by David R. Addleman
Text ©2008 David R. Addleman; illustration ©2008 Cubist

Home -=- #16 -=- ANTHRO #16 Stories
-= ANTHRO =-

   The hawks were coming.
   Golden Hawks they were, the pride of Chaldera, each one’s wingspan as long as a tall man’s outstretched arms. They’d be here by sunset, just as they were every day—or at least, that’s what he’d heard. So Rogan the Thief hid on the tower, waiting for the hawks to return. He’d acquired a pair of baskets in which to carry them; he hoped they would fit.
   Each day, he noted, a wiry boy delivered grain to a bin on top of the tower; this day Rogan had retraced that servant’s path up the circular inner stair and through the trap door which granted access to the tower’s summit. Of course the roof was empty, save for the stone shelter that contained the roost and a large feed-bin. Reminding himself to be patient, Rogan crouched beside the bin, waiting for night to fall.
   The City-State of Chaldera regarded the tower—and its feathered occupants—as sacred. He’d heard that even the hawks’ molted feathers were collected, sealed into vessels, and stored beneath their temple floor. But sacred or not, hawk droppings covered the floor of the roost, reeking of ammonia that irritated Rogan’s sensitive nose.
   Rogan’s plan was simple: Since the rooftop was all too open, he would hide in the only available place of concealment—the feed-bin—until the birds settled down for the night. Then he would sneak out, capture them and stuff them into his baskets. As twilight fell, the thief grimaced and climbed inside the bin. Sweating like a draft horse, he burrowed into the yellow corn kernels, leaving the lid open a crack so he could breathe fresh air.
   As the last rays of sun disappeared on the horizon, Rogan heard a furious beating of wings. Peeking through the open sliver, he saw the gigantic hawks swoop in for a landing. He lowered the lid, and tried to ignore the odor of ammoniated dust. Fighting down his gag reflex, he concentrated on not choking.
   He lay immobile for another hour, barely breathing. When all sound had died, the thief waited for a further time, until he felt it would be safe to move. Only then did he wriggle out of the grain. His movements were slow and quiet, but even so raised enough dust inside the bin to make him want to sneeze.
   Finally, Rogan placed both palms against the lid and raised it enough to see… darkness. Something snatched the lid and flung it open. Two golden eyes stared at him.
   He heard a soft hawk cry—“Kreegah”—no louder than a man’s in normal conversation.
   From behind the bin a soft voice asked, “What do you want, man?”
   Rogan jerked around to see a pale woman regarding him with bright golden eyes. In the moonlight her hair was pale and unkempt.
   “Yes, what?” asked a male voice from in front of him.
   Startled, Rogan looked back and saw the man who’d given such a realistic hawk call a moment before. His eyes, as golden as the woman’s, captured Rogan’s full attention. Tall, well muscled, and unsmiling, he stood in unabashed nakedness.
   “Where are the hawks?” Rogan asked.
   “Never mind them,” the woman answered. She stepped around from behind the raised lid. By moonlight he saw perfection in her unclothed figure. “Answer the question.”
   Rogan sensed that he’d better not lie to these two. “I came for the hawks. To steal them.”
   An emotion Rogan couldn’t identify flitted across the man’s face. He looked at the woman, and both burst into laughter.
   “How were you going to carry them down the tower?” the woman asked between giggles.
   Feeling very stupid, Rogan raised up two woven baskets.
   “You think we’d fit in those?”
   The suspicion in his mind burst into bloom: Rogan blurted out, “You’re the hawks!”
   The woman nodded.
   “I wasn’t told that part,” Rogan said. “Or that you’d be so big.”
   The naked pair looked at each other. Then the woman said, “I think it’s time we got a better look at you.”
   Rogan climbed out of the bin and sat down on the roof. The man squatted before him. “Why do you want us?”
   Rogan said, “A wizard in Etraria ordered me to steal Chaldera’s two sacred birds.”
   “You seem awfully young,” she said, half smiling. “How good a thief are you?”
   Rogan frowned. “I’m nineteen! In truth, I’m not very successful as a thief. I’ve never been caught, but I haven’t found much to steal, either.” He looked down at the rooftop. “Maybe I’ll give it up.” This last was said half-heartedly.
   “So,” the man said, “you are a failed thief who wishes to take up a different profession.”
   Rogan nodded.
   “Curious,” the woman replied. “Tell us, why would you agree to such a thing?”
   “The mage threatened me—and my family.”
   “You could run away, and take your family with you.”
   “Run from a wizard? I don’t think so. Besides, I live with my grandmamma. She’d die a thousand deaths, according to the wizard, if I didn’t obey.”
