Chapter 1: The Child
Gliding on a howling wind, the It’ren creature angled her feathered wings beneath the dark clouds toward the castle far below. Night robed her as if with invisibility. Her lips curled in a snarl and she spit. Again the wind howled over the thick forests surrounding the Eiderveis River. But she was far from that river, far from the sea that fed it to north.
Her gaze swept over the trees, riveting on the castle’s portcullis. The man had been foolish to build here. Here this It’ren had found him. Here she would again please her master by her deeds.
The It’ren descended and circled high above the castle bulwarks. A child’s cry pierced the air and she turned her human face in the direction of the central tower. Yellow light washed out of a broad latticed window, shadows played within it and the child’s mother laughed. “Child, sweet little pineapple of mine!”
Diving toward the bulwarks, the It’ren perched on them. She folded her brown feathered wings to her human body and leaned toward the sound, barely noticing the vast distance to the castle courtyard.
The infant’s cries softened and the mother carried it toward the window. The woman had pearl-black skin and thick hair that flowed down her waist. She wore a silken dress as green as spring grass, while round her neck hung a white animal fur. From this distance it was difficult to see—nay, impossible. Did the child indeed bear the mark? She hissed into the wind. The moment had come to see that white-eyed infant for herself.
Crouching and spreading her wings, the creature tensed her sinewy arms. Her eyes could see clearly the courtyard below, even discern into some of its shadows. Every door and window in the walls, the hold, and the central tower. In the darkness her vision was superior to any man’s. A chilly breeze struck the castle. She flexed her wings and pulled her robe closer to her neck.
The clouds cracked behind her and moonbeams shone through, glowing along the edges of each stone structure—and casting a human shadow alongside of her. She pivoted on her foot and there stood one of the guards, bedecked in chainmail armor.
“An It’ren?” He frowned down at her and raised a war hammer in his fists. “When will the last of you foul creatures die?”
“Not before you!” she hissed. She snapped her head back and brought it to bear on his. The man stumbled backward as she high-kicked her calloused foot into his neck. First his war hammer dropped. He grasped his neck, stepped back, and tripped on the battlements. His eyes wide and his mouth opening in a soundless cry, he fell as clouds covered the moon once again and darkness reigned over Ostincair Castle. Far below the man’s body splashed into the moat.
“Intruder!” someone cried. And the call echoed from watchmen in all corners of the private fortress.
Two men clattered in her direction, waving torches and keeping their hands to short swords at their waists. The It’ren spat, then flattened against the wall as they passed.
The It’ren, Farsil, perched in the twisting branches of the treetops surrounding Ostincair Castle. Her heart pounded as dark windows along the fortress walls and towers glowed with warm yellow light. The heavy twin doors along one wall opened onto the narrow dirt road that led northward through the forest. A group of spearmen followed two guards out of the castle and onto the road. The guards, lanterns held before them, wove around the outer wall until they stumbled upon their companion’s body.
“It’s Edolt. He’s dead!” The guard who’d spoken knelt beside the body and spiced his words with venom. “His throat has been crushed.”
The other guard turned to the spearmen and waved his arm. The contingent lifted the body and hustled back to the entry doors where other lanterns appeared. “Captain of the guard, you must alert Lord Ostincair that we have an intruder.”
The voices faded and the great doors squealed as someone pulled them shut. Lanterns danced along the castle bulwarks and down the stairs that curved in front of the keep. They were searching, but Farsil knew that only by a miracle could the intruder be stopped. She stretched her wings and leaned into a cool breeze, gliding toward the keep and the lighted window. Surely the child was there.
Lord Ostincair marched down the high arched hallway, five swordsmen tiptoeing behind him. A hundred feet in front of him lay the door to the stairs, which if he followed would lead him upstairs to the living quarters. His wife was there. He had spoken with her only an hour ago before making his rounds of the castle’s outer walls, as was his custom. The security of her and their child filled his heart with resolution. The river had chosen him, and he had chosen her, and nothing could be allowed to break her from him.
The columns along the long hallway were filled with ominous shadows, and above him the stone ceiling faded into darkness. In his mind he recollected the mysterious disappearance of his child’s nursemaid. It did not seem that long ago, and still he had no definitive clues as to what had happened to her. Had she run away? No, he doubted it. Someone had taken her, and he could guess why. With a lantern in one hand and his short sword in the other, Ostincair narrowed his eyes for a penetrating gaze into the shadows. “Spread out! The south entrance door was ajar. I want to make sure nothing came inside.”
