Bird of Hues

Hendron brought his water cup to the old man’s lips.  His noble birth had kept him from the dungeons, but this tower room he had shared with other well born traitors of the realm spared little comfort.  Old Rachact grew weaker every day, and Hendron felt certain that the man who had once been King Myrinan’s trusted adviser possessed the knowledge that could win their freedom.  Or, at least the tyrant king’s destruction.  The old man was loyal though, even still.  Hendron had to coax secrets from him in times of delusion, which were growing more frequent.

At first he hadn’t had many chances.  Their cell, at times, had been filled to capacity with fallen lords, captains, holy men and palace staff of good families.  One by one they were taken, though, and did not return.  Eventually, Rachact and Hendron had their pick of the cots, and Hendron felt free to ask questions.  Old Rachact side-stepped all of them.  His mind was unmatched, and the rumors that circulated throughout the land hinted at Rachact’s involvement in the aspects of King Myrinan’s rise to power that defied explanation.

Hendron had learned that a claw was at the heart of Myrinan’s power, but as yet he hadn’t been able to draw the connection between that and anything that would save him.  The guards would come again, soon, and it would be him or the old man.  Either way, they were out of time.  He helped old Rachact sit up and reached for his bowl of soup.

“They made your favorite,” he said, raising a spoon to the old man’s lips.

“Beets and sausage?” asked Rachact, his eyes going wide with delight.

The soup was likely more cabbage and who knew what else, but Hendron suspected the old man had lost his sense of smell and taste a while back.

“They knew you like it,” said Hendron, feeding the spoon to Rachact’s lips.  “You were telling me about the claw.”

A look of concern crossed Rachact’s features and he eyed Hendron more closely.  “What sort of test is this?” he asked.

Hendron sighed.  It had been worth a try, but the old man’s faculties were obviously still well intact for the moment.

“No test old man,” he said wearily.  “I just don’t understand how a claw can be the secret to the king’s power.”

“So you know,” said Rachact, nodding solemnly.

Hendron perked up.  Perhaps he had read the old man properly.

“Yes,” he said.

“The claw once belonged to one of the rarest creatures this world has ever known.  There were only a few, ever, and for that reason they bore no name.  People have given names to made up creatures that come close.  Griffin, phoenix, dragon, pegasus, unicorn… all of these mythical beasts derive from the same animal, originally.  We scholars refer to it as the bird of hue, though in truth it was likely more cat than bird.”  He shifted and let out a snort.  “More light and color than flesh, if you’re getting specific.  It could fly with wings, had feline qualities certainly, and also long tusks.  And its claws…” his face relaxed into reverence.

“This claw, it comes from a bird of hue?” asked Hendron.

“Unimaginable power,” muttered Rachact.  “The giants didn’t create it, see.  They made most all else, but this was a creature made from the light.  Daughter of rainbows, some have said.”

“Daughter?” asked Hendron.

“This one, anyhow,” said Rachact.  “The ability to create… our king needed the ability to create.”

Hendron sighed.  He knew the signs.  Rachact’s mind was fragmenting again, and soon the words would be random and useless.

“How did he get it?” asked Hendron.

“Through trickery,” said Rachact, his eyes straying down to the soup bowls.  “Is that beet and sausage soup?” he asked.

Hendron hurried another spoonful to his lips, and another when he saw that his window had closed.

“Fortifying walls,” Rachact nodded sagely, “and great fish with the wallop.”

Hendron fed the old man and wrapped what remained of his fine silk robes around him after he dozed.  Only then did he  search the bottom of the water cups for remaining drops and the soup bowls for scrap.  He was hungry, and weak, but the old man’s strength mattered more.  Hendron had conspired to steal away one of the king’s weapons before it could hatch, and for that his life was forfeit.  He wasn’t clear on old Rachact’s crime, but it hardly mattered.  Of all the people who had shared their cell, Hendron suspected he was the only one of the lot who had knowingly acted against their king.

Once he was certain the old man was soundly asleep, he crept to a cot formerly used by Lord Fesan, a portly man with a constantly bewildered expression.  Hendron had kept his notes under Fesan’s cot because Fesan was not creative enough to think to look there, and in case the guards were.  It didn’t matter anymore, but Hendron still kept the scrap of paper he’d managed to snatch out of a holy man’s sacred book before the guards took it, and the holy man, away.  Beside the paper was a stick of charcoal he’d scooped from the floor when the burning ember was kicked from the guards’ fire during a scuffle as they took the king’s coat man from the cell.

“Bird of hue, wings, catlike, tusks,” he wrote, and he studied his scribbles from past conversations.  A picture was starting to form, though he was far from the whole story.  King Myrinan had, somehow, acquired a claw from a female bird of hue.  With this claw, he had entrapped a giantess, and therefore her giant mate.  It was the mate who did the king’s bidding now, who had created the weapon he had tried to steal, and was likely creating more.

The scream of the outer door alerted him to the approach of the guards.  By the time they opened his cell door, Hendron was seated on his own cot, staring at the ceiling.  The guard at front looked between Hendron and sleeping Fesan and nodded toward Fesan.  The guards with him marched toward the old man.  ‘Not yet!’ thought Hendron, grasping at ideas to stall the inevitable.

“Tell your tyrant king that I know about his bird of hue,” said Hendron.  The guards paused, and gave him quizzical looks.  “The claw,” he said.  “The one King Myrinan never puts down.”  Most of that was guesswork, but he was desperate and willing to try anything.

“What of it?” asked the guard still standing near the door.

“Just tell him,” said Hendron.  “And if you value your head’s connection to its neck, you might want to tell him before anything happens to me or this old man.”

