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Prologue: Failure

[Excerpt from The Rua Bond: Book 1 of the Northland Saga] Ehren Briar stood still, not yet fully comprehending what had just happened. The dark glass orb felt cold under his palm as it sat on the altar in the vast atrium of his father’s keep. The cold stone floor and ceiling seemed to mock him as he stood in shock. Why had it not lit up yet? This was supposed to be his Awakening: the moment when he gained his Heat. But the spark remained unlit. Ehren gritted his teeth and clenched his other fist, still trying to will the power into the Spark. This wasn’t fair!

“No Art? Nothing at all?”

The bass words lanced into Ehren’s heart. He flinched. Then he turned and looked up to the massive figure behind him. That of his father, Lord Anderal Briar, Lord of Averhall Keep and Protector of Lands and High Fells. His father stood taller than any man, with a barrel chest and thick salt and pepper beard that was kept meticulously braided as was his right and custom as a lord. Though, the most imposing sight was the powerful lines of flame-like energy that bled from the sides of his eyes, forming intricate tattoos down his neck, arms, and torso. Tattoos that Ehren knew covered most of his father’s entire body. He couldn’t feel the Heat they bled into the air as they usually did. A sign of his father’s sudden increased control because of his dismay.

Ehren shivered in the vast stone chamber. He would have liked his father’s usual warmth. The walls were adorned with red and brown liveried banners: his father’s colors. The arched windows, six to a side of the hall, showed the snow and hail that had started to fall. The clacking served as another testament to Ehren’s failure. Not even the blazing braziers along the walls could staunch his chill. Today should have been a day of celebration. Ehren looked up to his father’s pained face and felt tears brimming at the edges of his own eyes. He looked away quickly, trying to shove the emotions down, trying to become invisible. He wanted to rage. He wanted to smash the artless spark to pieces. But he didn’t. It was too valuable of an object and Father would punish him severely if he did such a thing.

The three other figures in the chamber were silent, gauging Lord Anderal’s words. Demience, Ehren’s older brother, had a prodigious Art. Six years ago, when Demience had gone through this same Awakening, the spark had blazed so brightly Ehren, at six years old, had thought his eyes would be burned out. Ehren had hoped so badly to have a similar experience. No one could have known that today would be the true outcome.

Lord Anderal stepped forward, coming next to Ehren and placing a hand on his shoulder. Ehren hung his head and realized he still stood with his hand outstretched to the spark. The polished grey gem rested easily on its pedestal, silent. Behind it stood Orith, a furred leonin from the lowlands with the head and claws of a great striped cat, with white and black coloring that blended in perfectly with Northworld’s winter snows. He was also the Knight-Captain of Averhall and advisor to its lord.

Next to the leonin, was a creature that Ehren had admired since being old enough to understand what it was. Fully eight feet high at the shoulder and more than twice that long, the rua crouched proud next to his knight. Long Heat lines extended from the creature’s eyes, down its tawny-grey flank, to the tip of its tail. His name was Sunwing, or so Orith had told Ehren, when he had caught him sneaking into the aviary once. He hadn’t understood the name really, since the sun was almost never out and even if it was, it was covered in thin clouds, but Ehren had been in awe. Ehren now watched the creature, disappointment and longing written across his face. Sunwing’s great eye swung to the small boy and it shook its great, white-feathered head. The rua’s serrated beak opened and clicked twice, its Heat lines glowing along its flank, pulsing slightly. Like a heartbeat.

Orith glanced at his mount, his pale blue-slitted eyes narrowing in thought, eyes that he shared with his rua. Ehren couldn’t decipher the look, but he hesitantly took his hand off the spark and huddled closer to his father. This was impossible. All boys of twelve or older had Art or some sort and it was unheard of for a noble’s son not to have succeeded the Awakening. He felt a hand on his other shoulder and looked up to see his elder brother, Demience standing next to him. Demience gave him a pained and thinned-lipped smile. Ehren turned away, shame burning like the tears in his eyes.

