not, and would not do it, so instead of sending another ungrounded surge of flame to lick uselessly at the walls, he’d resolved to try something different.
“Don’t touch me!”
The desperate shriek that pierced the silence send prickles racing along Seth’s skin to tighten in painful gooseflesh. She was terrified, and not even trying to hide it any longer as she writhed against the bonds she knew she could not break. Her breath returned to her in ragged, rapid gasps, and her wild eyes now squeezed tightly shut against the coming inevitability.
What inevitability? What does she know that I do not?
He drew a long breath, willing it to be steady and strong against the bitter tang of her panic. He took another,and another, trying to drain the room of her desperation, trying to impose his calm over it, trying to find balance in his soul against the terrified pounding of her heart.
“What are you so afraid of?”
It was a question never asked of any avian, and it was barely asked now. Seth could not bring his voice to anything louder than the brush of a whisper, but her eyes flew open and locked on him just the same. They stared at each other for a moment, his confusion and her fear both wore open and naked between them, then her words came in a babbling rush as the dam of her resolve broke.
“Don’t you know what they want to do with us? Don’t you know why we’re here? Monsters, they’re all monsters, and they want to make more of the same. What they want—it’s madness, nothing but madness! They’ll take us back to the burning times, to those savage wars—there won’t be a single feather or scale left unsigned—they can’t be allowed to do this!”
Her babbling broke off into a cascade of prayer, a rush of words in the old tongue that Seth could barely understand. They’d been forbidden to speak it outside of a set circle, didn’t she know that, for fear the power they could accidentally call. But the words of flight and grace and mercy she summoned never came, despite the desperation in her pleas. The only answer was a falling of darkness complete, the sound of steel on stone, and the wet gurgle as her prayer broke off and winged its way to the heavens.
Music drifted over the white sand, a tinkling of sound as faint and distant as the starlight. It came on a small wind, gentle and warm as a mother’s kiss. Seth’s hair ruffled in the breeze, air cooling the sweat on his brow. The tension in his face eased, and the campfire beside him quieted to a bed of banked coals.