The Star Reader
"C'mon lads- I didn't do anything! You'd be better off letting me go-" Swiff Posely made a slight tug at his chains and the nearest guard whacked him across the back of his sore head.
"Quiet down!" another scolded in a sharp whisper. "I dunno whatchu did to make the king so sour but only the worst get sent this way- so I reckon you did somethin bad enough."
There were general nods to this statement from the handful of guards that surrounded Swiff. Their helmets clanked like a comical percussion of tin cans.
"Well one would think so, wouldn't they?" Swiff couldn't keep the desperation from seeping into his tone now. The forest path ahead of them was becoming narrower, sliding inward and pushing them closer together. The trees were bare of their leaves and the clouds above ominously dark. For a moment Swiff was lost in the foreboding nature of the long walk. He caught himself before he could be thrown into the inevitable void of doomed self-pity and said, "Uh... one- one would think so, but it just so happens that the king is mistaken-"
"Mistaken?" the guard that had hit his head let out a deep, skeptical laugh. "The king? Mistaken?"
Through the slits of the guards helmet Swiff thought he saw tears of mirth.
"With nerve like that it's no wonder you're headed to the tree," the guard continued. He spoke in a casual way, as if they were merely strolling through the woods for a pleasant evening constitutional to enjoy the wet, rain prickled wind and the dense, tolling of thunder overhead. "But since you haven't got a thing to lose go ahead and tell us... how is the king mistaken?"
Swiff bit his lip and rubbed his hands together a little nervously. He hadn't even opened his mouth and already his heart had picked up pace. He could feel it doing little flips in his chest while a damp sweat collected on his brow.
"My only intention was to help him," he hurried. "I never meant any harm! I swear it- I've served him so loyally- for nearly eleven years now-"
The guard's eyes rolled from the shadows of his helmet. "Right."
"It's true!" Swiff insisted, nervously. "I was his top mage- his star reader! It's a very delicate art- not many mages can do it! Perhaps I misinterpreted them but I'm not a traitor!"
"If you're just going to ramble you might as well shut up." The guard lost interest quickly. "I can't help you and even if I could- the words mage and traitor don't exactly sway me. You're goin to that tree."
Swiff had had enough. With every mention of the tree his legs felt a little more like jelly. "Please!" he begged. "I could give you money! I could give you anything- I don't deserve this! It's ridiculous! The tree of lore is meant for beasts not people!"
"Quiet down!" the guard behind him hit the back of his head again.
For a moment it seemed that every guard there had heeded the order as well. Silence fell upon them like a heavy blanket. As Swiff looked up he realized that the abrupt quiet was not because of the guard's commanding presence but because of the one presented by the clearing they had just walked into. It was a wide spread of leaves and moss with a single tree imposing at its center. This tree was a giant, like none Swiff had seen in his forty some years, and like none he would ever see again. The trunk was a tower of bark that erupted into a span of branches above so thick that it felt as if the sky had gone black as a new moon's night and the pinches of clouds through the small breaks of canopy were the stars.
Swiff's attention was so completely caught in the tree's incredible mass that he forgot to keep his legs moving. The guards were less amazed and continued to walk forward, dragging Swiff along on his knees.
A guard moved towards the tree but his commanding officer, marked by a red cape, lifted an arm against his chest before he could get closer to the tree.
"Not so fast.. this is magic after all."
Had Swiff not been in such a state of fear he would have understood this sooner. As it was it took him a few precious seconds before he remembered the rule of the tree.
"Sir," the impatient guard insisted. "The king said to do it as soon as possible."
"..and I said to wait!" his superior growled. He turned his helmet to the tree slowly. "There are rules to these kinds of things, after all."
Swiff couldn't hold back a small and hysterical laugh.
"Of course," he said. "Night.. it has to be night... time- sweet, valuable time!"
"SHADDUP!" the commanding guard barked. "Yeah- you've got time and it better be quiet time! Maybe it's time to pray to those precious stars of yours for luck. Cos once you're in that tree you'll need all the luck you can get!"
"No- no no no! Please- I'll pay you! I'll do anything!" Swiff begged piteously. He had never groveled before this in his life, but a life saved groveling would be better than none at all. "Anything! My loved ones- people will miss me!"
"You?" the reply was a scoff. "From what I hear your only darlings are the stars! No one will miss you, Swiff Posely! Not even the ones living in the sky!"
He pointed a finger up with a sneer and the rest of the guards were once again clanking their heads in clumsy laughter.
Swiff shook his head. He was getting nowhere with these guards, he knew it well. He was being sent to the tree of lore, and from there? Well- it was hard to say. No man had ever entered it before and returned to tell the tale.
"Whats that?" The guard's incredulous voice caught Swiff's attention again. He looked up to find the commanding guard staring at the ground. Swiff followed the gaze and felt his insides go cold when he saw what the guard and his men were looking at. On the ground, cradled in a nook of moss and tiny, blue petaled flowers, was a feather- a charred, inky black. A small breeze weaved through the forest and into the clearing- as it blew around them the feather disintegrated into a fine, dark mist.
"Birds.." Swiff nearly choked the word out.
