No matter how loud he roars,
the lion’s might will never be known in the North.
Dusk approached, and high above the forests and the fields of the Stonesdraw, a lone leaf sailed on the wind. Viewing it from below, one might have mistaken it for a leaf from an oak tree floating high in the air. It was actually much larger. So large, in fact, that on it rested a small village of people who called themselves the Skyborn.
This night held significance for the Skyborn, but it was most important to one Skyborn in particular. His parents had named him Elmis, but soon he would name himself. At the center of the Leaf, the entire village, save for the children, had gathered to perform the ceremony; even the Pilots had left their stations to witness the event. They formed a circle around the man-to-be, who waited alone in the cool night air. He stood just under six feet tall, with unkempt chestnut hair falling just below his shoulders, with a short, leather cord tied around his head to keep it out of his eyes. This was his day, so he wore his finest forest green tunic and brown breeches, ones without patches on the knees. He smiled and looked around, seeing the faces of the people he had grown up with. All their eyes focused on him, and he delighted in the chills that rattled through him. Their attention filled him with an energy that threatened to burst through his fingertips.
And he merited their attention. No children were present, but Elmis could see the other young men and women of the village who had recently gone through this very ceremony, and their jealous faces made him smile all the wider. Every trial was unique, and though they were supposed to be equal in all ways, both Elmis and his peers understood that his would be the most spectacular, the most meaningful. Each Skyborn had to earn adulthood, but he would earn it more. Faster, stronger, unstoppable. Tonight would be his night to prove this in front of the village.
Incense burned on twelve polls for each of the twelve mysteries, each one borne by a chief elder. The scents mixed in the air, barely eking their way to Elmis’s nostrils. The combination warmed the insides of his lungs. He looked to Barr, who bore the incense of the warrior. Though he was easily the largest and most intimidating of the elders, wearing a half-frown as he observed the scene, Barr engendered confidence in the young man. Elmis thought maybe he should wave, but before he could decide, he noticed and Barr scowl deeper and point at something on the opposite side of the circle.
Elmis whipped around as a masked man burst out of the crowd, clothed all in black. He prowled around Elmis, keeping to the edge of the circle, next to the spectators. The mask covered the man’s entire face except for the eyes, but it was too dark for Elmis to see their color. Having never witnessed one of these ceremonies before, Elmis did not know what to expect. He set himself in a fighting stance and noted the cloaked man’s posture and movements closely, searching for signs of aggression. As the dark figure walked toward Elmis, he noticed a tingling sensation in the tips of his fingers and toes. This involuntary feeling manifested itself whenever he felt nervous. He fought it, wanting to hide his anxiety from the crowd. Such a feeling would only get in the way of his performance.
The man finally joined Elmis in the middle of the circle. “Elmis, you have reached the age of seventeen years,” he rasped. Elmis could not recognize the voice, but could tell the man disguised it on purpose. “Are you prepared to become a man?” He seemed to ask not only to Elmis, but also to the entire congregation.
“I am!” Elmis called out, never moving his eyes from the cloaked figure in front of him, still ready to dodge an attack.
The figure nodded his head. “Then now is the time. What mystery do you choose?”
Elmis had already chosen, and the man in front of him already knew. Everyone in the village knew. It was as if his mystery had been ordained from birth. He had no hesitation, no doubt in his mind when he declared, “I choose the mystery of the warrior!”
The crowd, deathly silent before, erupted into a unanimous cheer that bombarded Elmis’s ears. Their applause fueled him; he could feel pride and power building up inside of him. He was invincible, capable of anything.
The masked man began to tear away his robes and the crowd fell silent again. From behind the dull black burst a brilliant red, but still the black mask remained on the man’s face. “So be it!” cried the man, “What name do you choose for yourself?”
Elmis had also decided this a long time ago, but never told anyone, not even his little brother, Acorn. He could feel the crowd’s anticipation and curiosity radiating in toward him. He let the tension build until the name burst from him,“I am Alzabar!”
Before the crowd could begin cheering again the man clothed in red spoke, “To prove yourself worthy of becoming a warrior, you must claim your axes. Your journey begins at the edge of the forest below, near a large outcropping of rock.” Emlis’s surprise at this news quickly turned to anger. Whatever trial he must face, it would not be in front of the crowd. His opportunity to demonstrate his worth to the Skyborn had been snatched from him. “You may use these wings to take you to the ground.”
