Fallen WarriorClover Autrey / Fantasy
By Clover Autrey
Copyright 2011 Clover Autrey
This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents are either the product of the author's imagination or are used fictitiously, and any resemblance to actual persons living or dead, business establishments, events, or locales, is entirely coincidental.
The eagle dove from the sky, slicing through the air fractions above Eilwen's head. Her hair whooshed in front of her face. Bouncing off the high branch she balanced on, she leaped to another.
What was that?
The bird's sleek body dipped sideways, wingtips skimming the forest canopy as he came back around. He was the most magnificent eagle she'd ever seen. Feathers so dark they shone violet. And he was charging straight at her!
Poor thing must be ill.
Eilwen decided she'd have to use all of her forest skill to calm the beauty. If whatever ailed him hadn't completely taken over. The eagle came at her again, the dangerous beak gliding expertly past her arm. Colors, so soft, so translucent erupted around him. This was no ordinary bird. He must be one of the eagles bonded to an Eaglekin…but where was the Eaglekin?
That had to be it. She'd totally misunderstood the bird's actions. The eagle wasn't attacking. He was trying to herd her toward something and there was only one reason an eyrie-hatched bird would seek someone besides his True-bonded. The Eaglekin he was bonded to was in trouble. It would, Eilwen thought, have to be a great deal of trouble.
The bird came around once more. Hold. Eilwen threw her entire essence into the word. As a Fealinn she had a natural affinity to all creatures, yet as far as she knew none of her people dared approach one of the mighty eagles of Gaspar. The Eaglekins were far too protective of their birds and their bonds with them. The eagle slowed, landing lightly on a higher branch. Eilwen looked directly into the round golden eyes, pushing out a tendril of calming essence. Show me
Like an arrow loosed from a bow, the eagle shot into the sky. He was swift, but Eilwen was quick as well. She ran agilely from bough to bough, her lithe body bobbing with the swaying tree limbs as she descended and then dropped gently to the springy forest floor.
The eagle waited for her on a jagged stone that jutted out from the snarl of moss and leaf-litter. Anxiety spilled off him, coating the humid air, a harsh taste on Eilwen's lips. This part of the forest was lush largely due to the volcanic silt that fertilized the soil. But it also made the forest floor dangerous, with ancient lava tubes lurking beneath every footstep, which is why traveling within the trees was much safer. By the looks of the broken foliage and furrows in the soil, it appeared that the eagle's True-bonded had disappeared inside one such hole.
Pity that. He was gone, lost forever in the deep shaft. Eilwen would have liked to have gotten a closer look at an Eaglekin since she'd only been able to spy on one of their gatherings from a safe distance. But oh, the flashes of color that blossomed around them as they mind-spoke with their eagles. She wouldn't have believed such an arrogant stern domineering people could release such dazzling hues.
Tossing her loose bag from her shoulder, Eilwen plopped down on her stomach and edged over to the rim. It was dark within, like staring into a night leopard's throat.
"Hullooooo. Anyone alive down there?"
As she'd thought, only silence greeted her.
"Alive," a masculine voice rasped. "—and sorely in need of a rope."
Shocked, she gasped. "Unn, sorry. I didn't think anyone would really be there. How did you not fall to your death? Is the hole not that deep?" Eilwen leaned over farther to try and see.
"It's deep." There was the sound of a heavy exhalation. "A rope please."
Eilwen finally spotted the vague impression of a face only a staff-length or so below her. Shouldn't be too difficult to get him out. She eased her weight back. "Hold on. I'll get my—guh!" The ground gave out from under her and she toppled headlong into the darkness, slammed into something solid that let out a loud whoof of air, and continued falling in a tangle of arms and legs, scraping and glancing off sharp volcanic shale until she came to an abrupt stop that jarred her arm nearly out of her socket. She dangled in the air by that one arm. Strong crushing fingers circled her wrist as painfully as the sound of ragged breathing coming from just above. Yet it was the absolute darkness that terrified her most.
"Pull me up! Pull me up!"
