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Chapter 1: The Chase

[Excerpt from The Rua Bond: Book 1 of the Northland Saga]

Chill summer glittered upon the Northworld. It never truly grew as hot as the lowlands being of a higher elevation and altitude. As such, the young rua in his hiding place, covered in warm downy feathers, still felt comfortable in his bush, though his annoyance showed in the flicking of his tail. Arcteryx was starting to think he had made a mistake going out on his own. It was supposed to have been a simple thing. Go to the forest, catch a furhopper, and get home before Mother and Father realized he was gone. Simple. As Arcteryx hid in the thick bushes, watching a pride of humans warily searching for him, he realized that the world outside the nest was much more dangerous than he had anticipated. He was surrounded and currently did not have an idea of how to escape. He needed time. Time to plan.

As a human came towards his hiding spot, Arcteryx shifted his hind paws slightly to move deeper into the brush, thankful for his downy and dull-colored feathers. His Heat Lines had not matured yet either, so he was grateful that they did not cast any light. He had a notion to cover himself in dirt but resisted it, knowing a scolding was coming and it was better not to do anything else that would upset his parents. His feathers and mottled summer coat would hide him just as well as dirt could anyway. The human stepped right up to the bush and Arcteryx held his breath, heart beating in his breast. After a moment though the human spat and turned away garbling something to his pridemate. Arcteryx breathed out again and returned to his plotting. He shifted a foretalon in the dirt as he thought of how he could keep his furhopper and still get away. This whole thing would be for nothing unless he kept the furhopper. That was the whole point; to show Father that he was old enough to hunt. He looked at the furhopper next to him that he had caught just moments earlier and glared at the thing. If it hadn’t run so far he wouldn’t have been in this difficult situation.

The humans barked at each other and Arcteryx recognized the sound they made for referring to him. They were not going to give up easily it seemed. He needed to make a distraction, but what? Arcteryx looked around, narrowing his gaze at each of the five humans. Two carried some sort of curved wooden stick, connected by a string of thick spider’s web: bows, the word came to Arcteryx. He remembered them from the stories his Father told some nights. They were objects to be wary of that threw talons into the sky; able to strike down a rua if it wasn’t careful.

The other humans held shining talons made of metal. They would be easy to avoid because of their short reach. First, he would disable the bows. A quick slice by his own talon would be all it needed. Then he would grab his furhopper and make a dash towards the river north. With any luck, he could escape into the water and float downstream where he could make a straight shot for the ridge that was his home. Mother and Father would be worried about him too. Maybe if he called loud enough they would hear him.

Arcteryx shook his head and a downy feather fell past his beak. He didn’t want Mother and Father involved. This expedition was all to prove himself after all. With that thought firmly planted in his mind, he readied his hind paws to jump out, digging into the earth under him as the muscles in his legs bunched with the strength of his small body. A surge of energy jolted through him, his heart beat fast, and his eyes narrowed. Instinctively, his second set of eyelids flipped shut and though they hampered his sight a bit, he would only need them for a moment.

When he sprung from his hiding spot out into the small clearing, the hunters were caught entirely by surprise. Within a wingbeat he had covered the distance and catapulted at one of the bowmen, slicing the string simply as he leaped at the man’s chest. His hind claws dug into the leather hide the man wore as Arcteryx leaped again, this time at the second bowman. However, the hunter had recovered his shock quicker than Arcteryx had anticipated and dodged to the side as the small griphys flew through the air towards him. Arcteryx was barely able to catch the man’s shoulder with a talon as he almost sailed right by and dug in with all the might he could muster. He had to disable that bow.

The man howled and tried to shake him off, scrambling under Arcteryx and trying to reach around for him with his open hand. However, Arcteryx was able to hook the talons of his other foretalon into the hide the man wore and hung on. The other humans jumped forward to help their pridemate, but Arcteryx’s goal was within reach as the man under him swung wildly with the bow in his other hand. Letting go of the man, Arcteryx sailed over the men’s heads, slicing the string as he did so, and landed several wingbeats away. Arcteryx looked back at his taloned work and purred in satisfaction.

His celebration was cut short however as the humans recovered their shock and charged. Arcteryx huffed and took off, slipping neatly back into his hiding spot, grabbing the furhopper in his beak, and blasting out the back of the bush. He was already many wingbeats away before he heard the humans giving chase. They thundered through the underbrush and it was a wonder to Arcteryx how they had snuck up on him at all.

