Chapter 1

The woman's screams sliced through the tranquil night like a knife.  Tarel knew that he should be sleeping, but how could he with the stranger making so much noise?  He had seen men that had been in battle come to his mother's hut for healing before, but this woman who had appeared on the doorstep tonight was in far worse shape than most of them.

The evening meal had just finished when she had knocked softly on the door.  Tarel had felt it more than heard the sound.  He always seemed to feel when someone was drawing near.  Occasionally he would help his mother find wounds that were not seen by her eyes.  Mother never seemed to question this 'gift' as she called it.  Many of the people in the village seemed bothered by him, though.  They never taunted him about it as they needed his mother's healing arts too badly to risk angering her.  They did remind him constantly that he and his mother were not natives to the village, however.

Tarel was saddened by what his gift told him about this woman.  She was not as old as his mother, but clearly was mature, as she was enormous with child.  Tarel may have only been five summers old, but he knew from having a healer for a mother that women with great big bellies like that came to his mother for help, and later would go home with a new baby and a normal belly.  It was not the child within her that made Tarel want to weep for the woman.  Her right arm dangled from her body, broken in several places, as well as very nearly severed near her shoulder.  The rest of her body was covered in wounds and blood as well.  He knew she would not live through the night even as she fell through the doorway, almost landing on him.  He helped his mother get the woman to a cot near the fire and he had stayed up as long as he could helping his mother by fetching clean water as she washed away the blood and dirt from the woman's body.  He saw when his mother rolled the woman to her side the strange heavily scarred protrusions on her back, but could not make any more sense of them than his mother, other than to know that whatever wound they represented was an old one and not part of her current troubles.  His mother sent Tarel to bed soon after, as she started to clean the woman's lower body.  He didn't argue as he was quite tired by then.

Tarel had almost fallen asleep finally when a sudden piercing shriek shook the hut.  It was completely unlike any human sound of pain he had ever heard.  He had been in his corner of the hut with the curtains blocking his view when other women were birthing, and had heard the death screams of battle-scarred warriors, but nothing like this.  The only sound he could relate it to was the high pitched call of the giant eagles in the mountains near the village.

He sat up straight in his bed as he felt his mother's hasty approach to the little corner of the room where his bed was.  She said nothing as she handed him what had to be the largest egg he had ever seen.  Her thoughts projected to him, however.  This was no ordinary egg.  He must guard it and keep it warm through the night.  Tarel pulled the blankets over the egg which was nearly as big as he was, and did his best to wrap his own small body around it.

Moments later, he felt and heard a whimpering shudder from inside the egg.  He felt something else from the other part of the hut as well.  The stranger was dead.  If this egg had come from her, she would not see it hatch. Tarel placed his arm over his ward and cooed softly as he heard a mother bird do once in a nest in the forest.  He pulled the great round orb closer to him as he whispered, "Fear not, little one.  You are not alone.  I am here for you." Sleep slowly overtook the young boy as he hugged the strange object that would change his life forever.

Tarel slept through his mother coming in and placing another blanket over him and the egg he was hugging. She smiled down at her young son and his charge. She knew he would take good care of the little one.  Tarel was the gentlest youngster in the village, but she also knew he was one of the strongest, fiercest, and bravest.  For his life, he would need to be all of those things.  She searched her own gifts for a moment, but she was blocked from seeing anything in his future clearly, and what she could see stopped abruptly just a few years into the future.  She knew what that meant and immediately turned back to the main room of the hut.  Taking out a piece of parchment and a pen, she began preparing for that day when she would no longer be able to protect her now two sons.

As both Tarel and his mother expected, when the egg began to hatch a few days later, an infant boy was inside.  This was no human boy, though.  This child had wings of the most delicate and most beautiful black feathers.  Tarel had never seen a child or adult with wings and told his mother just that.  She smiled and asked if it mattered in his heart.

"No," the boy replied firmly.  "He is my brother, and I will always care as much for him as I do today."

"I think perhaps someday you will care more," Mother mused aloud.  "That too matters not to the mother's heart." She shook her head as if clearing her thoughts, and suddenly announced, "We must feed our baby."

"May I help, Mother?" Tarel asked softly.

"I would be foolish to try and stop you, would I not?" she countered.

"Will he eat food like me, or will he eat like a bird?" Tarel questioned.

"I must be truthful with you," Mother admitted sadly.  "I don't honestly know.  We must find out soon, though.  We will all learn together, won't we?"

"I think we should try our food," Tarel said after a moment's thought spent looking at his young charge.  "He looks more like us than he does a bird."