   The woman squatted alongside the man. “I wonder if this Etrarian spell caster realizes that capturing the hawks would mean war?”
   Rogan thought about that. “Perhaps—if he knew the birds were Chaldera’s rulers.”
   A shock passed through Rogan. “You’re King Antoine and Queen Rafella?” he whispered.
   “In the flesh.”
   This remark made Rogan very aware that only moon-shadow covered the Queen’s very pretty flesh. Averting his eyes, he said, “Perhaps it’s just as well that we meet in darkness.”
   The queen chuckled. “Ah, yes—modesty. I’d nearly forgotten, after 200 years as a hawk. Still…”
   “Quite.” King Antoine stood and fetched a bundle for Rafella. “In deference to our sensitive young acquaintance.”
   She slipped into a light silk covering; the king donned a similar robe. “Well, then: What does my Queen suggest we do with our would-be kidnapper? Shall we pitch him off the tower?”
   The queen walked around and examined Rogan with moonlight reflected in her eyes. “Perhaps we should boil him in oil.”
   Rogan swallowed hard and backed against the cold metal of the feed bin. His hands were shaking.
   “Or keep him until sunup and savage him as hawks,” the king said, his voice light and friendly.
   The air on the roof seemed suddenly colder. Goosebumps fleshed out on his skin. Rogan deemed he’d best keep quiet.
   “I know!” King Antoine reached out and squeezed Rogan’s biceps, like a cannibal testing the evening’s fare. “We could keep him as a pet.”
   “Oh, let’s,” the queen said.
   Rogan cleared his throat. “What does a pet do?” He sounded very hoarse.
   The queen leaned very close. “He cleans the roost.”
   Rogan groaned.

   Two hours later, a torchlight procession approached the base of the tower.
   Rogan paused from scraping hawk guano off the roost. “What’s happening?” he asked, peering over the edge.
   The queen didn’t bother looking down. “Our subjects pay homage to us.”
   Rogan thought about a kingdom ruled by two people who held court a few hours each night from atop a tower. “I’m surprised they don’t rebel and select a full-time ruler they can see during the day.”
   The king regarded him for a moment before replying. “It was tried. Once.”
   “What happened?”
   The king looked away. Queen Rafella answered, “The usurper was found torn to shreds—as if he’d been attacked by wild birds.”
   Rogan swallowed. Anxious to change the subject, he asked, “How long have you been cursed?”
   “What makes you think we’re cursed?”
   Rogan felt his face grow hot. “I just figured you didn’t choose to turn into hawks every day.”
   The king nodded and grimaced. “We have led these doubled lives for over two hundred years.”
   A shock ran through Rogan. “Longevity—doesn’t that make the curse worth having?”
   “No!” King Antoine said, his face twisted. “You can’t imagine the horror of being bound to this tower at night; and while we’re free as hawks, we lose our humanity.”
   Rogan thought he understood their dilemma. “How did this happen to you?”
   “A wizard named Amroth happened to us.” King Antoine spat the name.
   Stunned, Rogan backed against the railing. “It was Amroth who sent me to steal the hawks,” he whispered.
   That got their full attention.
   “Impossible,” King Antoine said. “Amroth died of old age years ago.”
   The queen looked at her husband. “Perhaps he had a son?”
   “The wizard who sent me is Amroth the Fourth.”
   “A great-grandson, then,” Rafella guessed.
   The king looked thoughtful. “Amroth IV sent you—one boy, alone? He must not have cared if you succeeded.”
   Rogan grinned. “Actually, he sent a company of armed guards with me, but I ditched them the first night. They’re probably wandering around the outer walls of your city looking for me.” Putting on a sheepish expression, he added, “I didn’t want them looking over my shoulder.”
   “Which is all very interesting, but why would Amroth IV want us—how would he benefit from starting a war?” Rafella asked.
   “That’s an excellent question,” King Antoine replied, musing. “Perhaps… we should ask him ourselves?”
   With two centuries of shared experience between the monarchs, the Queen seemed to guess what her mate was thinking. “It won’t work,” she said. “If he understands our curse, he should know we must return to this tower each night. Besides, how did he expect Rogan to steal us in the first place?”
   “Another excellent question. What say you, Rogan?”
   “He gave me a talisman to hang around my neck—said it would cancel the part of the curse that binds you to the tower at night. If it does anything else, he didn’t tell me.”
   King Antoine looked at his queen. “We could leave the tower?”
   Her face lit up. “We could go home to the palace?”
   “Let’s find out,” the King suggested.
   Rogan followed them through the trap door, down the stairs, and out onto the ground.
   “Two hundred years we waited to walk on our home soil again,” said the Queen as she looked at Rogan. “Can you imagine, boy, how this feels?”