Father squeezed his shoulder and Ehren felt a pulse of warmth run through him, for which he was thankful, “Can nothing be done, Orith?”

Orith looked sadly at the orb, “Nothing sire,” he spoke in voice like a low growl, “the spark is not wrong and I verified it myself this morning.” His ‘e’s and ‘r’s were more drawn out than a human’s.

Lord Anderal squeezed Ehren’s shoulder again, “We’ll find a way Orith.” It was more of a command in tone.

The knight bowed, “Yes sire. This is not the first time something like this has occurred. I will look into ways of rectifying this.”

The lord of Averhall nodded to his advisor, “I will as well. Join me in my study after you have finished here.” He then turned and fully gripped Ehren into a tight hug. “Don’t worry my son. We will find a way through this.” Ehren nodded into his father’s embrace feeling the tears still burning in his eyes. Then Lord Anderal released him. “I must return to my duties. I imagine Jeorgio is getting impatient.” Ehren nodded, though he said nothing.

Orith started to clean up the ritual area. Ehren took a step back to make more room and felt Demience send a wave of warmth through his body. Ehren stiffened and turned to scowl at his brother, “What was that for?”

Demience looked a little taken aback “Making sure you are warm enough Ehr. You looked cold.” It just added to Ehren’s hurt. Why couldn’t he have Art too?

“Well, you shouldn’t’ve,” Ehren growled jerking away to sit down next to Sunwing. He heard Demience sigh. Ehren ignored him and focused on the rua to his side. The creature would tower over Father if they were measured together and even its second pair of wings, located towards its hindquarters, would have a span at least as much. Sunwing was a softly bluish white color, accented in black wing and tail feathers. Its long tail curled around its foretalons sharply.

Ehren had loved the creatures ever since he was small. Just the thought of them would have had him bouncing up and down in excitement. When he was younger, his father and mother had taken him to see the ruas in their stables. They had been just as awe-inspiring then as they were to him now. It had been both his and his mother’s dream for him to ride one of the beasts one day.

Ehren felt those dreams cracking. Those times were some of his favorite memories. It was the main reason he had looked forward to his Awakening so much. A strong enough Art would get him entrance to the Order of the Rua Knights, and one day he would have been able to have one as his own. That dream was smashed now.

Ehren felt a sharp nudge at his back and turned to see Sunwing looming in his vision. It cocked its head, narrowing its pale blue eyes. Ehren almost jumped in surprise but smiled and brushed a hand through the creature’s feathers on its neck. It was warm. Ehren stood up and pressed his face to Sunwing’s neck and warmth suffused him. It felt right. Sunwing started making a sound akin to a cat’s purr, its long feathered tail flicking back and forth.

Ehren heard a gasp.

“Ehren!” Demience came forward and grabbed Ehren’s arm. “Sunwing isn’t a pet, come away.” A deep throaty growl came from the large creature and Demience froze.

Orith came forward to separate the boys from the rua and Demience let go of Ehren’s arm. Ehren felt a kind of loss at not being able to hug those feathers anymore. Sunwing made a deep growling sound and his Heat lines pulsed a sharp red color, emitting a wave of warmth, but Orith shook his head. Sunwing stopped then and dropped to the ground, Heat dissipating. He was pouting it seemed. Ehren found that both Orith and Demience were staring at him. He looked back and forth between the two older figures and felt a bit uncomfortable. What had he done wrong this time?

“It is the strangest thing,” Orith spoke slowly.

“It is isn’t it?” Demience shook his head.

Ehren turned his head to look at the two men. “What is?”

Orith walked forward and rested a furry clawed hand on his rua’s head. “Sunwing isn’t usually this friendly towards others, especially towards those without Art. He is usually only this friendly with me.” Orith’s avian gaze swept over Ehren and the boy suddenly felt rather uncomfortable.

“Well, what does that mean?” Ehren asked, fighting. He had always thought the creatures were fairly docile enough. At least that was what his sneaking into the aviary to see them every so often had led him to believe.