The man presented Elmis with a pair of wings, a contraption that looked as if someone had taken a giant bat’s wings and built a frame of metal and wood around them. The sight did not inspire confidence, but Elmis knew the wings worked well, and that countless Skyborn had entrusted their lives to them when necessary.
He hesistated. He wanted to ask for a different ceremony, something everyone could watch. Did every seventeen-year-old attain adulthood off the Leaf? He could not be certain, but he thought not. He sensed that they had chosen this for him on purpose, and he resented that. But what could be done? Any complaints would be disrespectful to the elders and might condemn him to another year of childhood.
Seething, he strapped on the wings.
When he finished, the man whispered in his ear, “Good luck!”
Only when he heard the man whisper did Elmis recognize the voice behind the mask; it belonged to his father. Yet another surprise, but he refused to let his face show it. Instead, he smiled; of course his father would be part of this.
If he had to leave the crowd, he would at least do so dramatically. He charged the edge of the circle, between Barr and Wisp. The Skyborn parted before him as he ran. A mix of cheers and applause assaulted his ears, and someone gave him an affectionate punch on the shoulder as he rushed past. He howled like a wolf as he sprinted away from the village center, leaving the rest of the Skyborn cheering him on.
He knew his village well, and it did not take him long to weave between houses and leap over fences and reach the edge of the Leaf. He looked over it, into the darkness. A large cloud floated just below the Leaf, masking the ground below. The tingling sensation surged again in his fingers and toes; a thought of turning back flashed through his mind. He stood in contemplation. Behind him, he could hear the crowd moving toward him from the center of the village.
He had not lived his whole life waiting for this moment only to turn back. He clamped his arms tightly to his sides and jumped.
The wind roared in his ears as he rapidly descended through the dark. He could feel flecks of rain hitting his face, quickly soaking through his clothing and chilling him on the outside. He fought to keep his eyes open so he could see in what direction he plummeted, but it did not help much. There was nothing to see in the dark, and he still dropped through the cloud, which further obscured his vision.
But soon he broke out, and he could hear the difference in his ears. Water no longer splashed in his eyes and he could see the ground. Still, only larger objects became visible in the dark. The moon’s light partially obscured, he could barely make out the line where the fields began and the forest ended below. He searched below for the rock outcropping he had been told of, but could not spot it.
He waited for his body to plummet farther, scanning the line of trees for something large. The wind battered every part of him and he wanted more than anything to just let his arms leave his sides and let the wings do their work. If he did that now, though, he would not land for over an hour, and most likely several miles from his destination.
Then he saw the rocks, off in the distance. He could only tell they were far away. He tried to judge his distance from the ground, but found the sky too dark and his fall too fast. If he opened his arms to soon, he would overshoot the rocks and spend the rest of the night trying to find them. If he opened them too late…. He chose not to think about that. When his arms could no longer bear the strain, he finally allowed the wind what it wanted, and his wings snapped into position. His downward velocity dropped dramatically, and he now floated on the wind, still steadily losing altitude.
He leaned to his left and directed himself toward the rocks in the distance. Even as he hurtled across the sky, Elmis took a moment to think about the task ahead. His mind kept going through everything he knew about combat, but he couldn’t know if such last minute preparations would even help. There was even a chance he would not have to fight at all. Skyborn children could not witness rites of passage, so he had no point of reference. Plaguing his parents and other elders with questioning as a child never gave him the answers he wanted; waiting had been his only recourse, and soon that wait would end.
After several more minutes of falling, he landed. He had used wings before, just never from so high. He still knew what to do. About ten feet above the ground, he pulled his arms out of the loops in the wings and released the clasp that held the frame to his back. He tumbled to the ground, landing first on his feet, then rolling over his shoulder and onto his feet again. His extra momentum carried him in a run for over twenty feet through high grass. Already burs attached themselves to his boots, socks, and breeches.
