After Dani attached the leather leg band containing the message to her brother Aidan, Zooey whispered into the crow’s ear and released him into the air. The ebony bird took wing and flew up and northward, disappearing into the midnight blue sky.
Sapplehenning finally poked his head above Zooey’s shirt collar. He had refused to come out while the crow was around, knowing of the bird’s taste for mice.
“Yeah, but why a crow and not a homing pigeon?” Even with the grim task facing them, Taylor still could tease his youngest sister a little.
“Because crows are really smart, unlike you smartypants.” Zooey stuck her tongue out at the nine-year-old just like in the old days before they came to this Exile, and before the demons had tried to kill her. “Besides, homing pigeons don’t work the way you think they do.”
“You’re sure the bird knows where Vovin is?” It had never occurred to Dani to send a message home before, but that’s because she thought Shay was watching over them. Now they were alone, and if there was any hope of saving the dragon, it was with them.
“Jack says all of the northern birds and animals know about Vovin because a lot of them are afraid of the dragons. They don’t want to go anywhere near it, but crows are smarter. He knows Vovin isn’t dangerous to him.”
“The crow’s name is Jack?” Taylor started laughing.
“I named him Jack. It’s a perfectly fine name. Besides, his name in crow is too hard for me to say.” The five-year-old girl spun around turning her back on her brother and pretended to pout.
“Do you think they’ll come? You said even the dragons are afraid of the Quag Lands and that they never go there.” Mandy had been staring to the east and the brilliant golden light gracing the horizon.
“Aidan will convince them, and how can they abandon Shay?”
“Or us? If they don’t come, what are our chances?”
“It’s time to get going.” Dani started walking and the others fell in line knowing the meaning behind the dragonrider ignoring the question.
Then a sparrow sped out of the east barely two feet above their heads.
“What’s wrong?” Zooey shouted back at the retreating bird.
“What is it?”
“The sparrow was screaming. It’s really scared, Mandy.”
Then three more came from the same direction in panicked flight. After that came a small flock of robins.
“They’re all yelling and screaming, but I can’t tell what about.”
“The wind’s changed. It smells like smoke. Stay here.” Dani left the trail and climbed on top of a small rise to their left. It was still dark, but the sun should have already risen.
She called down to the Davidsons. “Those aren’t clouds, it’s smoke. It’s a forest fire.”
Overhead, great flocks of geese, finches, doves, and blue jays were streaming out of the east, escaping the conflagration that stood between them and their destination.
Dani rejoined the waiting siblings. “There’s no way through there. We’ll have to go around.”
“Where? The fire could spread in any direction, cutting us off.” Mandy turned and looked again and into the face of the not too distant inferno.
Paris held Jake’s hand. “Did you dream any of this?”
“No. I didn’t see a fire at all, just Shay in chains. She’s getting weaker every day.”
“So what do we do now?” Taylor held his spear like a staff, for once looking like any other worried fourth-grader.
“Look!” Zooey pointed overhead. The falcon who had been watching over them since they left the grave of Icarus was still circling. Then it gently glided downward, alighting on a nearby tree branch. The tiny animal whisperer walked over and stood on her tiptoes so she could hear him better.
“Uh huh. Okay. I’ll tell them.” Zooey ran back to the others. “Kester says that the wind is making the fire come this way, but he can show us a way around it. That means we have to go right.”
“South. Back the way we came, toward Direhaven and the Hall of the Kings.” Dani was crestfallen. She tried so hard to get them north to Vovin, but everything that had happened was taking them backward.
“There are other falcons who are watching the fire. If it changes direction, they’ll tell him and he’ll tell me.”
“If he’s wrong, we could end up trapped.”
“He’s my friend. He’s been guarding us and making sure the demons weren’t going to get us. We’ve got to do what he says.”
“She’s right. We don’t have a choice if we’re going to have any chance of saving Shay.” Mandy touched Dani’s forearm. “We all said this was the right thing to do. We can’t let another roadblock stop us.”
“Okay. I think there’s a trail that goes south a few miles ahead.”
“There is. Kester told me.” The five year old was smiling, proud that she could be such a big help again.
“Tell him to lead the way, Zooey.”
The child ran back toward the tree where the falcon was waiting. A few moments later, she took a few steps backward and the raptor soared skyward. Then she skipped to her brothers and sisters. “Let’s go.”
Dani smiled and tousled her hair. “I still get to lead the way.”
“Sure. Just follow Kester. We’ll follow you.”
