"Dark Stag" - Chapter 1

She had managed to kill four spring hares today but our family would consume that in less than two days. We had to continue forward, kill bigger prey. We had to set our sights on antelope. The gazelle in this region could run up to sixty miles an hour, kick and buck and were quite a threat to an eagle only half their size. But Bazahra was no mere eagle. I didn’t quite know what she was but I knew she was the most efficient and powerful flyer of all raptors.
From the tip of her beak to the tip of her tail, Bazahra was seven feet long, weighing upwards of thirty pounds depending on the catch. She had sixteen feet of wings, built for the most optimum of flight. They were broad at the base, providing copious amounts of lift. The wings tapered to a fine point, reducing drag at high speed. To add to it all, her tail was relatively short and broad. All of this allowed for very rapid take offs, some of the finest acceleration in the bird world, and no sacrifice speed! Her wing loading was extremely low, allowing her to pump nothing but extreme power with each wing beats. With virtually no drag, she had a top flat speed well over eighty miles an hour. When diving, her speed can quadruple….  
Why would a bird need a three hundred twenty mile an hour stoop, you ask? Well considering she weighed thirty pounds, and could be seen coming for miles on those giant silver wings, its best she’s able to close the distance as fast as possible. Her favorite thing to do was to dive so fast, her prey didn’t even see her coming. With that kind of speed, she could easily disappear from sight. Then at the last possible second, she would stretch out her long powerful legs and strike a hole in her prey with a powerful attack called a ‘punch’.
Her size prohibited her to only one big powerful initial strike. If she missed, her prey most likely could escape due to her lack of low speed agility and limited stamina on the flat. Her speed and stealth were truly all she had, particularly when targeting smaller prey. Not to mention, it didn’t help much that we trained all our raptors to punch prey with a lethal strike, not grapple with it. Grappling was dangerous because prey could step on, kick or severely injure the raptor. Punching generally is powerful enough to kill small prey on impact. With larger prey such as antelope, boar and ratites, punching’s effect varies. At best, a good head strike was an instant kill. At worst, a bum strike knocked the prey over, disorienting it and the raptor had to come around for another strike…
Bazahra loved to flip prey, simply because she liked the chase! She’d often knock prey over repeatedly before finally going in for a kill. It truly was a sight to behold! My anticipation steadily built she soared on a rising thermal nearly out of sight. I only could make out the white translucent blotches on her primaries.
With my stag, I navigated the thick bramble of forest hoping to flush out any hiding game. In the heavy undergrowth, two horns stuck out. The area it sat was one I overlooked many times today. It was hard to tell if this was a gazelle or rather, the remains of one. Gazelles had perfect camouflage in this dense undergrowth. The gazelle’s camouflage was near perfect. There was only one way to find out.  
I led the stag into the dense thicket. Indeed, a gazelle exploded out the bushes weaving nimbly through the forest. The chase was on, the only thing I could concentrate on was trying to get the gazelle out of the forest.  However, this gazelle was experienced. It knew just outside the forest, a raptor was somewhere lurking and that the bird was far too cumbersome to navigate the thick woodland. Its best shot was to run tightly in the wooded area in an effort to shake me from its tail.
I stayed close on its tail; the stag I was on was trained for this kind of pursuit. It was not quite as agile as the seventy pound gazelle but was faster. It knew to push the gazelle into portions of the forest where tight turns were hard to make, gain on it and stomp on its tail. If that failed, I had my trusty longbow with about a dozen toxin tipped arrows to take out the Gazelle.
Soon, we pushed the gazelle out into the open, staying as close as possible to the weaving animal, placing ourselves between it and the forest. It constantly tried to make its way back to the forest but was cut off every time by the stag. With no other choice, the Gazelle turned tail, sprinting as fast as its spindly legs could carry it. It now was heading to another patch of forest, moving at a mind boggling pace.
Suddenly, the Gazelle was flipped high into the air, landing on its back! The durable animal got back to its feet disoriented, running even further out into the open. It was then I saw the sixteen feet of wings closing in on a swift glide. Bazahra plunged onto the Gazelle with those long legs and heavy talons. Again, I saw the Gazelle tumble through the tall grass. Again, the miraculous animal somehow managed to make it to its feet, this time running tight circuits that Bazahra was incapable of staying in.
She knew this, riding an updraft on extremely swift wing beats until she was out of sight from the Gazelle’s poor eyes. She was barely visible, kiting on high atmospheric winds. She was waiting for the Gazelle to begin running straight again. Eventually, the spooked animal took the break for the forest, the raw sprint just unreal!
Bazahra inverted with her wings tucked to her side. She dove straight towards the ground, looking like a bullet as her speed surpassed any of her previous records! I lost sight of her within seconds of her coming closer to the ground. This maneuver was one of her staples though. She’d often dive towards the ground and use to momentum built up to catch up to prey.
Indeed she did, spreading her as she glided mere feet above the ground.  All I could see was the gazelle tumble and not get back up. Bazahra suddenly ascended into a steep glide with wings and tail outstretched, dissipating speed. She reached the climax of the accent, wafting back down on swift, shallow wing beats. The raptor landed, making her way over to the dying gazelle.
I rushed over on the back of the stag to make sure Bazahra didn’t eat the wrong parts. Leaping off the stag, I ran over, Bazahra sitting atop the gazelle. Her wings and tail were outstretched, covering the kill. I pulled a chukar out from my bag, exciting the gorgeous raptor. She charged towards me quick to snatch the tiny chukar from my hand. She could swallow it in one gulp but she was a finicky girl. Instead, she stood atop the chukar, ripping off tiny chunks to swallow.
I often enjoyed reviewing the corpse to see how Bazahra killed her prey. This gazelle’s head was caved in on the right side. The eye was pulverized and a horn fractured. She must was really hungry because she hit the antelope with a lot of force! Feeling bad for the poor bird, I reached for my dagger. I began cutting off the head of the gazelle, tossing it to her. She meticulously began skinning it with her razor sharp beak.