He looked around. Several moments after he himself landed, so did his wings. They fell in a heap in the grass. He now stood several hundred feet away from the rocks in a field. This area had not seen rain in some time, so the grass crackled under his feet. In preparation for whatever came next, he covered his face, arms, and the rest of his exposed skin with dirt to disguise his scent and provide camouflage. His tunic and breeches were already stained from his roll. Perhaps wearing his nicest clothes had been unwise, but such things mattered little to him. He got down on his belly and began to crawl through the grass, doing his best not to make any sound, a nearly impossible task. The singing of crickets partially masked his movements.
After some time spent crawling, Elmis raised his head up enough to see over the grass and examine at the rocks. By moonlight, he could distinguish the silhouette of a figure leaning against them. Elmis brought his head back down before he himself could be seen, then considered his options. He could ignore the person, but that was entirely out of the question. It was obviously part of his test. There was no other reason for someone to be exactly where he had been told to go. He could simply walk up to the person. He had been told that his journey started at those rocks, and there was a chance that the person there had further instructions. Even though that seemed like the most reasonable thing to do, Elmis’s gut told him something different.
He followed his instincts and headed toward the forest, still crawling. He intended to sneak up on the person, but was not yet sure how. He knew from experience that the task would be much easier in the woods; not only would he be less visible in the forest, but he could also avoid the crackling grass that way. Instead of making a straight line to the forest, Elmis gave the rocks a wide berth so as not to be noticed. Every once in a while, he would check behind him; the figure remained ignorant of his presence. The forest was not far, but it still took him several minutes on his stomach to reach the trees.
Once there, he surveyed the situation. The outcropping of rocks was about twenty feet in diameter, and the figure waited on the other side, facing the field. Elmis knew he could not sneak all the way without being heard if he went through the field, but if he could make it to the rocks without being detected, stealth would be a simple matter. Still, there remained an expanse of grass about forty feet wide between the forest and the rocks. Unless his opponent were deaf, Elmis had little chance of crossing the field to the rocks without being detected. He needed a diversion.
He cast about for a good rock to throw, but only half-heartedly, because he knew the simple tactic of throwing a stone into the grass would not give him nearly enough time to run forty feet. He quickly found a stone about the size of his fist and tossed it in the air a few times, testing its weight and thinking. A prolonged and noisy diversion was what he needed. The only thing that could do that would be some sort of animal.
An idea struck him and he began running through the trees, searching the canopy above. It was dark, but he knew how to spot bird’s nests by their silhouettes in the trees. Sooner that he expected, he found a crow community on the edge of the forest. He looked back to the rocks, which were now even farther away. He gave a mental shrug and threw the rock up into the trees. Then he waited. The rock fell back to the ground, hitting a couple of branches on the way down. No response from the crows.
He looked up into the canopy again. The large bundles of sticks above him could mean nothing else, so he picked up the rock and tried again. Still nothing. Perhaps he was lucky that none of his friends and family were present to witness his antics. He briefly considered giving up on stealth altogether and approaching the rocks overtly, but discarded the thought; he had already devoted so much time to arriving unnoticed that it would have been a shame to stop then.
Giving up on the rock idea, Elmis stepped back a few paces, then took a running leap up into the trees. At the peak of his jump he grabbed a branch and pulled himself up onto it. He stood up carefully, reached with his hand, and nudged a nest. This time the reaction was immediate, it was loud, and it almost knocked him out of the tree. To catch himself, he hugged the trunk. The birds all began waking up, and one flew down and started pecking at his arms. He batted away the malignant crow and looked down. He had jumped to where he was; jumping down should be an easy matter. Before his feet touched the ground, his left foot struck against a branch, twisting his leap into a fall. He hit the ground with his hands first, spraining his wrist with the impact. He growled in pain, but allowed no other noise to escape him.
Above him, he could hear the ruckus picking up. The crows woke each other up, and the result was a cacophony of cawing. This was exactly what he needed. Ignoring the pain in his hand, he wove his way through the trees. As soon as he broke out of the forest, he accelerated, forcing caution out of his mind like an unpleasant memory. He chanced a glance behind him to see the crows circling over their territory, their black bodies easy to spot against the brightness of the moon. The only way he could make it to the rocks in time was if he ran as fast as he could, so he turned his head back on the scene and picked up speed. He had always loved the feeling of running through tall grass. His body quickly fell into a rhythm. First one foot, then the other, and after each footfall, the shock of landing shivering up his leg.