   Rogan couldn’t, so he said nothing and gave a little shrug.
   “Let’s visit the palace,” the king said. “I’ve things to do before dawn. We can even sleep in our own beds!” The queen made a contented sound. “Then,” King Antoine continued, “tomorrow, after we turn into hawks, you can ‘steal’ us for your wizard.”
   Rogan considered. In a palace he’d be free of roost cleaning. But taking the hawks to Amroth? Could they trust the wizard’s talisman to not harbor hidden traps for the rulers? Sighing, he said, “No, for I have no wish to endanger you two.”
   The king spoke: “We’ll do our best to stay out of real danger.”
   “It’s a chance to break the cycle,” Queen Rafella said. “There might be a way to force Amroth IV to undo our curse.”

   They left at dawn. Two golden hawks wheeled high over the palace while Rogan crept out of the grounds. He moved rapidly into the city, recovered his horse, and rode out into the desert.
   The trip back to Etraria took three days. The trio was pleased to discover that Rogan’s talisman did nothing other than what he’d been told; they spent their evenings talking and working up plans for what they’d do when they confronted Amroth IV. The monarchs often spoke of how much they enjoyed their new nighttime freedom.
   Then, in sight of Etrarian walls, Rogan waved down the hawks and guided them to lay on woven nets hanging from a yoke across his horse’s back. The nets were actually slings that allowed the hawks to rise up and take off, if they chose.
   Remounting, he proceeded carefully, trying not to shake up the birds any more than necessary.

   Amroth was not happy. “Where have you been?” he demanded. “My guards returned days ago!” The wizard beckoned the burdened Rogan deeper into his audience chamber, then waved away his minions.
   Rogan shrugged off the crossbar holding the netted birds and lowered them gently to the floor. “These birds were slowing me down,” he said. “Besides, I didn’t need guards to complete my task,” he said, indicating the nets.
   Rogan had never before seen the wizard actually grin. The unusual expression made him look far less powerful and more like a venal old man. “The Golden Hawks of Chaldera—at last!” the wizard cried gleefully, rubbing his hands together. “Now, bring them before me.”
   Rogan nodded and stepped forward—and then the hawks spread their wings, bursting out of their nets as the thief stumbled off balance in ‘surprise’. The talisman he wore skittered across the floor.
   “They’re loose!? You idiot!” the wizard bellowed, sputtering and backing away from the open beaks, the outstretched wings, the menacing hisses. “Keep them away!”
   Rogan whistled from the floor, stopping the hawks whose wide-spread wings and open beaks made clear their intentions. “Save you so you can keep threatening my family? I don’t think so!”
   Suddenly the hawks screeched and launched into the air! Both humans froze in surprise as the birds swept around the room and out the door. The wizard remained still for a moment longer, with only his eyes moving, until he hurried to a particular corner of the chamber and picked something up: The talisman he’d given Rogan. It’d fallen off when he stumbled. “I wasn’t sure this would work…” he murmured as he examined it. “Look outside. It’s sundown. Without the talisman on you, the birds were forced to return to their tower.”
   Seeing that Amroth IV was calmer, the thief spoke: “Why did you bother to give me a talisman you weren’t sure of?”
   “To find out if it would work, of course!” said the mage. “And to see if you were competent enough to make a good lackey.” He tossed the talisman back to Rogan, saying, “You’d best wear this more securely during your next mission.”
   “What—you want me to steal the hawks a second time!?”
   “Yes! Great-granddad recorded all his magical knowledge in one book—a book I’ve spent most of my adult life in search of. All I know of his secrets is what I’ve learned from a few pages of preliminary notes, and whatever I can glean from people and things he’d cast spells on. And now that I’ve seen the famous Golden Hawks of Chaldera, I’m sure I can put them to excellent use.”
   Rogan frowned. “But your ancestor’s legacy is pure evil. Why should I help you reclaim it?”
   The wizard blinked in surprise. “You insult him, and me, knowing I hold the lives of your precious family in my hand?”
   “Grandmama wouldn’t want me to do evil, no matter the cost to her!”
   “I… see. Very well: You are free to go, if that is what you choose.”
   Rogan paused. Surely there was a catch to this seemingly generous offer. “You would let me go, just like that.”
   Amroth made a great show of indifference. “Certainly! All I want is knowledge, not power over others. It’s your choice entirely whether or not you help me acquire great-granddad’s book. Of course, if I can’t learn his secrets by reading his book, I’ll have to resort to other methods… such as repeating the unholy experiments from which he gained that knowledge in the first place. I understand that he used thousands of people as experimental subj-”
   Interrupting, Rogan cried. “I’ll do it!”