I started gutting the gazelle, letting Bazahra eat the still beating heart as well as her choice of the entrails. I had to save the hide for ceremonial purposes. It was then I realized I forgot to bless the gazelle before gutting it. It was then I bowed my head, clearing my mind.
“Dear, Cacce, Lords of the Fauna, I thank you for giving me with one of your sacred beasts. Thank you for giving me the opportunity to feed my family! With your beasts becoming so rare, you didn’t have to bless me this way, but you did! For that I thank you for showing me grace…Amen.”
I resumed cutting the venison into quarters, wrapping each portion into preservation paper. I couldn’t help but feel terrible as I did so. The gazelle was one of few remaining in the land. With them becoming so scarce, every kill that was made was a gamble. I don’t know how these creatures became so rare. This land used to be teeming with gazelle, giant antelope, buffalo, wild boar, and ratites. They simply began disappearing from the Blessed Lands…
Suddenly, Rejon, the giant stag, bugled loudly! This was the instinctive wale to call out some impending threat. Rejon rushed in front of me, blocking my view of whatever was coming. Standing up, I looked past him seeing several riders on horseback making their way over to me. My heart sank… For one, horse riders were rare here so that only could mean a handful of things. These people, in a best case scenario could be traveling traders. However, they very well be slavers… coming right for me! But that wasn’t even my biggest concern. Rejon… hated… horses… I tried to grab his reins but it was too late!!!
The giant antelope charged towards the nearest horse, causing it to rear up, throwing its handler. Rejon did the same, matching it pound for pound. The antelope was ever so slighty taller than the horse. Both of the magnificent animals exchanged powerful blows, with Rejon’s hooves proving to be too much for the horse to handle. Rejon skewered the horse on those five foot horns. The horse fell over, bleeding out on the ground.
Rejon then attacked another horse, lifting it off the ground with powerful neck and shoulder muscles. The horse was flipped onto its back, crushing the handler riding it. Another handler took out a revolver and fired several shots at Rejon… My heart sank to my stomach! The antelope bucked wildly, the bullets painfully piercing his body. He shook his head, blocking out the pain. He regained his focus, locking onto the horseman with the handgun, firing at him. The raging buck reared up, kicking the armed horseman off of his horse. Rejon then dug his horns under the horse, flipping it onto the man. Not finished, Rejon then stomped the horse, making sure the man was thoroughly crushed.
Suddenly, the distinctive ring of a riffle shook me to the core. Rejon stop in his tracks, turning to the horsman that fired at him. Another shot fired. Rejon turned towards me, limping his way over. It was one of the most heartbreaking things I ever saw. He panted heavily as we finally reunited, the stag wheezing as blood filled his lungs. I hugged my beloved stag, unsure what to do. My heart stopped as blood filled drool dripped onto my shoulder. Another shot was fired. Rejon grunted out, dropping to the ground. He didn’t move, his eye expressing nothing but confusion. Blood dripped from his wounds, his mouth, his nose, saturating the ground around him. His breathing was congested, slowing down with each heartbeat. He was dying…
The remaining horsemen made their way over to us, surrounding us. Three of the men leapt off their horses, looking on in horror.
“This is your stag?” One asked. I couldn’t even come to words… The only thing I could do was watch Rejon breath his own blood. This stag and I had been partners since I got him years ago. We were inseparable! Now he was fading and there was little I could do about it. I fell to my knees, getting blood all over them. Tears rolled down my cheeks. I crawled over to him, caressing his head in my lap. His bloody drool pooled on my thighs as I struggled with letting him go. His eyes met mine, seeming to beg for help.
The horseman that shot Rejon, looked triumphantly at the fallen stag. This was his prize! He strapped the rifle to his back, reaching for his huntsman’s blade. He man made his way towards Rejon, gearing to behead him.
“Don’t touch him…” I warned, but the man steadily came. I placed Rejon’s head back on the ground, knowing I’d have to defend my dying friend.
The man stood by Rejon’s throat, grabbing Rejon’s horn to hold his head steady. I swept my leg behind the horseman’s placing the other in front. It put his feet into a scissor lock. I rolled, causing the man to fall onto his back. He hit his head hard on the ground! I continued rolling, lifting my leg up! Just as the heel of my foot was about to come down over his throat, he caught my leg.
“I SAID DON’T TOUCH HIM!!!!” I screamed.
He tried to flip me over but I pulled my leg from his grasp. I rolled over, quick to get to my feet.
“You’ve got to be kidding me,” Another said, “That thing just took half of us out!!!!”
“I don’t CARE!!!! None of you belong here! Leave…” I demanded. The two men began laughing as their friend got to his feet.
“Leave? We’re not welcome here? We’re on a mission…” The third horseman said. He had a black stallion and a large black sun hat. Not only that but he was considerably older than the other two men. He most likely was the leader.
“You Westerners don’t respect these lands… You take and take and take making it hard for us Illisians and have not a single care about what’s left in the wake,” I hissed, slowly turning to the the hunter that fired upon Rejon, “And you think I’m going to let you behead… my… stag??? I’ll kill you before that happens…” The hunter closed in, not backing down.
“Its nothing more than a worthless animal you’re defending but if you want to foolishly fight over it, then I’ll oblige you!” He responded.
“Worthless? WORTHLESS??? This stag is my way of life! He helps me hunt, cultivate the lands and eek out a living here! There is nothing worthless about that stag!” Said back.
“No one’s sympathetic about that damned creature! It’s vicious and killed many of us! It deserved….”
“THAT’S BECAUSE YOU DON’T BELONG HERE!!!!!!! None of you should be here! Rejon knows this!!! How can you stand here, invaders to a land you don’t understand, and be upset when the land fights back? That’s such an entitled way of thinking! You don’t own anything!!!!” I interrupted, hoping this idiot understood what he had just done.
The horseman with the hat, stepped between me and the young hunter. He knew this would end bad.