He made it to the rocks with time to spare, the crows still fussing over their rude awakening. He stopped and took some time to catch his breath, not wanting to sneak up on someone while panting like a dog in the sun. After a couple seconds, Elmis became impatient and started creeping across the rocks. He had always wondered how large outcroppings like this existed, and why the grasses had not grown over them to make them hills. He was grateful the grass had left these rocks alone, because now his footfalls were as silent as his thoughts.
By the light of the moon, Elmis deftly found a path through the stones, leaping as he went. Before long, he had reached the edge of the outcropping. He carefully crept to the edge on his stomach and looked over it. Not three feet below, the figure still waited. Elmis could not see a face past the cowl, but he could tell that it was a man from the sound of his breathing. This made Elmis very aware of his own breathing, which he had already lowered to be as imperceptible as he could make it. Still, it would not be long before he was noticed.
Taking the opportunity as it presented itself, Elmis leapt from the ledge and fell behind the man, quickly putting him in a headlock, using his left arm to avoid exacerbating his sprain. The man started in surprise, then began to resist. It was too late for him. Elmis’s arm had locked tight around the man’s throat. After a couple seconds, he quit struggling and said, “Well played, Elmis.”
Elmis recognized the voice; it was Garren’s. “My name is Alzabar now.”
Elmis felt a rumbling sensation against his arm as the man spoke, “Not yet. Not until you find your axes. And will you let go of me?”
He responded by releasing Garren, who stepped back and turned around, lowering the cowl from his face. He smiled a big smile Elmis had become accustomed to seeing since he had first met the man. He had joined the Skyborn about ten years previously when his parents decided to leave their homes on the ground. He had adjusted well to the Skyborn lifestyle, and had chosen the mystery of the warrior only a year-and-a-half before. He wore his own axes proudly, each with its own loop on his hips.
“Is that really the name you chose for yourself? Alzabar?” Garren stood with his back to the moon, his face shrouded in shadows.
Elmis could not tell if he was being mocked. “Yes, it is. Why?”
“Nothing,” replied Garren, shaking his head. “I was here to spar with you, but I didn’t anticipate an ambush. I was told that if you won, I should instruct you further on how to get your axes. I suppose you’ve already done that.”
“I will fight you again if you want, without your back turned.” Elmis’s voice took on an eager tone. He would relish another opportunity to prove himself in combat.
Garren shook his head again and chuckled, “I think we both know how that would turn out. I was chosen by Barr as your equal, but the truth is you have no equal among the Skyborn.” He looked at the ground, embarrassed. “Hell, I shouldn’t be telling you this. Your ego doesn’t need to be given a free meal. I’m sure it’s pretty full from the ceremony.”
Part of Elmis wanted to frown, but around Garren, he could not help but smile broadly. Perhaps the elders had considered his ego before sending him out of the village. “So, what do I have to do now?”
“Well, you’ve got to catch your axes, Elmis.” Garren walked a few feet away and knelt on the ground. His hands worked in the shadows.
“And good luck to you!”
There was a short rasp of metal on metal, the sound of a latch being undone, then a small creature dashed across Elmis’s field of vision. After a second of astonishment, Elmis realized what was going on and ran after it.
“If I can’t be your match, let’s see if this bobcat can! Come back to the rocks here when you’re done,” called Garren after him, laughing.
Elmis resumed his running rhythm, loping after the bobcat. It was a fast little thing, but strapped around its body were two hand-axes, and its legs were partially hampered by them. It had bolted around the rocks and straight for the woods, and it already had a significant lead on him. He knew that as soon as the cat reached the forest, finding it would be all but impossible, so he put all of his energy into running after it. After a few seconds, it became obvious that even encumbered as it was, the cat could still outrun him. He thought furiously about what to do as he ran. He had no time to stop and find something to throw, and it was too frightened to lure back with food.
His thoughts were so focused that Elmis almost missed it when the bobcat stumbled over something in the grass. It rolled over a few times, recovered, then started running again. Yet it had been slowed, and in that time Elmis had gained ground. Wary not be tripped like the cat, Elmis spied a log covered in grass that the creature had overlooked in its flight. He looked ahead; the cat was only about nine feet away.