More harsh breathing. "Give me a moment."
Eilwen kicked out her legs, seeking something solid, a toehold and found nothing but air. "I'm falling! Pull me up! Use your other hand!"
"My other hand…is braced against the wall."
They were going to fall! No, she was. All he had to do was let go and he'd have the use of both arms to climb up again.
She wouldn't make it easy for him. Swinging to lift herself higher, Eilwen grabbed his wrist with her free hand. The muscles of his forearm were tense.
"Easy, now, quit squirming," he said. "You'll shake us both off."
"Right. We'll both go. Together. Not just me."
"Not just…? Lass, I won't let go, I promise you. I won't let go." His hand tightened upon her wrist. "Ready?"
"Yes. No. For what—ahhhh!"
In one swift motion, Eilwen was pulled upward and planted down on a…a thigh? She was. She sat on the Eaglekin's thigh. She could feel the flexion in his muscles.
She immediately flung her arms around his waist, not caring he was a stranger, and held on. Brittle stone broke off the wall as her arm rubbed across it. "Thank you thank you thank you. Thank you for catching me and being strong enough to pull me up. Thank—How did you do that?" His tunic was warm, slightly damp from perspiration and soft beneath her cheek where she felt the rapid beat of his heart. "My arm scraped some stone off. I didn't hear it hit the bottom yet. Did you hear it hit the bottom?"
"A lot of stone fell with us. There has been no sound."
"Oh." Not good.
He stroked the back of her neck, a gently reassurance in the bleak dark. "Don't think about what isn't below. Only on what is above."
Eilwen nodded against the indentation of his highest rib. "Yes. Up there. Right. We'll just climb up. You did it before and I'm an excellent climber. Shouldn't be too hard." Except she couldn't get her hands to leave his waist. Couldn't move away from the safely of his body. He was the only thing solid in the pressing black, the only thing keeping her from falling. "I can't."
He blew out a warm breath. "You can. You have to."
"You're incredibly strong. You pulled me up with one flick of your wrist. I think you should climb and I'll just hang onto you."
His low chuckle rumbled beneath her cheek. "You exaggerate my strength, though I would carry you if it were possible. I can't move."
"What? You have to."
"Listen to me. My hand and my back are braced against the walls to hold us here. The only other hold I have is a small protrusion under my toes."
"Of the leg I'm sitting on?" She pushed down on the knot tightening in her stomach.
She felt him nod above her head. "You must climb."
"Then what about you?"
"Send the rope down."
"How will you tie it around you with the use of only one hand?"
"I'll manage. I know the darkness frightens you…"
She felt his chuckle again. "It frightens me. Our two cultures have that in common. Don't be ashamed. Our natures thrive on wide open spaces, avoid cramped areas and holes…"
Eilwen swallowed. "I admit I'm a little afraid."
"Which will give you strength to climb. Can you do this?"
"Yes." She pulled back, let her hands slide off his waist, though she stayed in contact, let her palm move along his arm that was braced on the wall. Her heart was racing. She could feel him shaking as well. He couldn't hold out much longer.
Gingerly, she stood on his thigh. His free hand grasped her side, his fingers curled into the waist of her breeches to steady her. With monumental effort, Eilwen let go of the stranger and brought her arms up to search the shaft.
"Nothing. It's too smooth here. There isn't anything to grab hold of."
"Use my shoulders."
"What? Are you witless? I could push you from your hold."
"Be careful then."
Sucking in a breath, Eilwen placed one foot on his shoulder, exhaled shakily and lifted her other foot. The Eaglekin's hand moved to her bottom, pressing her inward so she wouldn't fall back. The low tremors coming from him were unnerving. "There's still nothing to hold—wait." She found a small lip in the stone and grabbed onto it. The little protrusion crumbled off and she slipped. Trying to push against the close walls slowed her, but also sliced into her flesh. Once again, she stopped, dangling in midair, her upper body crushed against the Eaglekin, his arm tight across the small of her back. Shudders ran through his entire body.