Other lanterns flickered into existence and he glanced from one to the next, confirming they were all members of his personal force. A guard skirted a column, glancing up and down, while another held a lantern toward the wall and walked its length. On the opposite side of the hall other guards followed suit. Doors slammed shut and lantern-armed guards stood at the sealed doors as the search continued.
Silence held for a long while. Ostincair relaxed his shoulders a bit and walked toward the door leading to his family chambers.
From the dark ceiling something shrieked and he glared upward. Like a falcon diving for prey, an It’ren slipped from the shadows along a beam. She landed on a guard behind him in a flurry of her feathered wings. As the guard stumbled to the floor a knife flashed in the lantern light, slashing his throat. A nearby swordsman stabbed at the It’ren’s head, but she side-rolled and kicked him hard on the side of his exposed neck.
Ostincair rushed at the creature as the guard crumpled to the stone floor. But the It’ren spread her wings and launched itself high into the shadows. Though he peered intently from one arching beam to the next, he could not sight her.
A guard soon ushered a dozen spearmen into the hall, and closed the door again behind them. The spearmen huddled around Ostincair, with spears at the ready to throw should the creature show itself again. “What are we hunting, Ostincair?” one man murmured.
Ostincair hesitated. For years he had thought— Perish the idea! He knew what he had seen. “An It’ren.”
“It’ren?” The man pulled at his long beard, then directed his dark face back at the ceiling. “I thought they went extinct years ago!” he whispered.
Ostincair firmed his jaw. “Never underestimate the will of a species to survive.”
“Do you think it has come for your wife, or the child?”
“It will have neither!” Ostincair ordered the guards to stand watch for the creature while he proceeded to the door. Before ascending the stairs of the keep, he turned and shouted, “Do what must be done. Kill the creature before it can do further harm to any of us. I will return shortly.”
The guards shouted an affirmation and he slammed the door closed behind him.
A great drop of blood fell from the rafters overhead to the stone floor. Soon this was followed by a rain of feathers and more blood so that the guards glanced at one another, wide-eyed. Something shuffled along the rafters, but the light of their lanterns did not reach high enough to reveal the shadows.
One guard slipped out a side door and returned with a torch. He ran along the hallway walls, sparking flames in the torches hidden in the darkness there. As the torches flamed the sounds of scratching and thuds echoed through the structure.
Grabbing the torches, the guards lifted them toward the sounds overhead. But they could see nothing. More feathers fell to the floor, then the noise stopped.
“All right, what is going on out here?” said Ostincair as he reentered the hall.
In an instant, an It’ren shot over his head and crashed into the stairwell. But it sprang to its feet, wings shivering, and darted up the steps.
“After it!” Ostincair rushed upstairs, his guards tramping behind. But he was too late.
When he burst into the oval room at the top of the stairs, the iron chandelier splashed flickering light over his young wife. Her beautiful eyes had been closed forever. She lay dead across the now-empty crib, and the large window had been shattered.
“No,” he whispered. He lifted her into his arms and started walking to the bed. His chest felt ready to burst as tears flowed down his cheeks. Laying her body on the bed, he stroked her black hair away from her face. His fingers looked pale against the blackness of her skin. “So beautiful,” he sobbed. Then he ran to the window and shouted into the night, “I will kill you, It’ren!”
As soon as he gripped the sill and leaned over it to gaze on the castle below, the gaunt It’ren’s hissing face shot up. Her boney cheeks made her look freakish in the dim light. She grabbed his shoulder and yanked him outside.
Lord Ostincair cried out, more from rage than from surprise. His last thought as he fell toward the buildings far below, was to glare back at the creature. Certain death awaited him when he crashed into the stones below. If he could have done it over, he would have dragged the It’ren with him.
The guards cried out, several of them grasping at the It’ren. But it spread its wings and flew off into the darkness. As night swallowed the creature from sight, the guards heard the cries of the stolen infant. They were faint and distant. They gazed down into the courtyard below just as Lord Ostincair crashed into one of the roofs.