Orith grunted and stroked Sunwing’s ear tufts absently. “It means that you are special, my lord. You seem to have natural agreeableness with rua, which is confirmed through what I am feeling through my Bond.” Ehren blinked. He had known he was fond of the creatures, but had not thought that they might be fond of him as well. It was a peculiar occurrence which baffled Ehren. It wasn’t really an ability though. Orith had to be joking. But then again, Ehren had never really seen the leonin joke before. Furthermore, he knew that the Knight-Captain took great pains not to joke. But this didn’t make sense. Ehren didn’t have Art. Rua shouldn’t be interested in him at all. Still, if was true... If he indeed had this ability then this was his chance! Even if he could never be a Knight, if he could use this ability to gain a position where he would be surrounded by rua that would be enough. He wouldn’t have to have Art then. Ehren felt elated, but the feeling left as soon as it came. What if Orith said no? What if it was a stupid idea? What if-? Ehren shook his head, he had to try anyway. He had to show he was capable if he wanted Orith’s attention. Tenacity was one of the Knight’s Honor Codes after all.

“Sir Orith?” Ehren said, tentatively. He tried to keep his hopes to a minimum as the leonin turned to him. The knight watched him intently, unblinking. Those eyes were unsettling.

“Yes my lord?” Orith looked impassive, though Ehren could almost never read the leonin’s expression. Sunwing perked up and looked at the conversation between them with bright eyes, his Heat lines pulsing softly. Demience also looked interested in what Ehren was going to say. He raised an eyebrow at Ehren but the younger boy ignored him.

“I was wondering, sir, if there was a way for me to serve as a Knight without Art.”

“Ehren that doesn’t happen,” Demience said quickly. Ehren shot his brother a mean look.

“Just because you wouldn’t be able to doesn’t mean I can’t try!” As the words left his mouth Ehren immediately regretted them. Demience froze and closed his fists. They had both dreamed of being rua knights once before Demience found out that as heir to Averhall he had no chance of any other routes. It was a sore spot for them both now. Everyone had placed their faith in Ehren to be a Rua Knight and bring glory to House Briar.

Demience’s hands opened after a moment the older boy sighed. Then he just stood there and looked towards the windows and the blizzard ragin outside. For some reason that was even worse than him being angry. Orith saved them both from more discomfort.

“I wouldn’t say it is impossible, my lords.” He began slowly. “In fact, Ehren may have a true ability here and if proven, could be coveted by the Knights Order. It may be more useful as a Caretaker than a Knight. In any case, this situation needs more observation.” The leonin fell silent as he thought and the hope that Ehren had flourished brightly inside him. He had a chance. A chance to be with rua on a regular basis. It was a thrilling thought.

“My lord Ehren?”

“Yes, sir?” Ehren peeped.

Orith looked around the stone chamber. “I will talk to your father about having you serve as a squire to me and the knights here in Averhall. If and only if he approves you will be taught as a squire due to my desire to observe your ability and see if this is just a unique case or if it is something that could help the Order.” Ehren thought his heart would burst at those words. He glanced at Demience who remained silent and expressionless. Orith continued.

“You would be expected to adhere to the Honor Code as long as you are in my service. If the Order sees fit, you may even be able to work in the aviaries. But your lack of Art will harm you in this. You will never be given a true place in the Academy. Would you choose this path even still?”

Ehren hesitated. If he did this he wouldn’t be a lord anymore. Was it worth it? He was Artless, the lowest of the low, but he was still a lord’s son; he could still live a life of plenty if he stayed. Being a Caretaker could throw all that away. It was not strictly well thought of as a profession by any means. He glanced at Sunwing who now stood over them, Heat lines radiating a small amount of warmth around them. The magnificent creature seemed so carefree. It didn’t have these huge questions to answer. Ehren wanted to see more of them, because he felt alive around them.

Ehren looked up at Orith and nodded. “I would, sir.” Orith looked pleased with the words and nodded. The leonin reached out and took Sunwing’s reins that hung to the ground, placing them in Ehren’s hands. Then the knight bowed and exited the chamber, following the direction Lord Anderal went.