“We’re just travelers!” The horseman intervened, placing his arm between me and the young hunter. He have the young man a stern eye, “We don’t want any trouble…”
“Well that’s exactly what you got. My village is gonna come looking for the people that destroyed their stag. The fact that you don’t belong here and your people have a long history of being destructive, you’re in serious danger...” I warned, returning to wrapping up the rest of the venison.
The three poachers looked at one another, their face lit up with worry.
“Really?” The third rider asked, not liking the way this sounded.
“I don’t lie. Just leave me to mourn with my stag…” I sighed.
“How about this...” The lead horseman began, “We take you with us! We won’t be in any danger if you suddenly disappear, don’t you think?” I stopped, having to look at this crazy man.
“Take me?” I asked.
“I like the sound of this…” The young huntsman said, this gleam in his eyes. I could never forget the way he looked at me. It had so much predatory intent… It was then I realized what these people were.
“Slavers…” I gasped. Then and there, the third rider rushed me, a big mistake... I planted my hands on the ground, pushing off with my legs. He ran into my feet, knocking himself to the ground. Still partially in a handstand, my feet curled over, planting on the ground. I stood up, the huntsman rushing to his friend’s rescue. He took his rifle off his back, wrapping it around my throat. He was attempting to choke me out.
This wouldn’t fly. I grabbed the gun in my hands, pushing off with my legs. My entire body was suspended in the air, the huntsman now terribly off balance. As he fell, I curled my spine over, ending up behind the boy. Now the one in leverage, I yanked on the barrel, sending the butt of the rifle into the boy’s face. It was a debilitating blow but still not enough to drop him. I yanked back again, and again. The young man finally fell to his knees. I threw his rifle in the tall grass.
He still wasn’t out yet. The tough boy grabbed my skinning blade, rising back up to face off with me again. I took the bow from around my waist, holding it by the lower limb.
“I’ll kill you all before I let you take me!” I snarled. Just then, the other rider rushed me from behind. I spun around, the upper limb of the bow careening into his head.
The huntsman rushed me, tackling me to the ground. The force was unreal, this man being an incredible combatant. He struggled for control over my body but I still had my hand on the bow. I swung it, knocking him off of me. I reached for an arrow, aiming at his throat.
“STOP!” The lead horseman demanded. His rifle was aimed directly at me. I did so, placing the bow on the ground. The huntsman got to his feet, looking at me in a complete rage.
I could never forget his face. His eyes were a powerful, piercing gold! They casted penetrating rays of heat. His shik was just as golden, almost radiantly so. But most of all was his hair. It was thick, and curly, draping down ominously over those ghastly eyes. God, he was upset…
“Devari, put your knife down, so we can settle this a more…civil way.” The lead horseman said calmly. Devari put the knife on the ground, that menacing look giving way to something more… perverted. I closed my eyes, knowing this was the start of something very grim.  
“Just…” I started, “Don’t touch my stag…”
Devari smiled at me picking my knife up off the ground. He rushed over to Rejon, ready to kill him. I turned to watch this idiot start the end of his life.
“Devari…” The lead horseman warned. Devari looked on, saddened he couldn’t kill the stag. It was as though this boy wanted me to suffer.
Suddenly a blunt force to the back of my head knocked to the ground. I was knocked out cold. I woke up in a slaver caravan, unsure where I was. I looked around, desert everywhere! My hands and feet were shackled to the floor. On each side of me were other captured Illisans as well as people from the Nok Cape to the west. All looked terrified.
I looked at my shackles, to the chains bolted to the floor. I wrapped my legs around the chain, lifting up with all my might. Suddenly, the cocking of a gun froze me in my track. My eyes slowly began to look to the platform at the head of the caravan.
“Please, don’t do that…” Devari sighed. He simply sat there, watching over the slaves of this stretch.
“Where are we!” I demanded to know.
“We are…” Devari began, looking around, “In the northernmost stretch of the Zin desert, crossing the Sinai Peninsula into Eurasia…”
“Where are you taking me! TAKE ME BACK!!!!!!” I screamed. He simply smiled…
“I’d recommend you just shut up and sight see! It won’t exhaust you…” He said, “And don’t try to escape again. I will not hesitate to kill you…”
I was so confused! Sinai was over a thousand miles away from Illisia. How long was I out for? It was now the middle of the day, the desert sun beaming into the caravan. There were no turbans and robes to protect myself from the searing heat. I had been stripped down to only the braided tights I wore for riding Rejon.
Many days and night past, the Caravan stopping intermittently to provide the slaves with food and water. Soon, the deserts of the middle east transformed into sparse grassland. The grassland turned into rolling steppes with patches of canyon and desert. I was now several thousand miles away from home. Everything looked alien and foreign. The combination of rolling grassland and rolling sand dunes was just strange.
We were fast approaching a large stone perimeter one, that stretched for tens of miles. I knew exactly where this place was. It was the Oligarchies’ Ziggurats, a network of giant walled ziggurats ruled by a group of kings. We were in the southern Caucasus close to the Caspian sea. Considering we had only run into one giant ziggurat, we were most likely in the remnants of Azerbaijan. The only way I knew about this region was from reading about it in the news. It was a very corrupt place…
“AUDIT!!!!!” Someone screamed.
“Shit, shit, shit, shit…. FUCK!!!!!” Devari said, kicking the paneling of the door. He looked at me, those golden eyes showing nothing but frustration as he disappeared from the platform. I was a bit too delirious from dehydration and my head wound to truly understand what was happening.   
The caravan stopped, an armed knight coming to the rear to open the door. He aimed his rifle at us as another guard came and unlocked the main bolt. The lock with all our chains fell to the floor of the caravan.
“Move it!” A guard demanded. We people began to file out the caravan. My head hurt so bad, I simply could process everything happening around me. The only thing I could think of was the hot cobbled stone under my feet and the massive white limestone slabs of the perimeter wall. The reflecting sun off the stone was blinding. I shielded my eyes, following the train of people inside. We passed through several perimeter walls, eventually walking up a long staircase. There was one last perimeter wall.