The warm forests sped by him as he weaved around a tree here and jumped over a fallen trunk there. Without hesitation he headed north, knowing the river would appear. The humans did not give up their chase and Arcteryx realized he was starting to flag. With the furhopper weighing him down he could not run as quickly as he could normally, but he wasn’t about to give up his prize. The men were closing the distance steadily; Arcteryx needed another plan.

The river could not be far now, but the humans would catch up to him before he could get to the water. Was there something he could use? He cursed his small unfledged wings. If he had his pinion feathers this would be a simple matter. But with his wings out of the question, he would have to solve this with his mind again. He searched his memory, thinking back through the stories his parents told. The territories of the forests were split up into equal shares by the beasts there. Who ruled this territory again? Old Mountain! Arcteryx grinned. The old bear would be perfect and the small rua knew exactly where the beast would be this time of day. Digging his talons and claws into the ground, Arcteryx turned as quick as a scalestrike and ran off in the direction of Old Mountain’s sunning rock. It was just a bit east from where he was and right by the river. The humans huffed and wheezed after him, no doubt shouting curses. Though Arcteryx could not understand them, he could tell they were angry. Arcteryx looked ahead through the green trees and undergrowth and spied a patch of bright light ahead. The clearing! Arcteryx dug harder into the ground and sped towards it, bursting through into the tall open grass.

Arcteryx fought through the small amount of terror at sensing another older and more dangerous creature. Ordinarily, he would never have approached such a being without his father or mother. But today was not an ordinary day by any means. So Arcteryx sped towards the large boulder upon which a great grey bear was sunning himself.

“’ir Mou’ain! ‘ir Mou’ain!” Arcteryx said, mouth full of furhopper, dodging and weaving through the tall grass of the clearing. He heard a grunt and looked up to see a huge grey-furred muzzle hovering overhead. Old Mountain looked incredibly similar to his name as he rose to regard Arcteryx.

“What is it little one? Why does a sky-cub come to my sunning rock, out of breath and shouting?” Old Mountain had a deep rumbling voice.

Arcteryx spat his furhopper to the ground to speak. “Poachers sir! They’re trying to kill me.”

“Poachers you say!” Old Mountain sniffed and something rumbled angrily deep in his chest. The bear’s Heat Lines flared brightly. “I smell them. Dare they make war in my forest? No, that will not do. Little one, stay there and watch, I’ll stop these poachers.”

Arcteryx did just that and turned to watch what Old Mountain would do. The old bear sat back down on his rock and closed his eyes, Heat Lines that ran along his back, cooling and dimming to nothing. Arcteryx cocked his head. What was he doing? Then Old Mountain’s palpable presence vanished, leaving a peculiar feeling of emptiness in its wake. One of the bear’s great eyes flicked open and winked before closing. Arcteryx grinned and decided to play along. He took his furhopper up again and just as the humans started to enter the clearing tried to scramble up the boulder. He heard some chuckles and turned to bristle at them, all his feathers standing on end. They had created a half moon around him and were only a couple wingbeats away now. Then Arcteryx locked eyes with the leader, dropped his furhopper and sat on the ground, licking a talon, completely uncaring. The look of befuddlement on the man’s face was only added to when Arcteryx winked at him. The next moment Old Mountain stood up and roared.

Now, one might say that a bear standing up is terrifying enough in and of itself, but Old Mountain was at least the size of a large wagon and looked bigger because of summer feeding and fat. The Heat Lines on his back blazed to life and the roiling Heat wilted the grasses around the sunning rock. Arcteryx could hardly stand it himself. With the Heat came Old Mountain’s presence, heavy and terrible. It was simply too much for the poor humans. They ran; some of their hides catching fire as they did. Arcteryx was rolling on the ground laughing as they disappeared. The looks on the humans’ faces had been priceless. His plan had worked perfectly.

“Little one.”

Arcteryx froze at the stern husky voice and stood up, shaking the earth from him. He looked up at the huge form of Old Mountain. “Yes, sir?”

The enormous bear seemed to examine him for a moment before speaking. “When you came shouting towards me I couldn’t turn you away. However, you know the dangers of humans. Or, at least you should. Why are you out here young rua?”

“Hunting!” Arcteryx said, nudging his furhopper with his beak.

“Hunting? By yourself?” Old Mountain mused. “Yes, sir!”

“Curious.” Old Mountain raised an eyebrow. “I recognize your coloring. Are you related to that rua to the north? Oh, what was his name? I can never remember.”

Arcteryx puffed out his chest as he said his Father’s name. “Heliopteryx! I’m his son.”