Suddenly he was not the only nervous man in this forest. There were several clinks as the guards grabbed for their swords and looked up.
"That's impossible," said one. "The crows are freed now!"
Swiff jumped in unison with the guards as something obscured in the shadows of the canopy circled over head. He squinted his eyes but could only catch small glimpses as dark passed over the bits of light in the leaves above.
Whoosh, whoosh, whoosh.
There was no mistaking it now. It was the soft, thudding rhythm of enormous wings.
A bird.. in this forest? How? Why?
Every guard followed the noise with held breath and jumped when a voice sounded through the air from above. It carried in a circle, getting louder and quieter with the movements of the shadows.
"Round and Round and Round I go.." It hissed. "Ten times in the nightly hours..."
"SHOW YOURSELF!" the red caped guard shouted.
Whoosh, whoosh, whoosh.
"We're- we are not afraid of you!" the guard stammered. " Show yourself! Come down here and face us you beast!"
"Beast?" The voice snickered down at them. " 'beast' is what the fool has said, and if it speaks it isn't dead. If its not dead the fool still breathes and breath is what it needs to live... therefor..."
A cloud of black plummeted down upon the clearing just before them. Metal sliced into the air as swords were drawn. Swiff stared in disbelief at the dark creature that had landed in front of him. He had heard stories of the birds before- the cursed crows. They were bound by magic to a faceless form- slightly man shaped, slightly bird shaped.. and always shifting between the two in a shadowy cloud of ink black.
True to the rumors this bird was the height of a man, and its head was nothing more than what a shadow of a head might look like.. no eyes, no mouth- no beak or nose. When it walked towards them it walked on black, talon shaped feet, and its wings dragged on the ground, held at its sides like arms. Its head tilted slightly as it came forward to the commanding guard.
The guard was shaking. He stepped back and then- panicked- lunged in towards the bird with his sword. The bird evaporated into a cloud, the guard stumbled through it... and then the cloud condensed.. thicker than before- over the group. Swiff felt the cold, iron grip of a forbidden magic. It tingled on his skin and ached in his teeth . Worse yet it seemed as wild as the crow that wielded it. The guards around him didn't feel it. They couldn't. They were not men of sorcery. They stood and looked on in dumbstruck suspense while the air grew tighter around them. The black cloud of the bird lingered.
Suddenly the air snapped like a string. A force seemed to rip through every inch of Swiff's body. He was thrown off of his feet with the rest of the men- he careened through the air and was tossed so far back that his body managed to collide with one of the trees that bordered the clearing. He tumbled onto the roots and moss and scrambled to this feet through his tangle of chains.
When he had gained enough of his wits to see clearly he found the bird one again formed, faceless and dark, beneath the tree of lore. At its feet was a grotesque display of its power. Every guard lay on the ground.. breathless, motionless.. dead. Swiff put an arm to his mouth and fought off the urge to be sick.
"One still lives, Haviers.."
The bird was speaking. Swiff's eye's jerked from the scene of the dead guards to that of their killer. The bird's head tilted further.
"Yes..." It was speaking to itself. "..you can feel it, can't you? This one knows sorcery, Naros... this one knows the rules."
Swiff gulped as the bird moved towards him. His heart was hammering now.
"Please.." he managed to say through his shaking. "Please.. don't kill me! I'll leave- I don't want any trouble-"
He winced as the bird puffed into a cloud of smoke and reappeared inches from his own face. He stared on into that empty cloud of its face and for a moment he thought he saw two black marble-like eyes staring back. When he blinked they were gone.
"Leave?" asked the bird. "Heroes fight and cowards flee, but choice is only for the free..."
It prodded at Swiff's chains with a wing feather, softly.
"..I would cut those stubborn bonds, if it promised loyalty.."
Swiff flexed his manacled wrists as he considered the bird, nervously.
"You... you want to.. make a deal?"
"SWEAR YOURSELF TO ME, HUMAN!" the bird lost its poetic grace as it bellowed at him. Its feathers ruffled and it almost seemed bigger. "OR I'LL MAKE YOU DIE!"
Swiff winced. To swear himself to this bird meant a blood oath... a bond much harder to break than chains. Any other bird he would have laughed at. He would have known that his magic could over come anything one cursed flock of crows could try on him. But this bird was exceptional. Its power was enormous. Swiff could still feel the magic that killed the guards ringing the air.
"I..." he stepped back again. Sorcerer's training from the very first day discouraged blood oaths of all kinds. Only trouble could come of it. "I can't-"
The bird shifted on its clawed feet and Swiff caught sight of something shiny within the crook of its wing.. it was an object... something small and flickering..like embers behind glass.
"..what is that?" he asked, leaning forward. "...is that... a stone?"
"Swear yourself to me," the bird hissed. "..and find out."
A/N: This is a sequel to The Magic Mirror. If you haven't read that you might feel a little confused reading this. But never fear! The Magic Mirror is only a few clicks away. Just go to my profile, find 'The Magic Mirror' under stories and click it. Then click 'next chapter' forty more times and voila! You're all caught up. (Don't worry, it's not as long as it sounds). Thanks for reading. Reviews are ridiculously appreciated.