Upon entering, falconers on horseback ran their specially bred raptors along lures. It was a blatant mockery to what my people did for survival. These fools made a silly sport out of something I was taught from a very young age to respect.
I had to get the fuck out of this mess somehow. I began taking in every single detail around me. This ring had thousands of acres of grassland specially tailored for falconers and their raptors. Buildings were scattered about, obviously being housing for the birds. Small antelopes, antelopes long considered extinct in Illisia, ran across the fields seeming fairly tame. It did nothing but sadden me to see that animals we struggled to hunt for survival back in Illisia were mere pets here.
Suddenly, broad powerful wings swooped down low over us. It was Bazahra. The incredibly intelligent bird tracked me across thousands of miles of desert! She landed in a large tree along the path, very confused. As she watched us pass beneath her, I spun my hands counterclockwise. She knew this meant to circle above but follow.  
I was pretty sure Bazahra could tell I was in trouble. Her vast ability to understand was often underestimated by others, even by me! Not to mention, her capability to learn knew no bounds. I didn’t know how yet but she was going to be my ticket out of here. All eyes fell upon her as she took flight from the tree. The giant bird began to ride a thermal, rising higher and higher into the air. She vanished out of sight.
We walked for about an hour before we reached and underground passing. The passing was long, illuminated by primitive lighting, leading into a prison cellar. We were prompted to all sit on the floor as several guards circled around us. They had notebooks, writing down detail descriptives of each one of us slaves.
“Do any of them speak the common tongue?” One asked.
“I don’t know…” An eye catching man said, “I confiscated them all without checking…” He was a Southerner, very tall, lean with curly hair and glasses. He was one of the most gorgeous men I saw. He had a thick regional dialect though.
“Why?” Another asked, not pleased to have to inventory all these people. He and another guard circled around a West Nok girl. She was utterly terrified.
“This one…,” A guard said, “She’ll be bought in no time.” It struck fear in my soul!
“Bought?” I asked. All heads turned to me.
“You can speak?” The Southerner asked truly shocked.
“Why wouldn’t I be able to speak?” I asked defensively, “And I can read… and write.” The guards all looked at each other, wondering how did I manage to get here.
“How you get in this mess?” The Southerner asked.
“I’m a hunter. I hunt for a living and was in the wrong place at the wrong time I guess. I ran into a scouting party for a caravan and got taken… What’s happening… Where am I? Why am I here?” I asked. The Southerner began to smile.
“You’re one lucky motherfucker! Today we had a caravan audit, confiscated all slaves and screened to see who can read and write. Here, if you know the common tongue fluently and know how to read and write, you can’t be a slave…” He said.
“Yes, you’re incredibly lucky…” A guard said, walking over to me. He dropped to his knees, handing me a tablet and pen, “I want you to answer every question I ask you in the notebook…” I looked at him indifferently.
“Okay…” I responded.
“What’s your name…? Where are you from…? Age…? What was your job where you were from…? What do you plan on doing in Temptation City once you’re freed?” The man asked. I sighed, slamming the tablet into his chest. He picked up the pen, going back to read.
“Rude…” He chuckled.
“I just wanna go home…” I said.
“How do you say your name? Key Juss?” He asked. I just stared at him, wondering why it was important. He turned to the Southerner, “How do you pronounce that?”
“I don’t know Illisian!” The Southerner laughed.
“Like Key-Joo…” I said.
“So your name is Kijus?” The Southerner asked, taking the tablet, “Whoa, you’re an animal trainer???”
“Yes…” I said after a long pause.
“So,” A very unhappy guard began, “Who’s gonna write the report on the literate one because I’m not…”
“Me either.” One said.
“I’ll do it.” The Southerner said, not minding. He came over to me as the other guards carried on with sorting the slaves. He hoisted me up and led me down the hall into a large cell. There was a pair of bolt cutters he grabbed down the hall.
“So…” He began, “What did you hunt?”
“Gazelle, boar, birds…” I responded, not really too enthused about talking.
“With what? Guns, bows, some other way?” He continued.
“I hunt with a raptor.” I responded. He had to stop.
“A raptor?” He asked, “What kind of raptor can take down a boar?”
“I have,” I sighed, “A special raptor. She’s very, very large.”
“She must be huge.” He said, popping the chain and cuffs with the bolt cutter.  He reached for a wide barred door, opening it, “Sorry for the terrible accommodations for now but we will make sure you’re well fed and comfortable.”
I began to walk around the cell, not finding it to be terrible. The Southerner continued to stand there, unsettling me. I turned to him.
“ I’m sorry for my staring Kijus… But it is not everyday you see someone of your own, kind….” He said, apologetically. I sighed, sitting on the surprisingly comfortable bedding.
There was a tiny window at the top of the cell, barred for no escape. However, Bazahra’s narrow frame could fit between the bars. However, it was night time, a terrible time for diurnal raptors. They had terrible low light vision. This made me all the more worried for Bazahra.
“So,like” The Southerner began, startling me, still standing at the mouth of the cell, “How old are you? You seem young but you talk very wise.”
“Can you please just leave me… I am all kinds of exhausted and haven’t slept solidly… in weeks!!!” I begged.
“Ok…” The Southerner said, sounding disenchanted. He seemed like such a nice person but he had no idea what I had to go through. Maybe tomorrow I’d be more well rested for conversation but now, I had too much on my mind. It had been weeks since I was last home and I was the sole provider for my family. With resources so scarce in the Blessed Lands, I knew they were struggling to cope. I just wanted to get back to them!
The Southerner had left, the cellar becoming incredibly quiet. I sat there, quite glad to be alone. Slow faint clacking began to make curious. I rose from the bed, wondering what could be making this sound. A small angular shadow appeared down the hall, getting closer and closer. I then realized what it was! It was Bazhahra! The amazing bird manage to find her way into the cellar and locate me.