   “I thought you’d make the right choice,” the wizard stated with a smug expression. “Now, as I said, I’ve spent my whole life looking for the book. And at this point, there are only two places it could be: One is the endless Caverns of Malice, and the other is the Wind Tunnels of Gothesberg.”
   Rogan frowned. “From what I’ve heard, no one survives either of those places.”
   “Nonsense! I’m confident that a resourceful thief like you won’t have any trouble.”
   Rogan wanted no part of the Caverns, which supposedly spiraled down to the underworld of Hell. And he couldn’t scale Gothesberg. “It would be suicide for me to go either of those places.”
   Amroth shrugged. “Perhaps. But know this: One way or another, I will learn what I desire. Let that spur you on to succeed where others before you have died. But I do have one last piece of advice before you leave me: I’d suggest that you take the Caverns, and send the hawks to Gothesberg.” He waved dismissively. “I trust you know where the door is?”

   Rogan was glad to leave Amroth’s stronghold, and felt his mood lift as he rode away. All visible trace of the wizard’s demesne had passed beyond the horizon before he stopped for the night. He wondered how the rulers were doing. Since he was wearing the amulet, they should at least be free of the tower.
   On the evening of Rogan’s return, he first climbed the tower: Nobody home. He smiled and ran to the palace. Guards had evidently been forewarned not to stop him. He was led to the throne room. Rogan began apologizing for dropping the amulet.
   King Antoine waved that off. “What happened after we left?”
   “I’m afraid I didn’t learn as much as we’d hoped,” Rogan replied. “Except that Amroth IV is insane—he wants all of his ancestor’s dark secrets, and he doesn’t care how many people will suffer to make it happen. If it was just me and my family…”
   “… you’d be willing to defy him,” the Queen finished. “But it isn’t. Very well: What did he command you to do this time?”
   “He wants me to steal you again,”—this put smiles on their royal faces—“so you can assist me in retrieving the book containing all of the first Amroth’s secrets.”
   “Did he demand that you succeed within a specific length of time?” the King asked.
   “No. Frankly, I’m not sure he expects me to survive.”
   “In other words,” Rafella said, “if we do succeed, we’ll have that book to ourselves for a while.”
   “I rather like that thought,” the King mused. “It holds such possibilities… At any rate, did Amroth at least give you a hint on the location of the book?”
   “He did, but you’re not going to like it: There’s the Caverns of Malice, and the Wind Tunnels of Gothesberg.”
   “Antoine? Don’t we have some books on unnatural places like those?”
   “It’s been a while since I was in the Royal Library, but if I remember aright, I believe we do…”

   The King’s memory was correct. A couple of hours’ research later, Rogan summarized what they’d learned: “I’d hoped that at least one of the places Amroth named was a myth, but both are real. The Caverns of Malice are infernally hot, and nobody has been to their bottom—or if they have, they didn’t live to tell anyone else,” he said, pointing out the Caverns’ location on a well-drawn parchment map. “Feathers and fiery heat don’t mix,” he said, “so I’m probably the best one for this job. As for Gothesberg,” Rogan traced a path with his finger on the map, “the wind in those tunnels is reputedly strong enough to sweep fully-armored warriors into the air! And once you lose your footing, you’re dead—battered against the stone walls and ceiling. People have tried to explore these passages while tethered to heavy rope, but that only guarantees a proper burial after friends haul the body back. Fortunately, the Wind Tunnels are wide enough that you should be able to fly in them, maybe even side by side. It’s clear why Amroth suggested that mission for you.”
   “Yes…” Antoine said. “But does he really believe we’ll be able to find his book?”
   “Why not? What would stop you, if the book is really there?”
   “When we are hawks,” the Queen said carefully, “our minds don’t work the same. We don’t think like humans; different things are important to us.” She paused. “It’s like trying to carry two buckets of water in one: A lot of it splashes over the edge. And a lot of our human minds just don’t fit into hawk brains.”
   “We’ll go,” Antoine was quick to add. “And once we’re there, we’ll certainly try to look for anything that resembles a book. But… we can’t make any promises.”
   Rogan thought fast: “Well, after you change tomorrow morning, what if you come in here and I’ll familiarize your hawk-selves with books? Would that help?”
   “It might,” Antoine replied. “And in addition, you shall consult with our majordomo to replenish your traveling supplies. But right now, let’s discuss the future: Whether we find Amroth’s book or not, what are we going to do about that wizard?”
   The trio spent the rest of the night discussing possibilities.

   Rogan spent a day and a half on horseback. The Caves of Malice were in a canyon in the mountains bordering Chaldera and Etraria. Riding through low hills on a narrow trail, he nearly plunged into the very canyon he’d been seeking. His horse refused to head down that slope; he soon found a gentler way down to the canyon floor. Once there, he searched for caves.