The guards hovering over Rachact looked to the one near the door for direction.  After a minute, he nodded and the three of them retreated.  Hendron sank against his cot in relief.  It had worked once, but it wouldn’t again.  He woke the old man.

“How is it defeated?” he asked.

“How is what now?” sputtered Rachact, sitting up and smoothing his filthy robes.  “What is this, boy?”

“We don’t have much time,” he said in a hush.  “The guards came for you, but I told them I know about the bird of hue.”

“However do you know about that!” shouted Rachact, pushing Hendron away.  “Spy!” he shouted.

Hendron pressed his eyes with his fingers.  “From you, you old fool!” he said.  Rachact sat back, his eyes wide as if Hendron had struck him or some similar outrage.  “We don’t have time,” he said.  “Those guards are about to come back and haul me away, perhaps even to King Myrinan himself.  What I want to know is, can this claw be defeated?”

“No,” Rachact said simply.

Hendron rolled back on his heels and hung his head.  It had been worth a try.

“Unless…” said Rachact, with a thoughtful expression, “unless you called upon its own kind, I suppose.  The rainbows might be mighty interested to reclaim it.”

“And how would I do that?” asked Hendron.

As old Rachact did frequently when on subjects of beliefs and histories, the old man reached to a place around his heart.  This time, though, his fingers fished inside his robes and pulled out a small U-shaped trinket.  He handed it to Hendron.

“Do more good than I was able to,” he said quietly.

They could both hear the scream of the outer door and the footfalls of more than three men.  Hendron met them at the door and walked willingly in their midst, down eternal flights of stairs and through countless empty halls.  There was noticeably less castle traffic than when he had roamed these halls freely, and those faces he saw looked frightened.  He noticed a distant sound of thunder, but his cell had looked out on the sky, which had been clear through the day as far as he remembered it.  He heard another boom.  Not thunder.

“Are we under siege?” he asked.

“Not for long,” said one of the guards, but the others remained stone faced.

“From whom?” he asked.

It was the length of another empty, spacious hall before the guard answered again.  “The great King Myrinan has a new weapon,” he said.

“But this sounds as if the castle itself is under attack,” said Hendron.  An uneasy exchange of glances between the guards made him laugh.  “Did his great wisdom’s weapon turn on him?”

A well armored fist slapped the back of Hendron’s head and he fell silent again, though at every shuddering boom, his heart swelled with hope.  If not for himself, then at least for this land.  He was brought to an underground chamber with ceilings so tall he couldn’t make them out in the shadows.  What he could see, though, was an enormous face, twisted with anguish, and his tyrant king standing on a wooden bridge built over-top the giant.  The king held a curved silver weapon in his hand.  A claw.  Hendron rubbed the U-shaped figurine he had tucked in his pocket and felt it thrum in response.  ‘I need light,’ he thought, but there was no natural light down in this cave.

“It seems you’re under attack by your own creations, highness,” said Hendron.

He had never had the courage to speak directly to the king before, but now he found he didn’t much care.  His death was a certainty.  He found that freeing somehow.  Below them, the giant laughed.  The wooden bridge beneath their feet shook from the sound.

“What is it you think you know, boy?” demanded the king, raising the claw and pointing it at Hendron’s face.

There was a terrible crash above, and a piece of the cave fell in, sending a stream of warm daylight down upon them.  A creature that looked to Hendron as if it had crawled straight out of a nightmare slithered in through the crack and scuttled into the shadows along the far wall.  Hendron slipped his hand into his pocket and brought out the old man’s trinket.  ‘This is the only chance we’re going to get,’ he thought, willing his thought to drift up through that crack to whatever rainbow or being of light the old man had thought might help.

“That claw doesn’t belong to you,” he said.  “And I’d wager you don’t know even half of the power it contains.”

King Myrinan’s eyebrows shot up and rage soon stole over the rest of his features.  He took a few steps toward Hendron, shaking the claw at him.

“How dare you!  How dare you!”

‘A few more steps,’ thought Hendron.  ‘Just a few more and you’ll be in the light.’  The trinket in his hand had begun to burn hot and he had to believe that meant help was on its way.

“I’m not sure I believe that’s even a real bird of hue claw,” he said.  “What charlatan sold that to you?”

At last the king raised the claw into the stream of light.  A terrible noise filled the air.  Hendron worried that his ears might burst from it.  King Myrinan dropped to his knees, letting the claw fall into the cavern.  A great rumbling laugh filled the space, drowning out the first sound, and the wooden bridge began to tremble and quake.

A wall of the cavern fell away as the giant rose, pushing away stone and mortar as if clearing cobwebs.  The sky fell into the dark space, and Hendron forgot to be afraid for a minute as endless rainbows danced and spun, washing the great cavern with color.  More of those nightmarish beasts flooded in, and though Hendron cowered from them, they flowed over him in their pursuit of the king.

Hendron lifted into the air, made warm with the shifting colors of rainbows, as the castle walls crashed down, and a new sound joined the giant’s laughter above the din.  It was another voice deep and rich, though somehow softer.

“My love,” it said, “I am free.  At last!  I am free.”

Written by W. C. McClure. This may be shared (and please do); just please be sure to share it in its entirety, unaltered (and including this fine print), with credit given to W. C. McClure. This is a work of fiction. None of the characters or events depicted are meant to represent anyone or anything this side of dreams. Comments are welcome at http://www.farsideofdreams.com. Oh, and please help support this indie author by telling your friends about this short story blog and buying W. C. McClure’s books http://www.wcmcclure.com. Thanks for reading!