She slipped between the bars of the cellar, happy to be reunited with me. I was happy to see her too but I didn’t want her to be in any kind of trouble for being here. I was rightfully worried!
“You found me?” I asked, standing beside the bed. All she did was chatter ecstatically. She rushed towards me, nipping at my fingers like she always did. I got down on the floor to stroke her crown and nape. She ruffled her feathers, completely relaxed in my presence.
“Do you,” I began, “Understand?” She nodded as trained, when someone asked a question. She then chattered wildly as if she was explaining something to me. It made me smile in delight.
“Other…,” She muttered, “Raptors!” My jaw dropped, not knowing she had the capacity to speak! Again, this bird truly showed just how intelligent she was.
“I know…,” I said stroking the back of her head, “We got to get out of here.” 
I checked her over, feeling her body for any injury. She was unscathed but rather thin. It was quite clear she hadn’t eaten in a while. The poor bird’s only mission was to find me. It was relieving to have her here though. I would take good care of her to nurse her back to optimal health.
The next morning had come. Bazahra lay on the bedding, nestled in the heavy blankets. I sat on the floor getting a good morning stretch in before I began my workout. The sound of footsteps caught both mine and Bazahra’s attentions. Quickly, I showed her the palm of my hand, flexing it quickly. This prompt either meant stalk or hide. She tucked her head under her wing, making herself look like a normal bulge in the blanket.
It was the Southerner with a gorgeous platter of food. He placed it on the floor but hesitated to slide it under the railing. His eyes were locked onto my groin as I sat in a center split with both arms stretched out as well. He then slid the platter under the railing.
“Good morning…” He said, entranced, “um…Kijus.”
“Good morning.” I replied back as I crawled towards the platter. The Southerner scratched the back of his head, walking away with most bewildered expression on his face.
Investigating the platter, several mutton chops, yeast rolls, eggs, and sausages sat with steam rising off of them. A bowl of assorted fruit, and a strange salad with an urn full of water sat on the other end of the platter.
“Bazahra, come, come!” I prompted. The giant raptor sprung up from the sheets and hopping to the floor. I handed all the meat and eggs of the platter to her, eating only taking fruit, salad and bread for myself. She swallowed the sausage links whole. She tore the mutton chops apart as if she were eating a fresh kill. She really loved the eggs!
She suddenly ran back to the bed, diving under the blankets. Again the Southerner came back, surprised to see all the food had been eaten.
“Need anything else?” He asked, concerned.
“No…” I said dryly. He pulled up the tiny slot at the bottom of the cell door, gesturing for me to slide the tray through it. I did so.
“Your meeting with the king shall be tomorrow morning.” He said before disappearing down the hall again.
I truly didn’t know what to expect of meeting this king. There wasn’t much excitement dwelling within me… To know he condoned ‘falconry’, slavery and probably a plethora of other immoral things just hurt me to the core. Not only that but he had several animals not native to this land, running around his kingdom liked they belonged here. It was not fun being forced into such a predicament with no certainty of the outcome. I was so anxious.
The day was long and slow. It eventually turned into the evening. The Southerner came to deliver another platter of food…this time dinner. To his surprise though, I was nowhere in sight. He stood there, utterly perplexed as to where I was.
“Kijus?” He asked out.
“Yes?” I responded.
“Where are you?” He asked, looking around all confused. I was just above the cell door on the railing that separated the top of the cell from the cellar roof. My legs were wrapped tightly around the rails in a deep center split. With all the dexterity I could muster, I leaned as far forward as possible, revealing myself. We were face to face.
“I brought you some dinner.” He said, staring at my lips.
“I want to know something…” I said back.
“Yeah?” He asked, sweat beading down the sides of his temple.
“Why does this king want to meet me?” I asked, flipping down from my perch.
“He was quite interested to know you were an animal trainer,” The Southerner responded, staring up at my abdominals then back down to my face, “He wants to see what you can do for him,”
“You told him I was an animal trainer?” I asked, shocked.
“Trust me,” He began, “It could very well keep you alive! I did it because it could be a very potent way for you to eek out a living here and do good for yourself!”
“I want to go home!” I said.
“It’s not that simple, Kijus… You’re not in Illisia anymore! You’re in the Caucasus, a very, very different place! You need to be prepared to know that you might never go home…” He said.
“Never?” I said, a wall of gloom hitting me, “I got two mouths to feed, a family to take care of! I can’t stay here and leave my family to struggle in that barren land!!!”
“I’m sorry but I’m doing everything I can… Everything!!! It’s just that I have limited power! I would send you home on the fastest horses and ships but I can’t.” He said, truly feeling sorry for me. I had to sit down.
“Why would they do this to me?” I said, drawn to tears.
“Its how things are run here… Slavers go far and wide, looking for the most exotic looking people, make sure they can’t speak the common tongue, abduct them and sell them into slavery. What happened to you? How you end up…” He began but stopped.
“I was hunting. Me, Bazahra and Rejon were going after whatever we could find. Food has been scarce in the Blessed Lands for the past few years. So when we came across something as big as a gazelle, we jumped at the chance. Rejon and I flushed it out and Bazahra killed it. I had my guard down, cleaning the gazelle and Rejon began to get upset when men on horseback made their way over to me. It all happened so fast… He doesn’t really like horses so he attacked them, killing a few horses and consequently their riders. He was shot several times…”
“Rejon?” The Southerner asked curiously.
“He was my stag. He was my partner in crime! We did everything together, just inseparable. It was one of the most chilling things to watch him die like that and I just wanted to hold him. I was quite fine with this being a misunderstanding but the horsemen came, trying to take Rejon as a trophy and I fought them with all I had. They said they didn’t want trouble and I told them trouble was what they got. With Rejon being not only important to me but to my village, a cavalry would come for them and that they should leave! Instead of heading my warnings, they attacked me once again, deciding if I disappeared, they wouldn’t have to face an angry village.” I continued.