   Without warning, a cloud erupted out of a bracken-covered hillside! A gigantic swarm of bats blackened the twilight sky, filling the air with the unmistakable stench of urine and offal. He dismounted quickly and pinioned his skittery beast. Rogan hated bats, but this time they’d done him a service.
   The bats gone, he looked around and spotted a stand of cottonwoods a few hundred yards off. He tethered the horse on a long foraging line in a grassy clearing. From twin packs, he took food, rope, a few extra clothes, five pitch-dipped torches and flint and steel to set them alight. If those weren’t enough, he’d probably be out of food and luck by then anyway.
   He patted the horse on the neck. “Don’t go anywhere; I’ll be back as soon as I can.”
   The horse regarded him with one brown eye and nickered.
   Suddenly suspicious, Rogan asked, “You’re not another bespelled human?”
   The horse dropped its head and began pulling at the grass.
   Exhaling, he added, “I didn’t think so.”
   The cavern’s mouth was well-concealed by densely-grown bracken; he forced his way past the thick brush and entered the cave. To counteract the acrid stench, he tied a scarf over his nose and mouth. The cavern floor was rocky and lumpy with bat droppings. Ten steps inside, the light dimmed. He lit the first torch.
   The bat odor faded as he moved deeper into the cavern. Warm air blew past his face. He continued on, aware that the air temperature continued to rise. A tinge of sulfur rode the currents.
   The floor of the cave descended. Now the rock underfoot was clean, as if scoured by demon servants.
   He turned a corner and stopped abruptly: The floor dropped away and disappeared into shadow. Leaning over the edge, Rogan held the sputtering torch high and peered down. He blinked in surprise at the sight of giant steps cut into solid rock. They extended farther down the cliff than he could see.
   Suddenly, his torch sputtered and went out!
   In sudden blackness, he felt like he was falling and stumbled back, scrambling to relight the torch. Had a giant demon blown it out? Or was it merely the increased airflow at the edge of the drop? He moved closer, sheltering the wavering torch from the blast of hot air.
   The steps angled down and to his right. Carefully, shielding the torch with his opposite hand, Rogan eased over the edge and onto the stair. He started down, one careful step at a time. Off in the distance he heard a waterfall, but it wasn’t doing him any good.
   The descent seemed endless and felt as if he were moving into a blast furnace. Fifty steps and his thighs complained; two hundred and they were afire. All the while he sweated, barely able to breathe the superheated air. He commanded his legs to move down one more step, one more time. After more than an hour of tortured breathing and muscle pain, he reached a sandy floor. His legs spasmed as he collapsed on the hot sand. A shallow stream trickled alongside the path and he fell gratefully into it, drinking until his stomach hurt. The air felt molten, the smell of sulfur overwhelming. At least the wind blast had eased to a gentle flow.
   Grunting, Rogan rolled in the water before he climbed, dripping, to his feet. The pain in his thighs eased, but his calves screamed as he walked through the deep sand.
   “Malice, indeed,” he said. His own hoarse words echoed back, startling him.
   Another mile and he heard a roaring sound from up ahead—another waterfall, perhaps? He continued on until it sounded like thousands of snakes hissing. Slowing, not sure he wanted to solve the mystery, he eased ahead. The heat intensified with every step.
   Rogan stripped off his shirt and tied it around his waist.
   The noise increased, sounding like flames licking at dry wood. From the crackling and popping, he expected any minute to see a huge bonfire. Super-heated air heat stung his eyes. The path ended at a wall of rock.
   Rogan traversed the wall and saw a hidden cleft. He stepped through its narrow split and emerged on a ledge hundreds of feet above a lake of fire. The stream he’d been following spewed out of the rock high above the lake, a steaming and hissing waterfall, much of it evaporating before it reached the lake of fire.
   He couldn’t go farther and he couldn’t bear the heat. Retreating to the relative shelter of the cleft, he saw a tower of rock extending up out of the burning lake. It was hard to tell through the wavy, distorted air, but was there something atop that tower of rock and level with him? Some sort of object? Amroth’s book, he prayed.
   Excited, Rogan ignored the heat and moved along the ledge encircling the tower, soon reaching a point that was only a tantalizing five arm-lengths away through shimmering heat waves. His hair began to singe, his eyeballs dried of moisture.
   He rushed back to the cleft and through it, falling into the stream and rolling gratefully. That short exposure had almost killed him! How could he get to the object and determine if it was the book?