Without further thought, Elmis covered the distance between himself and the log and vaulted himself off of it. As his leap carried him through the air he reached out toward the ground and snatched the bobcat by the stomach. He could feel the leather strap securing the axes to the creature, and the soft fur behind it. He landed in a roll, clutching the cat to his stomach so it would not get hurt. Their tumble ended abruptly when they crashed into a second log. A knob on the trunk smashed into Elmis’s side, making him cry out in pain.
He had little time for pain, however, as the bobcat writhed in his clutches. He uncurled himself and examined the leather strap. He quickly found a small buckle and undid it.
“Ha!” he shouted at the cat. “Ow! Curses!” It had bitten him on his arm. His reaction was instantaneous, he stood up and thrashed his arm, flinging the bobcat and its sharp teeth sprawling.
“You stupid animal!” he called after it. “I could have killed you if I had wanted to! You’re lucky you’re so damn fast or I’d come and finish you off for this.” He raised his bleeding arm, examining it; there were four deeper wounds and two shallow ones. At least he had his axes. He bent down and picked them up, only to find that one was missing. After examining the strap, he realized there was nowhere on it that the other axe could have been fixed. They had given each axe a separate strap.
He collapsed to his knees and shouted at the sky. “Why for the love of Morrow and Thisk would you put two straps on the cursed cat!”
From the rocks, he heard Garren guffaw.
Ignoring the sound, he glanced down at his bleeding arm and examined the bruise on his side. In addition to these injuries, a small welt had risen where the crow had pecked at his arm and his right wrist throbbed with pain. He still panted from the run and his heart thrummed in his chest. None of this mattered; he had to continue after the cat. If he returned with only one axe, what would he be? A half-man-half-boy. He thought back to what Garren had said. This bobcat was not his equal, nothing was. He would track it down and recover his axe if it meant he had to travel all the way to the Volcanic Range.
But the bobcat was already out of sight. Elmis grunted and looked around for a large leaf to bind to his arm. After finding one at the edge of the woods, he used some grasses as makeshift string. When he was satisfied he would not leave a trail of blood, he returned to the site of the scuffle and set off in search of his axe. The grass was all tamped down where the cat had fallen, and a similar path had been left trailing all the way to the woods. From there things got harder. Now Elmis had to look for tracks, and it was much darker under the trees.
After the first twenty feet into the woods, the bobcat had stopped running in a straight line and started walking in a more circuitous path. In places with less light, Elmis found himself feeling in the dirt with his hands for the next footprint. Bobcats, he knew, were hard to track because they always placed their hind paws in the place where they had placed their front ones. That being said, they had unusually big feet for their size, and left larger prints than one would think. He had always considered tracking bobcats pointless; they did not have much meat on them, they did not lay eggs, and they never even led you to larger creatures. Because of this, he had never payed much attention when Barr had taught him how to track them. The thought struck him then that Barr had probably chosen a bobcat for his trial for that very reason.
After an hour or so more of following the bobcat’s trail through the woods, Elmis lost it. Since it was too dark to see anything besides foliage, he double checked with his fingers, going back to where he knew there were tracks and following them to the end again. They just stopped, as far as he could tell.
He sat and thought, resting against a tree. Nothing came to him, his brain was so tired. His eyes were strained from trying hopelessly to find tracks in the dark. His hands and face were covered in dirt. His wounded arm ached from the bobcat bite. Less than a minute after resting against the tree, Elmis fell asleep.
He woke up to birdsong. He cursed himself, sure now of the fact he would have to return to the Leaf with only one axe. He leapt up and brushed off his clothes, which had become dewy during the night. He kicked the tree in frustration. Why did trees have to be so comfortable? He began cursing the tree. In truth, the tree had not even been that comfortable. He had several aches in his shoulders and lower back where his body had been poked by the ragged bark.
He would have continued giving the tree a piece of his mind, but he noticed something hanging from one of the lower limbs. It was an axe, still attached to its leather strap. Curious, he climbed into the tree and retrieved it. The strap had been broken, and he recognized all too familiar tooth marks on the edge. The buckle remained undone. The bobcat must have climbed up the tree and spent the night chewing the strap off. He returned to cursing himself. Of course the bobcat had climbed a tree, that’s why he couldn’t find any more footprints.
He took the axe with him and headed back for the rocks, already picturing Garren’s bemused expression.