It took three days of hard travel across heavily wooded terrain until the children were below the southern edge of the forest fire. The wind had shifted south twice in that time, the second bringing the flames to within half a mile of their trail. There was no place to run, the underbrush being heavy and dry, but the morning of the fourth day brought rain in the form of a violent thunderstorm.
“We’ve got to get out of this!” Terror gripped Mandy as she was captured by the memory of their first moments in Gerliliam’s wood, the five of them alone and lost in the dark and the downpour. She knew she had to take care of the others, but there had been no one to take care of her. Now there was Dani, but she was just as helpless.
“Sapplehenning! Wait!” Zooey called out into the darkness as the tiny mouse jumped out of her jacket and down her leg.
“We’ve got to keep going!” Mandy tugged at her sister’s arm, but she pulled back.
“No! I can’t leave him. He’ll get lost.”
“We are lost. We can’t stay here.”
The little girl yelled again, “Sapplehenning! Come back!”
“Come on, Mandy!” Dani was calling from ahead.
Sadly, Zooey let her older sister pull her back in line. “Hey!” She felt something on her leg and looked. “Sapplehenning!”
The now soaked rodent scampered up her leg and torso, and ducked inside the collar of the girl’s coat.
“Yuck. You’re all wet. What? Hey, everybody. There’s a cave.”
“How do you know?”
“Sapplehenning. Other mice told him, Mandy. It’s near the top of the trail really close.”
“Okay, go tell Dani.” The teenager let go of her sister’s arm and she ran up to their guide.
Then they started walking again in the dim and uncertain light, trying to be careful of the slick rocks and mud as they proceeded with renewed hope.
The cave wasn’t far, but it was far enough off the trail that they would have missed it if it hadn’t been for the mouse’s directions. It was actually more of an overhang, and while the structure sheltered them from the tempest, they still shivered with cold, unable to build a fire.
The violence of the storm waned to a light drizzle by noon, but it wasn’t until late afternoon before it stopped and blue sky broke through the clouds.
Dani, Mandy, Paris, and Jake vainly searched for any wood dry enough to be fuel for a fire while Taylor stood guard at the overhang. They had all changed into fresh clothing, and Zooey kept busy wringing it all out and then laying each item flat.
“How are they supposed to get dry without a fire?”
“They won’t, Zooey. But it’s better than keeping them all bundled up.”
“I guess.” She looked down dubiously at her handiwork. Then she tightened her coat around her. “Hey.”
“What is it?”
“I can’t find Sapplehenning.” She lightly patted her jacket and pockets but they were empty.
“Maybe he’s out looking for food or talking to other mice again.”
“He shouldn’t go out without telling me.”
“If it hadn’t been for your mouse, we might not have found this cave. He really helped us out.”
“Since when did you get to be so nice about Sapplehenning? I thought you liked cats.”
Taylor turned away from the entrance and bent over to see his sister’s eyes better. “Since we’ve been through all of this together. I’m sorry for all the times I teased you and hurt your feelings. I didn’t mean to.”
Zooey reached up and hugged her brother. “I love you too, Taylor.”
He slipped her arms around her and felt her warm breath against his neck.
“We’ll get through this.”
“I know we will.”
“I’ve got to get back to guard duty.” He let go and stood up.
“Okay, but now that the rain’s stopped and the animals are coming out of their dens, they’ll help guard us again.”
“Can you call them?”
“Sort of. It’s like they’re attracted to me when I need them. I can feel them out there.”
Taylor took his spear from where he’d leaned it against the stone wall. “Can’t you do that to call Sapplehenning?”
“It’s weird but I can’t.”
“Really? He’s a mouse and you can talk to him. Why not?”
“I don’t know. I could when we were in Direhaven, but when he’s not with me, I don’t know where he goes.”
“Wait. I think they’re coming back.” Taylor focused his attention into the woods outside the cave entrance.
“It’s just us.” Dani emerged first, then Paris and Jake, and then finally Mandy. The three Davidsons each held a sack of what was probably fruits and nuts, but Dani’s arms were empty of game or firewood.
“I guess it’s going to be a cold night.”
“Probably, Taylor. Everything’s soaked and there’s no use in starting out again this close to sunset. Besides, if another storm hits, we don’t want to be in it at night.”
“I have an idea. Taylor, come with me.” Zooey took her brother’s hand and led him outside. “We’ll be back in a little bit.”
“Where are you going?” Mandy watched the two siblings walk down into the brush and disappear, annoyed that the precocious kindergartener hadn’t answered her.
Dani and Jake were keeping watch and talking, while Mandy and Paris looked through the elven book studying more about herbal medicine, when the brother and sister returned, their arms loaded with dry wood.