   A hawk could fly out to that tower, except that the heat would singe its feathers and drop it into the flames. Certain death for any creature trying to reach it. If it was the book of spells, Amroth had hid it well and made it inaccessible!
   Rogan sat in the tiny stream. Maybe he could fling a rope across the chasm and snag the object? No. Even if that worked, both would burn for fall into the lake before he could pull them back.
   Wait! he thought, sitting bolt upright. Water-soaked rope doesn’t burn!
   Could the first Amroth have overlooked something that simple? It seemed unlikely. However, 200 years was a long time; perhaps the little stream hadn’t existed then. Rogan doused his hair, dipped his shirt into the stream and put it on. Then he went back out on the ledge and looked around, not sure what he was looking for. He spied a pointed rock above his head that jutted more than halfway out above the lake of fire, at about thrice his own height. A rope fastened there would allow him to swing over to the tower, grab the object and swing back. One problem, he thought. I’d be a dried fig long before I got back. Well, the solution was obvious.
   Back at the stream, he dumped his pack out on the sand and soaked another shirt and pants. He dropped in his rope to begin soaking. He put on every piece of clothing he had, covering his head with a dripping extra shirt, then carried the rope into the blast of heat. He tried to loop it over the overhanging rock. His first effort slipped off. The rope plunged down toward the burning lake. He yanked it up and ran to throw it in the stream, lying beside it. Whatever he did would have to be fast.
   On his next try, he caught the rock, but when he tried to tie off the rope, it slipped off and again plunged over the edge. He recovered it and ran back into the water.
   On his third attempt, Rogan caught the rock in his noose! He ran a dozen paces around the ledge and tugged to see that the rope was secure. All or nothing, he thought. Going back for a final soak, he took three running steps, then leaped out over the fiery pit, hanging onto the rope. Heat struck him like a blacksmith’s anvil, with white-hot cruelty. Blinded by heat and steam from his own clothing, he landed on the tower and fell—onto the tower’s summit! He stuffed the object inside his shirt, hardly daring to breathe, and swung back to the ledge on his now-smoldering rope. It burst into flame as he reached the ledge; he left it where it was. Smoke curled from his clothes. He stumbled back through the narrow pass and collapsed, throwing the object aside so he could roll in the water.
   Shutting his eyes, he thought of his hawk friends flying the Wind Tunnels and wondered if they were all right.

   Two hawks soared through the morning sky like golden lightning.
   King Antoine, the larger of the pair, had a dim recollection of his human self. His hawk brain did not contain much man-knowledge and his sense of self was limited. In bird form, he was mostly hawk, with a hawk’s hungers and instincts. He knew that his mate had an alternate human form and that she was Queen Rafella. He had fuzzy memories of another human called Rogan, who had sent him on this mission, although he could no longer remember exactly why the mission was important. All he knew was that he carried a net bag and was supposed to put something he found into it.
   The hawks flew on to Gothesberg like hounds on scent of prey.
   Reaching the mountain, they swooped down into the mouth of a tunnel, then squawked as the rapidly moving air in the tunnel sucked them deep inside the rock. It took all their instincts to fly straight and level, to keep from dashing against the sides of a tunnel that curved and split, narrowed and widened, rose and fell, all the while carrying them along. The winds sped faster than the hawks had ever flown and even they were afraid.
   After a seeming eternity of reckless flight—neither hawk could have said how long—the tunnel opened into a vast cavern that rose like a gigantic chimney up through the core of the mountain. Overhead, Antoine saw blue sky and scudding clouds. Sensing that the updraft would lift him up to freedom, he went against instinct and closed his wings to dive into the bowels of the mountain. Rafella’s screech told him that she was close behind.
   They dove down and down. The light turned blue, then gray, then faded to shadow. Antoine opened his wings and slowed his descent, not wanting to strike bottom at speed. His avian instincts served him well; with a wing-tip adjustment, his power-dive lessened to a gentle glide. At the bottom he flared and landed. Rafella settled alongside.
   They were below the point where the tunnels fed their outpourings into the chimney and so were in relatively quiescent air. Antoine cocked his head, searching with a hawk’s keen sight for the object of their mission. Rafella’s sharp cry of discovery brought him hopping to her side and a bright object laying in a recess of rock. They spent more long minutes searching for anything else of interest before Antoine grasped the shiny object in a claw and rose, digging for altitude.
   Rafella flew with him until the updraft caught them, then they spread their wings and soared up out of the mountain.

   Back at the tower where they’d agreed to meet Rogan, the king and queen of Chaldera waited for his return. The object they’d found was an amulet of some kind, made of polished gold; they turned it over in their human hands and wondered at its value. Just before dawn, they hid it and prepared to change.