"That is a very wise idea, my son," Mother said with a smile.  "We will know quickly enough if we have done wrong, I would think."

Tarel was a little confused by this chain of events.  He had never known of his mother to be at a loss as to how to care for someone before.  Of course, she had never treated someone with wings before either.  It wasn't her fault if she didn't know everything.

The boy had indeed guessed correctly.  The baby had a ravenous appetite for the goat's milk that Tarel's mother offered.  Once Tarel knew how to hold the little one while he ate, the older boy insisted on feeding his baby every time.  Mother cautioned him that this would require getting up in the middle of the night for some time.  Tarel solved that problem by keeping the baby in his own bed.  He reasoned to his mother that her talents were often needed this time of year by the villagers.  She would be of no help if she had not slept because of the little one's appetite.

Tarel's mother soon came to realize that her son was more of a mother to the infant than a brother.  He cared for the child day and night nearly tirelessly.  She had seldom seen such devotion in the women whom she helped with birthing.

For Tarel's part, sharing his bed for the feeding was harder than he had imagined.  It was not the waking at all hours that bothered him.  In truth, he was seldom asleep.  The delicate little feathers tickled him so that he had a hard time getting rest.  Although he may have gotten a little testy and impatient with his mother as his lack of sleep drained his energy, he never took it out on the little one they cared for.  It wasn't the baby's fault he had been born with wings that tickled Tarel.

Since the night the egg had been put into his bed, Tarel only left the house to fetch water from the well in the village square, or to fetch wood for the fire.  Fortunately for him, there were enough men in the village that had their wounds treated by his mother that he never had to chop the firewood.  The village needed a healer, so the men took care to make sure she and her son had wood, and the women made sure she got food for them both.  Tarel did notice the whispers and stares from the villagers increased after the egg hatched though.  The new baby in the house made noises that were close to a normal baby's sounds, but not quite human at the same time.

Tarel's mother was very careful to keep the baby's wings hidden by blankets wrapped around him tightly whenever anyone from the village was in the house.  He wasn't sure why she did this, but somehow he knew she was right that this baby's secrets had to be kept from the village as long as they could.  As the baby grew into a small boy, Tarel helped his mother teach the winged boy how to keep his outer gifts, as his mother called them, concealed under Tarel's old clothes.  It made the boy look as if he had a great hump on his back, but mother said better a hump than the truth be known too soon. 

Tarel had become quite adept at hiding things in baggy clothing, as he had his own extra ears and his tail to hide from the village as well.  The villagers thought him and his mother strange enough as it was, it would never do for them to learn that both he and his mother had long furry tails at the base of their spines and furry cat ears on their heads as well.  Tarel knew it was cat ears without his mother having had to confirm it, because he could understand the ordinary cats in the village when they meowed and screeched and hissed.  He always made sure no one could hear him when he spoke back to them.

Tarel had named the baby Orien, and as they both grew, they both learned healing arts from his mother, but his mother also insisted that he spend some time learning to defend himself from one of the men in the village.  He got along well enough with everyone in the village, but there were unknown dangers from outside the village, she told Tarel.  He needed to know how to take care of himself and Orien when the time came for them to leave the village and their childhoods behind.  Unfortunately, Tarel could never feel comfortable with the great swords the man tried to teach him to handle.   He grew deadly accurate at throwing knives, and was an expert marksman with a bow, but when it came to hand to hand combat, he just never felt right holding a sword.  At 10 summers of age he was not overly concerned by this, nor was his teacher, but by his fifteenth summer, the situation had not changed and his sword skills had not improved at all.  Orien, however, was showing some promise with the sword and like his hero, Tarel, was at ten summers one of the deadliest archers in the village.

There was one other thing about the boys that no one was very surprised to notice.  Orien was commonly known as Tarel's shadow.  One never saw Tarel, without seeing Orien somewhere nearby.  While many of the younger brothers in the village tagged along with their older brothers, none of those older brothers seemed to appreciate it the way that Tarel did.  It was clear to everyone that Tarel not only did not mind his adopted little brother following him around everywhere, he actively encouraged it.  In fact, he insisted that the other boys his age accept his Orien in any games they all played together.

What the villagers did not know was that even after all this time, Orien adamantly refused to sleep anywhere but Tarel's bed.  His soft downy feathers still tickled Tarel every night, and not even Orien knew how much that tortured Tarel.  It was a torture he wouldn't give up for anything in the world though.  He loved having his Orien near him as much as the younger boy loved being there.