“Where did you get that?” Dani rushed forward to relieve the little girl of her burden.
“Zooey talked to a family of weasels and they knew where fallen wood had been kept dry.” Taylor dumped the branches inside. “I can take you back for more.”
“Why don’t you take Mandy and Paris while I get the fire going. Is it far?” Dani added the wood she had taken from Zooey to the pile.
“Not really. We took so long because Zooey had to find animals who could help out.”
“I still wish I could have found Sapplehenning. I’m worried that he’s been gone so long.”
“He’ll come back soon, Sis. Don’t worry.” Taylor put his hand on her shoulder. “I’ve got to go back for more. Dani and Jake will be here with you.”
“I know. But I’m worried anyway.”
“Come on.” Taylor moved back to the cave opening. “There’s a lot more, but we don’t have much time before dark.”
Mandy and Paris were on their feet, with the younger girl having just finished putting her precious book back in her rucksack.
“It’s this way, Mandy.”
The two girls followed their brother out as Zooey and Jake helped Dani arrange the wood they had so far to start the fire.
In the night sky, the first stars had begun to shine by the time the trio returned with their second load of fuel. Zooey had spoken to some badgers and later some bats who all agreed to keep an eye out for any nearby dangers. The animals were recovering from the trauma of the fire and then the storm, but happily reported that the vast field of flames had been put out. They did mention that how it got started was mysterious, since there hadn’t been any lightning, and no word of any fire makers, human or otherwise, had been passed among them.
Content that they were secure for the evening, after a sparse supper, Paris read to the others from the Tales of the Dragons, which the elven scribes at Direhaven had collected along with many other legends. Then they returned to their neglected language lessons, all of them singing songs and reciting poems in the common dragon tongue. Taylor especially liked the warrior hymns said to have been composed by the Princes in the distant West.
Zooey unrolled her sleeping bag to find a small, furry friend quietly napping inside. “Sapplehenning! When did you get back?”
The mouse was startled awake and then scurried into the girl’s open palm.
She held him close, stroking his smooth, dry, fuzzy head. “You are a very bad mouse for staying away for so long. I was really worried about you.” Zooey held her ear close to her hands.
“What’s he saying?”
“He was visiting the local mice, the family who told him about the cave, Mandy.”
“All this time?”
“He has the right to make friends. Sapplehenning likes people but he misses other mice.”
“If you say so.”
“I’m just so glad he’s back.” She turned her attention back to the mouse. “Next time you want to go visiting, tell me where you’re going, okay?” She nuzzled her nose into him. “I love you, Sapplehenning.” The rodent curled affectionately in her hand and began to doze off.
They were far from Kester’s lands so another falcon named Peron had agreed to guide them to the east and back north toward the Quag Lands. The air smelled of wet, decaying leaves and smoke as the hexatet set out just after sunrise. The sky was partly cloudy but showing no signs of another storm, and they descended into a gorge and then back upward, but not as high. The eastward trail intersected with one heading north just before lunch. Since the animals all around them had become their friends and guardians, Dani and the others gathered wild vegetables and fruits rather than hunting fresh game. There was no sense in turning a potentially valuable ally into a meal.
The woods had thinned out to more park-like lands as they walked northeast. To the west on the horizon, they could sometimes make out the scorched forest which extended for many miles beyond. Then Zooey noticed Peron had vanished from the now brilliantly blue sky. Moments later, she was replaced by a much larger bird.
It circled for several minutes and then landed directly in front of them. Everyone stopped and Zooey walked up beside Dani who was in the lead.
“It’s a vulture.”
“But look at the size of him. Those wings must be ten feet across.”
He’s talking. He won’t hurt us.” Before anyone else could react, the tiniest Davidson walked forward. “Hello. What’s your name? Gyffus? Hi Gyffus. I’m Zooey.”
Then the large carrion bird began to speak, or that’s what everyone else assumed, not being able to understand him.
“He’s telling a story.” Zooey sat down beside the bird. The next time she talked, no one was sure it was her speaking.
“The fire wasn’t natural. They met between the peaks and the swamp. It was a war. The dark ones want to rule the mountains.” Then the little girl gasped. “The Great Gray God fought hard against the Army of the Demon Lords. He lost. The Gray God lost.” The started crying and it was as if the vulture wept with her.
“He was flying high above, higher than the clouds, over the battle. Gyffus could see almost everything. When the fire was put out by the rain, only the demons were left. He couldn’t see what happened to the God.”
“Ask him where the demons went. Did they go to the Quag Lands.” Dani sat down facing the pair.