   They disrobed and clung to one another—lovers, friends, fellow sufferers. Their kiss ended when soft lips turned to shell-hard beaks, then, as if on signal, they ascended into the sun-speckled sky.

   Rogan looked like a dying man when he entered Chaldera. He was exhausted and blistered from the fiery heat-pit of Malice; the locals shied away from him, faces averted from the marks of disease they didn’t recognize.
   So it was that he gained the base of the sacred tower and entered it unseen. Step by long, weary step he climbed, lugging along the object he’d found in the Caves of Malice. At the top, he sprawled out on the roof. The sun soared across the sky and finally began to drop.
   Once again he found himself, at evening, waiting on the top of the tower for the hawks to return. With a flapping of wings and a rush of wind, the hawks landed and transformed into naked human flesh.
   “Hello, Rogan,” King Antoine said. “We were starting to worry.”
   “We found something,” Queen Rafella said. She reached behind the roost and brought out an object. “An amulet of some kind,” she said, handing it to Rogan. “Did you have any luck?”
   “I found a box,” Rogan said, pointing to where it lay. “Nothing I do will open it.”
   The queen leaned down to examine it. “Magic?”
   He nodded. “What else? I can’t find an opening or even a lock.”
   The king picked it up with a speculative glance. “Do you suppose it would survive a fall from the tower?”
   Rogan imagined the smashed box. “What if the fall destroyed the contents? If the book is inside, it might disintegrate.”
   The king nodded and set the box down by Rogan. “Well, let’s see what we can do to find out if we actually have the book. I don’t relish the thought of taking these objects to Amroth IV and putting our fate in his hands.”
   Rogan examined the golden amulet. It was impressively heavy, with a thick golden chain to match. While the front bore the image of an eye, the reverse was plain but highly polished, like a mirror. As the amulet warmed against his hand, the word ‘Cylestes’ slowly appeared, then faded. “Who or whatever Cylestes was, I doubt he needs this anymore,” he said. On impulse, he slipped the chain over his head. The amulet lay cool against his chest, companion to the talisman Amroth had given him. “So, let’s find out how to open the box.” He picked it up and, at his touch, a sharp cracking noise rent the air. The box split lengthwise along its sides! He juggled the box and almost dropped it.
   Calming, he sat down and pulled the box onto his lap, then lifted up the top half. Inside lay a book. Across its cover was emblazoned the name AMROTH.
   With the king bending over his left shoulder and the queen over his right, Rogan opened the cover. Words blazed across the page as if written in fire: I, Amroth, Greatest Wizard in all the civilized lands, curse any who attempt to use this book, but that he wear the Amulet of Cylestes; spells will fail or rebound in the most destructive way against any other.
   “I wonder who Cylestes was?” Rogan asked.
   King Antoine reached to turn the page, then stayed his hand. “Perhaps the wearer of the amulet should turn the pages.”
   “We’ve learned about curses the hard way,” Rafella added. “I’m glad you didn’t.”
   Rogan, feeling haggard from his journey, blinked eyes that yet burned from the fiery lake of Malice. “I don’t know about you two, but I’m not turning this book over to Amroth IV until I’ve read and digested every word in it.”

   Three weeks passed. During that time, Amroth IV sent five messengers; the Chalderan guards turned them away from the palace.
   Rogan pored over the spell book during the day, while the hawks maintained a high-flying vigil. At night, when the Chalderan rulers met with their court, Rogan studied by torchlight.
   The day came when Rogan cast his first spell, and his burns were healed instantly. It had taken many tries before he was able to marshal the necessary willpower to make the spell work. More than once, he’d feared he would die from his injuries before he could master the spell. But working that simple healing magic filled him with confidence. Perhaps in time he could become a fair wizard? Trouble was, he didn’t like all that memorizing and chanting. It left him exhausted mentally and physically. Even if he were successful, what kind of life was that?
   He told Antoine and Rafella how he felt. They agreed with him, mentioning that the world already had enough meddling, power-hungry wizards without adding another.
   More importantly, did Rogan truly want to set himself up as an all-powerful magician? He had to admit that it was tempting… No, he decided, that wasn’t for him. However, before going back to confront Amroth IV he wanted a few spells handy, just in case.
   He asked the monarchs to give him a couple more weeks to memorize the spells he needed.
   “All right,” sighed Rafella. “We’ve been hawks this long; another week or two of transforming won’t kill us, especially now that we can spend our nights in the palace.”
   Many sleepless nights and exhausted days later, he announced that he was ready. “And,” he added, “I have a little surprise for you.”

   Their plan was simple: Take the book to Amroth IV and demand that he restore the monarchs in exchange for the tome. What happened next would depend on how the wizard responded.