“Damn…” He sighed, “This is where you messed up. You shouldn’t have told them they would be in hot water with the death of your stag. I’m not implying that you brought this upon yourself but it’s clear to me that you don’t know how to deal with people who are incredibly deceiving and conniving and this city is filled with them. You have to learn how to pick your battles wisely and that not all fights can be fought.”
“I only told them the truth!” I responded.
“No… People do not like the truth! People like to feel comfortable and more often than not, the truth doesn’t bring comfort! Here, you’ll have to learn to hold your tongue…” He advised.
“Hold my tongue?” I asked, not liking the sound of that, “And let people disrespect me? Let them violate me because I hold in speech?” The Southerner leaned in, glaring at me daringly.
“It will keep you alive!!!” He said.
“No, not if it’s going to keep me here when all I want to do is go home!” I cried.
“Look…” The Southerner said, losing his patience, “I am trying to tell you how to make it out here! This is something I don’t have to do! If you want to be an idiot and get yourself killed because you can’t shut your mouth then be obliged!!! I’m just trying to help…”
“Then don’t…” I snarled. He looked at me like I was an idiot, getting ready to leave. He shook his head, exiting the cell.
“I wish you the best…” He sighed, closing the bars. He walked away as though I was a lost cause. I waited good until I couldn’t hear his foot steps anymore.
“Okay Bazahra…” I said. She sprung up, rushing down to the dinner platter. She went right for the chicken. All I could do was laugh.
How powerful beak crunched through bone loudly, swallowing it all. She ate slow and carefully, bird bones being incredibly dangerous to eat compared to other animals.
“Okay, I just wanted to tell you…” The Southerner said, suddenly back at the bars again, “Woah…”  Bazahra stopped eating, staring at the man. He entered the cell, the bird becoming defensive. She picked up the chicken in her beak, leaping onto the desk on the wall.
“That’s your raptor?” He asked.
“Yeah…” I nodded, unsure how he’d take this.
“How’d you get her in here?” He asked, marveling at her size.
“She,” I began, “Found her own way…”
“Okay…” He said, sitting in the chair across the cell, “You seriously need to consider what I told you before…”
“I did,” I said, “And I’m going to do anything I need to to get home!”
“What does that mean?” He asked.
“It means I will go to any lengths I need to just to get home…” I said plainly.
“Don’t let your will to get home be to your detriment.” He advised.
“Look, whatever your name is.” I started.
“Well Mercury, I do not lay an egg until the nest is built. There are some things about myself that if I told you, it’d send you running out of here, leaving me in this cell to rot for the rest of my life. Let’s just say you don’t know what I’m willing to do to get what I want…” I said. He looked at me indifferently, obviously skeptical.
“You just seem so naive! I need to teach you how to survive here! It’s not like Illisia! You may have cut throat creatures there but we have cut throat people here and they’re much, much worse! You’ll end of dead fast, boy…” He said.
“You don’t believe me do you?” I smiled.
“No…” He simply said.
“Look at you! You’re this clean, gorgeous soul that is nothing but untainted purity overflowing with goodness! That’s the kind of people this city likes to fuck up!” He said.
“I am,” I began, “An adept archer… I’ve put arrows in the backs, throats and heads of more men than you can count. I am an adept swordsman… The dagger and scimitar are my specialty! Not only that but from the time I could walk, I was trained to be a lethal combatant. I’ve been taught to study animals since I was too young to understand what studying meant. That carried over to studying my surroundings, the people I interacted with...everything. If you think I’m as dumb as you’re making me out to be, you have another thing coming!”
“All I’m saying to you is let me help you here!” Mercury sighed.
“All I’m saying is let me figure it out on my own…” I countered. He starred for the longest, leaning back in the chair.
“I don’t get you.” He said shaking his head.
“Why would you want to?” I asked, unsure where he was taking this.
“You just seem so…”
“I seem so what? Innocent? So clean? Like I’m incapable of doing some of the things I did? That’s the problem I have with so many…” I laughed, “People make presumptions about you based on a circumstance or the way you look and just go on with it. Do you realize there’s nothing stopping me from leaping from this bed to you and snapping your arm out of your collar bone faster than you can react…”
“Really?” He asked, truly skeptical.
There was only a split second before he was on the floor of the cellar, his right arm pulled back quite far as I stood on his back. The more he struggled, the more he felt his shoulder dislocate. He groaned, the pain being quite intense.
“Okay!!!!!” He said, now made a believer. I got off of him, sitting back on the bed. Bazahra looked at him as he got off the floor. He dusted himself off before resuming to sit. She resumed ripping apart the chicken, not caring.
“I just want you to know this… I don’t look like anything I’ve been through. Never make a presumption about me based upon the way I look like. Its some aspects of my past I can’t even come to terms with…” I said shaking my head, “I’m not… going to jeopardize my life like you think I will! I can admit that I am very, very naive! But I will not be a fool and end up dead because of my mouth… I know better…”
“I’m just not sure… You’re fiery.” Mercury said, truly frustrating me.
“Just get out!” I demanded. He sighed, leaving me. He closed the door, obviously wanting to say more but held his tongue. He vanished down the hall.
The next morning had come. Anxiety was eating me from within, trying to claw its way out. Staring me down from the desk was Bazahra, her crimson eyes casting their own brilliant radiance. She stood on top of the remains of the chicken, gripping it tightly with her talons. I stood up and stretched, looking up towards the window above her head.
She looked up as well, seeing something had grabbed my attention. I walked over to her.
“Look,” I said, pointing to the window, “I want you to go out and stretch those big pretty wings of yours. Stay out of sight and if a gazelle comes your way…you know what to do if you get hungry.” She chattered excitedly. She looked down at the chicken then back up to the window. Taking a step off the chicken, she tossed the chicken towards the center of the cell.
Using her powerful talons, she scaled the side of the cell up towards the window. She squeezed through the bars entering the courtyard just above my head. Thinking she was gone, she peered back through the window, standing there for a while.
“What?” I asked with a smile.