Ehren looked at the reins in his hands, feeling elated. This was his chance!

“Ehr, do you know what you’ve done?” Ehren jerked towards Demience’s disapproving stare. The elder brother stood, Heat roiling around him in waves, warping the air. Ehren felt a flash of anger.

“What? I’ve just gotten a place in the Order! Isn’t that great?”

Demience was shaking his head. “Yes, as a Caretaker. Ehren, they aren’t much better than slaves! And even if you finish a squireship with Orith that doesn’t mean the Order will actually take you.”

“Why not?” Ehren bristled, “Orith just said that I have an ability with rua. The Order will want that.”

“You don’t know that for sure,” Demience reasoned, frustration becoming evident in his tone, “and you’ve just put Father in a difficult position. You could have saved him face if you’d have chosen another path, but a Caretaker? You don’t even have Art-“

“Shut up!” Ehren shouted, startling both Demience and Sunwing, who uttered a squawked. Ehren glared at his brother, more tears echoing in his eyes, “At least you have Art.” Without another word Ehren started walking out of the chamber towards the grounds entrance, leading Sunwing behind him.

“Ehren. Ehren wait, I’m sorry,” Demience said, coming forward. Sunwing stopped and growled, bristling. The creature loomed larger, Heat pulsing from the Lines on its sides. Demience stopped, dropping the hand he had outstretched to Ehren to his side. Ehren smiled triumphantly through his tears and kept moving. As the reins tightened, Sunwing seemed to deflate and follow Ehren, but Ehren could see the rua keeping an eye on Demience. His older brother sighed and walked away, disappearing deeper in to the keep.

Ehren turned his attention to making his way to the aviary, wiping away his tears. He hated crying. He reached the large steel-wood doors of the main entrance. The two Brashas guards there immediately moved to open the gates as they saw one of their lord’s sons coming with a rua of all creatures in tow. Ehren smiled and moved out onto the wintery courtyard grounds. The aviary was past the archway to the right, far to one of the sides of the keep grounds, built into the cliff face of the mountain Averhall was nestled in.

The walk was slow which gave Ehren plenty of time to think over the events of the afternoon. He hoped desperately that Father would agree to Orith’s proposal. If he didn’t then what would Ehren do? He sighed and kicked a mound of snow, scattering the powder across the recently swept path. A servant must have been by to do that. He hoped no one had seen anything about what had happened. It would only be a few days before everyone in the keep knew of Ehren’s failure. He hated that fact.

Sunwing nudged him with his sharp beak and Ehren scratched the creature under his chin. The rua regarded Ehren with crystal blue avian eyes, that seemed to be... concerned? Sunwing cocked his head but soon started to purr under Ehren’s scratching. The young lord smiled. Why was it that people feared these creatures? If you knew where to scratch they would be your friend for life.

Ehren soon stopped after his fingers got tired and looked around at the snowy fortress that was his home. He still felt raw from the Awakening. The Heat it required was quite a bit and so it was no surprise to him that he felt drained, even with Father’s and Demience’s restoration Arts. Demience... Ehren was sorry for what he’d said. It wasn’t Demience’s fault that Ehren had failed. Still, it stung that Demience had so much Art. Couldn’t he give some to Ehren? Just a little would be enough. But it didn’t work like that. Absently, Ehren kicked a pebble on the ground. Sunwing made a low noise at that. Ehren looked back at the rua and searched his crystal eyes. Could the creature sense his pain? Flashes of the ritual flew through his mind’s eye. Orith, growling the words of the ceremony. Father and Demience, looking pleased for a moment before confusion and then disappointment seemed to wash over them. It had been a dashing of several dreams; for Ehren, his father, and his brother to be exact; with Father being a lord and never being able to learn at the Knight Academy; the eldest son being the lord’s heir; and the younger son, the last hope, having no Art at all. It was a disgrace for Father in fact to have no children eligible for learning at the Academy, and it was Ehren’s fault.