“By then, the smoke was too high and he had to fly south. When he returned, the demons were gone too. He doesn’t know where.”
“Why is he telling us all this?”
“He is old among his kind and long been aware of the demons and their enemies. The birds, the beasts, and the fish know the demons have a new enemy. Us. They know we are separated from the dragons, and they know Shay is a prisoner. Gyffus came to warn us. With the God gone, the demons will take control of the Dark Hills. There’s nothing to stop them now from taking us.”
“Then we’ve got to get to Shay as soon as we can. Is there anyway the vulture can help?”
“He delivered his message and now he must return to the highest peaks where he can be free.”
Abruptly, Gyffus moved away and then beat its large, dark wings, slowly rising into the air. He soared upward while the child remained motionless on the ground, not even looking up at the dwindling figure in the sky.
“Zooey?” Dani looked into her eyes. He was hardly blinking, and that was the only time she saw the child move.
“Zooey!” Mandy moved to her sister quickly and knelt beside her. “Can you hear me?” The thirteen-year-old took the girl by the shoulders and shook. “Zooey!”
She started blinking faster, coughed twice, and then started crying.
Mandy held her close. “You’re okay. I’m right here. What happened to you?”
“I…I don’t know.” She sniffled for a few moments. “It was like it was me but something else, too.”
“Did the vulture do something to you?”
Zooey looked up from Mandy’s chest. “I think I did something to me.”
“What do you mean?”
“When I talked to Gyffus, I got too close.”
“You were just a few feet apart, but…”
“Not that kind of close. Mandy, I don’t talk to animals just with words. I understand them in my head, not with my ears.”
“You mean like reading minds?”
“I don’t know. This time, it was like he got inside part of my head. He was telling the story using my mouth, but I told the story, too. I could see the fire from high in the sky. I was flying. I watched the war. It was awful.” She buried her face in her sister’s coat and cried for a while.
“You don’t have to talk about it now if you don’t want to, but we can’t stay here. Even with the animals guarding us, if the demons are in control of the Dark Hills, and with Shay trapped in the Quag Lands…”
“I know, I know. I’m sorry.”
“You never have to be sorry, Zooey. I love you. I’m just trying to keep us out of trouble.”
“We’re in a lot of trouble already.”
“It’s time to go.” Dani was standing over the two sisters, with the rest of the family behind her. “We’re out of time.”
Mandy pulled Zooey to her feet.
“We’ve still got three or four hours of daylight left. If I’m right, we can be in the Quag Lands by early tomorrow if we hurry.” Dani hugged little Zooey. “I’m sorry for all you’ve been through.”
“It’s okay, Dani. Peron is back. We can start walking again.”
The fifteen-year-old looked up and saw the falcon was once again riding the thermals above and just ahead of them.
“Then let’s go.”
Dani took her usual place and then so did the rest of them. Danijel and the Davidsons, the revelation of the griffon vulture sitting like a weight on their shoulders, continued traveling toward a darkness more terrifying than any they had ever known before. For the sake of the golden dragon and perhaps their entire world, six children would have to walk through what might as well be the gates of Hell.
I wrote this for the Thursday photo prompt: Conflagration #writephoto challenge hosted at Sue Vincent’s Daily Echo. Every Thursday, Sue posts one of her original photos, and anyone who wants to participate can use it as the prompt for crafting a poem, short story, or some other creative work.
I’ve been using Sue’s weekly prompts as “guides” to crafting each of the chapters I’ve been writing for my fantasy novel. I had just started with this one when I saw Sue’s photo and went “uh-oh.” I hadn’t been planning on including a big fire. Then I got an idea how to integrate it into my existing outline for the novel and went with it. Now Dani and the Davidson children are in deep, deep trouble.
I did a fair amount of research including finding out that the griffon vulture is probably the highest flying bird. They’ve been observed at an altitude of 37,000 feet, which is about as high as most commercial airliners go. I know that crows and ravens aren’t used for sending messages, but I did find out that I’m not the first person to ask that question. That resource, by the way, is a really cool one if you want something to help you with worldbuilding.
The Table of Contents of my novel so far is:
- The Forest
- A Tale Shared Among Friends
- Mr. Covingham’s Secret
- Wilderness Pilgrims
- The God of the Dark Hills
- Hall of the Mountain Kings
- Sojourn in Direhaven
- Trial at Sakhr
- What Secrets We Keep
- The Uneasy Pact
- The Tracker
- Duel at Orholt
- Valley of Blood
- The Fallen
The next chapter is Descent.