“I see you I stay close by not seen.” She said in a chattering wispy voice. It took a second to process what she tried to say.
“Yes!” I responded, nodding. She chattered, reassuringly then left.
As she did, the bars open. Mercury stood there, looking up at the window.
“She can talk?” He asked, looking slightly unnerved.
“Um, yeah… I found that out yesterday. You know, there’s something new to learn about her every time we get into trouble,” I said, sliding down into a center split, “One night like a year ago, we were returning from a hunt and two male roving saber toothed cats were on the horizon. Bazahra could see them because…she’s a bird…telephoto eyes you know. Well, she could see their eye shine… After dark, she can’t really see well. So she did her alarm squawk and I knew something was up, but not quite what. I started paying attention to the alarm call because she has a different alarm for different things and it was the one for land predators. We were down wind so Rejon caught their scent and grew tense…” Mercury sat down, barely listening to anything I said. I couldn’t even finish my story. He puffed on a pungent cigar, watching as I continued on with my morning stretch. The way he looked at me was so outlandish I couldn’t continue. It was like my simple morning stretch before the workout was turned into some little private show.
“Why stop? Continue…” He said.
“No, why are you just sitting there watching me?” I asked, defensively. He looked at me as if I were an idiot. He blew a big billow of smoke.
“I’m supposed to watch you…” He said, leaning in through the smoke like some ominous deity, “You’re my property for now…”  
“Yours?” I asked, laughing.
“Different country, different rules…” He sighed, getting up from his chair, “Surely you know this much, right?”
“Wait…” I began, “So what happened to the other slaves?”
“They were given back to their captors…” He said with a small grin before continuing down the hall. He didn’t bother to close the bars of the cell this time, “Come on…”
My hand glided across the railing as I peered out of the cell to see where he had went. He had disappeared! It left me so confused… Yesterday he seemed so keen on helping but today that care was gone. I took a nervous step out of the cell, following where he had vanished to. Each step carried a bit of caution and excitement, not quite sure what I was getting into.
Ahead of me was a long corridor that gently vered to the right, ascending up a slight slope. Water dropped from a faucet. The scent of some strange floral aroma caught my attention. As I neared the top of the incline, I could see Mercury preparing a platter but not of food. It was one with linens, body oils and soaps. He stood facing a counter with strange windows above it. This entire room was just strange! There was bedding, a book stand, cabinets, a kitchenette; a separate quarters just a confusing layout.
“Um…” I began. He brought the platter to me, still puffing on the annoying cigar. He was beginning to get under my skin but I couldn’t figure out why.
“The showers are past that room.” He said, pointing up the hall. I nodded grabbing the platter, walking where he directed. As I went past him, those orange lava pools for eyes melted my flanks. I had never been eyed down by anyone that way except by Devari. I didn’t like it one bit.
The showers were beautifully crafted, some very skilled masons having built them! There were four showering terminals. They were separated by layers of various stones with brass racks bolted into the wall. The floor was cobbled stone, elegant beyond belief. Large high rise windows that let in the gorgeous ambience of the sun. Everything was built with such craftsmanship and skill, even down to the brass knobs of the shower.
I turned back, confused as to why there was no door. Either way, I stripped from these wretched tights, hanging them into the rack. I turned on the shower, the water instantly at a rather pleasant warmth. I wasn’t a fan of warm water, twisting the heat knob back until the water was cooler. I picked up some of the wash, untwisting the caps. I smelled which one was the most pleasant. The pomegranate one was easily the best.
I lathered and scrubbed, freeing my mind to think. All I could do was think about Mercury. His change in behavior left me wondering what was going on with him. He did after all say that Illisans were rare to come by in these parts. Not to mention, I was being incredibly difficult for the past two days. Maybe he had given up on me? Maybe he felt I was a lost cause?
The way he looked at me though, that was what I couldn’t forget. It wasn’t as predatory as Devari but it was damn near close! Both boys did something to me that I never had done before, they made me feel owned! It was a feeling I couldn’t quite explain, but wanted to explore. Now it was time to wash my hair. It had been weeks since I did and now it was a matted and tangled afro.
I turned to the rack, looking for anything that could condition my hair. There were cleansing oils, nothing like what was back at home but could suffice. I lathered and scrubbed the solution into my scalp. It smelled delightfully citrusy, definitely a moisture based conditioner. I rinsed the conditioner out, my back facing the shower. Mercury was standing right there, puffing on that same cigar.
“WHOA!!!!!!” I screamed, beyond startled, “No… You can’t watch me while I shower!!!!!!”
“It’s my job…to watch you.” He said dryly. That little phrase had a lot of heft to it.. I turned off the water, grabbing a towel to shield myself.
“Well can you stand somewhere else?” I asked. He looked at me indifferently.
“No…” He said plainly.
“You’re just a creep…” I sighed, ringing my hair around my finger. A copious amount of water drained to the shower floor.
“And so is the rest of the world… You act like I’m gonna rush into that shower, take off my clothes and….”
“Oh please, you won’t…” I quickly interrupted, reviewing the body oils on the platter.
“I mean if you want me too.” He smiled with a shrug.
“Again, you won’t…” I said sternly, picking up another towel. I began to pat myself dry, careful to leave a little moisture behind. It was important for the usage of jojoba oil. I put a little on my eyelids, cheeks and chin, rubbing it into my pores. I put much more into my hair, twisting it into a bantu knot on top of my head.
Mercury dropped his cigar to the floor, stomping the ember. He went down the hall, returning with another platter, this one with clothes. The platter was placed on a stone slab as he leaned against the wall, steadily watching me. I explored the clothes. They were rather neutral culturally, a simple tunic and Illisian woven tights. There were crochet ankle sandals too, common Illisian footwear. Someone had put a lot of thought into this attire.
I put on the clothes, so much worry in my mind. Mercury’s lack of care was starting to really become bothersome.
“So,” I started, “This little meeting today will dictate whether I can make it here or not?”
“Yep…” He responded, with a sharp chuckle. There was no expounding.