“Are you now?” Old Mountain eyed him. “You can’t be more than a cub. Your Father is irresponsible if he’s let you out.”

Arcteryx chuffed. “I came out myself. I’m old enough to hunt now, Mother and Father just don’t realize it. This furhopper will show them.”

Old Mountain chuckled, a deep rumbling sound. “You have spirit young one. I will give you that.” The huge bear rumbled off of his rock and sat in the dust to lick a paw. “Oh to have some bee-sweets.”

Arcteryx sat next to the large form. “Bee-sweets?”

Old Mountain glanced at him. “You don’t know bee-sweets? Just what is your father teaching you I wonder… It is simply the greatest thing in this world and it only comes from bees.” Arcteryx listened to Old Mountain ramble on about these bee-sweets which he soon came to realize was honey, though the young rua had no heart to correct his large savior.

It was some time later when Arteryx realized he had spent too much time here again.

“-and not only does it drip and ooze and crunch and munch but it fills the belly and warms the ears I’ll say,” Old Mountain said finishing his speech on honey and its uses. The bear glanced down at Arcteryx again and the young rua had a peculiar feeling that Old Mountain was staring through him. Arcteryx shivered which seemed to shake Old Mountain from his daze.

“Ah, sorry. Must’ve dozed off there. You young one have been a good story companion, though I fear I may have tarried you here long enough. Our time is cut short. See your Father comes.” Arcteryx jumped at the words.

From above came a shadow, and in a blast of wind, sun, and ferocious Heat Arcteryx’s Father appeared. “Arcteryx!” Heliopteryx roared. His huge wingbeats threw debris and eArth across the small clearing as he landed and drew near to Arcteryx.  The Heat roiling off him was dangerous, burning the grasses where he landed. His feathers were golden white and his pelt was tawny gold. His beak glinted and his talons glowed. He was like the Great Light come down from the heavens. And he was angry. Arcteryx cowered before his Father as Heliopteryx came forward and glared at his son, Heat Lines flashing and searing the air. “Where have you been, foolish child?!”

Arcteryx nudged the furhopper out in front of him. “Hunting Father,” he said meekly.

His Father bristled seemingly to grow larger, his feathers standing on end in outrage. His Heat Lines seemed to get even brighter if that was even possible. “Hunting?! You abandon the nest to hunt? I have told you before that you are too young!”

“But Father, I hunted the furhopper! I’m old enough!”

“Silence!” Heliopteryx shouted. Arcteryx flattened himself to the ground, putting a taloned paw over his head and shutting his eyes. He had misjudged how angry his parents would be at his stunt. There would be no way out of this if Father was this angry.

The Heat in the area grew hotter and Arcteryx couldn’t help but whimper. It was too hot. He didn’t have his own feathers or Heat to protect him. Then after another moment passed, the Heat abated, pulled back in, as Father cooled himself. Father bent down, his tone softening.

“Arcteryx, my firstborn, I know you are eager to grow up. But you gave your mother a fright when she could not find you this morning.” Arcteryx peaked out from his paw feeling worse. His Father seemed tired now, his Heat Lines had returned more or less to their usual fiery color. “I have spent the better part of the day persuading her to stay with your sisters and have flown over half the forests looking for you.” Arcteryx felt Father place his head on his and breathe deeply. Father’s scent was comforting and Arcteryx slowly stood as they touched beaks.

“I’m sorry Father. I-I didn’t know Mother would be so worried. I’ll come home now.”

Heliopteryx drew back and nodded. “Then climb to my back son.” Arcteryx did so, making sure to cling tightly to his father’s feathers and hide and avoid his Heat Lines. He knew from experience they were painful. He heard Father speaking to Old Mountain, apologizing.

“Oh no, don’t mind me, Cliff-King. The young one was evading human hunters so it was the least I could do to run them off. Do not be too hard on him. Though he is young, his words are already sure and smart. He is learning quickly for his age. And please, don’t mind the mess. I’ll take care of it.”

Arcteryx held on as his father bowed to Old Mountain before moving off to have room for taking off. Old Mountain himself sat down on the scorched earth and began to draw Heat towards and into himself, returning the landscape back to greenery as he did so. His Heat Lines pulsed steadily.

“Are you holding on Arcteryx?”

“Yes, Father.”

“Then home we go.” With that Helioteryx leaped into the sky, flapping mightily to gain height quickly. Arcteryx settled down deeper into his father’s feathers and dreaded the scolding to come.

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