   Upon his arrival, Rogan was ushered into Amroth’s meeting room. The old wizard stood before a blazing fire, trying to look all-powerful. The hawks landed outside on the window sill, then hopped inside.
   “So you didn’t die in the Caves of Malice, and the hawks survived, too—excellent!” Amroth, pink-faced, was breathing hard. Treachery and menace were bright pinpoints of light in his pupils. “Is that the book?” he asked, pointing to the bundle under Rogan’s arm.
   With great ceremony, Rogan removed the cloth and exposed the book.
   The wizard cried out when he saw the name on the cover. He reached for it.
   “Not so fast!” Rogan said, pulling it out of reach and laying the book on the floor. It was already open to the page bearing the words: The Curse of the Birds. At the bottom, in smaller handwriting, were the words, Spell Reversal. “It’s all there—but right now, it’s mine. If you want it, you must first promise to incant the spell of reversal and free the hawks from their curse.”
   The wizard smiled benevolently, closing his eyes in silent satisfaction. “Of course.” He leaned over the book and began to read. Halfway through, he raised his head to stare at Rogan.
   It was no more than Rogan had expected: Amroth was not reversing the spell for Antoine and Rafella, but incanting and directing the bird-curse toward him.
   “You’re an evil old man,” Rogan said.
   The old wizard cackled. “Too late for name-calling. Come sunup, you’ll be flying with your friends.” He slammed the book shut, clamping it firmly between arm and body. “You always were a fool.”
   Rogan stepped back and looked over at the Golden Hawks and winked.
   That was their cue to transform into stately human forms. Naked, they walked over to stand beside Rogan.
   Amroth’s jaw dropped!
   King Antoine spoke. “The spell was reversed days ago, leaving us in control of our own transformations.”
   Amroth IV turned a pasty gray. “What wizard dared help you against me?”
   Queen Rafella draped a slender arm across Rogan’s shoulder. “I suppose you’d say Rogan the Great helped us.”
   “Him!?” Amroth tried to speak but managed only to spill a glob of drool down his chin. Then, “He’s no wizard!”
   Rogan surreptitiously closed his right hand around the Amulet of Cylestes and silently recited the spell for invisibility. He walked ten paces before invoking the counter-spell.
   The old wizard jumped at his sudden reappearance.
   “Can you do that?” Rogan asked innocently.
   “But”—the wizard’s eyes widened—“why did you let me curse you?”
   Rogan smiled. “Well, you certainly cursed someone. Can you guess who that might be, and”—here he gave the tome a significant look—“why it’s not your intended target?”
   Amroth IV trembled, wide-eyed, as black feathers began sprouting from his arms. “The book… great-grandpa did protect it with magical traps!” He frantically flipped through its pages, desperately seeking a counter-spell to stave off the baleful enchantment he’d unwittingly placed upon himself. To no avail; he shrank and shriveled, and soon, his panicked cries were replaced by the grating squawks of a puny black bird.
   “He’s a crow!” Antoine shouted and fell to laughing. “And a rather bedraggled one, at that.”
   Rafella ran over and kissed Rogan on the cheek. She giggled. “It’s one thing to be a stately hawk, but a crow..?” Meanwhile, Antoine chased the crow out the window. It squawked as it flew away.
   Rogan, puzzled and concerned, stared at the King of Chaldera. “You let him go? I don’t think I’d be as merciful, in your position.”
   There was yet much of the hawk in Antoine’s hard expression. “You mistake my intent. I did not grant him mercy; I granted him a few minutes’ head start.”
   Rogan blinked in shock. “Oh. Of course.” Recalling what the Queen had told him of the fate of Chalderan rebels, he shuddered and decided not to press for further details. “But there is another loose end to worry about.”
   “Indeed there is,” Rafella agreed. “Amroth’s book of spells—which now can only be used by you, it would seem.”
   “You mean this thing?” Rogan asked as he picked up the spell book. “It’s a very enticing prize, I’ll admit…” With an exaggerated flourish he tossed it into the flames. It flared up, then disintegrated in a flash of light. “…but I think I’ll be better off without it.”
   There followed a moment of silence. The monarchs stared at the flames, relief plain on their faces. King Antoine turned to Rogan. “Well, that’s over and done. You have earned our thanks and gratitude. Now come home with us.”
   “But I’m a thief.”
   “Not a very good one,” Rafella pointed out. “Among other things, you’re far too honorable.”
   Antoine continued, “From this day forward, you will be proclaimed a noble lord of our court, our trusted friend and counselor.”
   Rogan’s vision dimmed. He blinked at the sudden stinging in his eyes. Then he smiled broadly.
   “Grandmamma will be proud.”

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