He felt tears cling to his eyes again, and he angrily wiped them away. He felt so weak. Knights didn’t cry. At least he’d never seen one do it. He needed to be strong so that Father would be pleased instead of sad. Ehren hated that he would never be able to attend the Academy for honorable reasons. He knew that being a Caretaker was the lowest position in the Academy hierarchy, or so he’d heard. Averhall did not have one, but the servants talked. He would be a lord’s son turned Caretaker. It wasn’t prestigious. And he was also Artless now, which made it worse. Ehren cursed his fate. Why did it have to be like this? The gods of fate must have had a twisted sense of humor. Ehren shook his head quickly. No, that was bad. He quickly said a prayer of regret and asked forgiveness lest the three-faced Una strike him where he stood.

Sunwing’s beak nudged a little too painfully this time and Ehren yelped. He spun to look at the chagrined creature, who bowed its head and turned its neck to him. Ehren didn’t know what it meant exactly, but he took it to mean an apology. Ehren chuckled and ruffled some of Sunwing’s head feathers.

“It’s alright, I forgive you.” Sunwing seemed to understand him, for he rose back up to his normal height which was massive.

A blast of cold air rippled through Ehren’s winter coat. He shivered. It was probably best to start moving again. The storm was indeed getting worse, clouds darkening and starting to cast the land into shadows. The snow was starting to fall more heavily, coating the stone pathway quickly. Ehren looked back to his charge. Sunwing stood silently head cocked to the side, looking at Ehren. The creature’s pale eyes seemed to hold a wealth of information that lay just beyond the surface.

Something cold and wet smacked against Ehren’s face, and he instinctively ducked. That just caused the snow to slide down inside his already wetting furs. Sunwing squawked and stepped back as Ehren dropped Sunwing’s reigns and jostled the ice out of his shirt hearing giggling farther to his right. He whirled and saw two pairs of bright green eyes staring at him from behind a pile of white.

“Hey!” Ehren yelled, diving down to make a ball of his own. He was pelted by two more cold orbs before he could even get his arm into position to throw. The two girls dashed away, giggling and zipping from snow pile to snow pile like some Zephyr. They wore light winter clothing, like all Brashas did, which made it easier for them to move around. Ehren could only lob it and hope to hit one of them. It fell flat many feet before the two.

“Sorry Ehren!” said Aila, the elder of the two servant girls. “You were looking too down before. No one likes a sorry face!”

“Yeah, cheer up you!” said Lea, the younger.

The two girls disappeared in the thickening flurries, back towards the servant’s quarters. Ehren gave a disappointed grunt and considered going after them but Sunwing chuffed which reminded the boy of his task. Do not disrespect him, lest you lose a hand. Ehren quickly trudged back to the rua, who ruffled his feathers and pulsed his Heat Lines that ran from his eyes to his tail. The snow that had been collecting on him dissolved instantly as warmth spread out from the creature. Ehren enjoyed the Heat as well, grateful for it.

The young lord dutifully picked up the reins again and started walking towards the aviary, now only a few yards away. He wouldn’t admit it out loud but Aila and Lea had cheered him up a bit. He was already thinking of revenge. But they had a point; the two of them. It wouldn’t do to keep moping about what was already past. He could only look towards the future and to his squiring to Orith, providing Father agreed. Ehren stopped walking and looked up at the quickly falling snow and closed his eyes, feeling the soft flakes melting on his cheeks. It felt soothing for some reason.

Sunwing chuffed again and Ehren opened his eyes to look at the large creature. The rua regarded him and then looked to the aviary and back to Ehren. Ehren chuckled and continued onwards. He had chosen his path he realized. If other rua were anything like Sunwing, it would be worth it. He would do anything to be with these creatures. Even if he was to be a Caretaker, the lowest of the low, if that was what it took for him to be close to rua then he would do it. He would prove that he was worth something to his Father. He would prove that he wasn’t a failure. He had to.

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