“So what should I do? What can I say to make me…”
“Oh so now you care?” He asked smiling.
“Just…” I said losing patience, “Help me…”
“You can figure it out Mr. Survivor. Come on…” He laughed, walking down down the path. It left me utterly distraught while following.
“Well at least tell me what these people are like!” I demanded.
“...Very disconnected from the real world… Spoiled, rich, quite obnoxious…” He said, maintaining vagueness.   
“That’s precisely what I figured. You’re not helping…” I said.
“You don’t need it.” He insisted. I then knew what this was about. It was about me being so difficult yesterday.
“Look… I know I’m not the easiest person to talk to  particularly for the past two days. I was trying to run you away for the most part, trying to keep you from discovering Bazahra…” I sighed. He paused, looking at me quite indifferently.
“These people,” He began, “Are… Crazy!!! Let me give you a rundown of the king. He’s quite the powerhead. He cannot be wrong… He CANNOT BE WRONG!!!!!! The queen is sensible but don’t your luck with her either… They have a total of three children, the ones you should be worried about. The eldest son, Roi, I’d definitely be most worried about him…”
“Why?” I asked, growing concerned.
“He’s a bit of a damaged kid. I don’t know what happened to him but he’ll come after you in ways you might not be prepared for… Word about him is all around the palace…” He said.
“What ways??” I asked.
“He’ll try to lay with you…”
“No… No… I… No. That goes against….”
“Who cares what it goes against!” Mercury interrupted, “It’d keep you alive!!!!”
“No, you don’t understand! If I lose my virginity…”
“Oh…” Mercury interrupted once again, scratching his head, “You’re one of those conservative, cultist people… Hey, it’s better to lose your virginity to someone like him, then someone like the brutish people in the lower ring. Trust me, it’d be for your own good…”
“For my own good?” I asked shocked. Mercury just smiled, shaking his head.
“This is going to be such a rude wake up call for you,” He chuckled, “Anyways… Then there are the twins, Brija and Richard. Richard is another sensible person but he hangs around a very idiotic crowd so he may do something stupid as well. If I had to pick a person to lose my virginity to, he’d be the person! He’s fine! Then comes Brija… She’s a very introverted person but much like her older brother, Roi… Stay away from her! All I have to say is that if you upset any of the king’s children, expect to die…”
“Eh, might as well…” I sighed, not too enthused about this all. Mercury looked on, intrigued.
“You want to die?” He asked.
“I’ve had a very, very sad life… Things would just get worse and worse the older I got… I already don’t have much and one thing I held sacred to me was my purity… It’s the past thing I’d have to lose, and if that goes… my morality goes.” I said shaking my head, “I will lose all regard and just become like the people who put me in this position. I’d rather die before that happens…” Mercury didn’t like the way this sounded at all.
“So…” He began, walking through the corridor towards the middle cellar, “You’d want to die because life isn’t going your way?”
“No I’d want to die because there is nothing left sacred. What point is there to live if there is nothing sacred to be thankful for?” I asked. It gave him food for thought.
“Be thankful you’re alive, I guess. Isn’t life scared?” He responded.
“Sure… I’m just tired of narrowly escaping death, having to claw and fight my way out of a dire situation and cling to life…” I said, shaking my head. He smiled at me.
“So you’ve done this before? Same game, new arena!” He said.   
We reached the mid level cellar where Mercury began to move a small book shelf, revealing a lever. He cranked it back. Suddenly, the entire room began to shift, furniture, flooring walls, all of it moving. The shifting room gave way to a flight of stairs that led to the pastures outside. Mercury led me up the stairs.
“Well we only have about five minutes before we never see each other again, “He laughed, “Just promise me this, Mr. Illisian!”
“What?” I responded.
“No matter what happens! Keep your will to survive! You may not be the only one who needs it one day but so will others!” He smiled.
“No promises…” I sighed.
“So tell me about Illisia.” He said, not wanting the brisk five minute walk to be silent.
“It ranges from the horn of Somalia to the Central Jungles of Zaire. I’m from right dab in the center, Boma… The Blessed Lands… Though it’s not so blessed anymore. Creatures have been scarce there for years, not even birds flying in the distance. Its incredibly hard to live there.”
“Why?” Mercury asked.
“I’ve been trying to figure that out for a long time now…” I sighed.
“And I’m guessing there is a special religion to the region as well?” He asked.
“There’s not one here?” I asked.
“No, most people are agnostic or entirely non religious.” He said, this truly being a shock.
“And you?” I asked.
“I don’t believe… that,” He responded, shaking his head, “There’s a greater power out there. It’s just, there’s no evidence…”
“I understand.” I said, “The only reason I believe in a higher power is how when I’m in a thick situation and my life is on the line, prayer seems to change things. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve narrowly avoided death…”
“I can just already tell you’re incredibly lucky…” Mercury smiled.
“Maybe so.” I laughed.
Still though, his efforts to calm my stress were in vain. I was still quite nervous. The short stairway to the palace balcony sat dauntingly at the end of the path. My heart pounded in my throat staring at it.
“Well,” I said turning to Mercury, “This is it…” But he was gone! He had went back into the cellar. It was now or never!
I cautiously walked up the stairs, unsure what to expect. There were women standing on the stoops with huge eight foot fans, waving the grassland insects away. The women wore skimpy attire, woven bikinis from the far east. In the center of the balcony was a massive dark ebony table. On the far end was an empty throne chair. It was where the king would be seated but he hadn’t come out yet. It made me all the more uneasy.
On each side were eight seats, all occupied by poised and well groomed people. All eyes fell upon me, a feeling of unworthiness beginning to puddle around my feet. Nonetheless, I trudged forward.
Their judgmental eyes then turned to warm smiles as the woman sitting closest to the king’s throne, the queen, pulled out a neighboring empty chair urging me to come and sit. Nervously, I made my way to the chair. All eyes scanned me from head to toe, trying to make sense of what I was. I took the seat next to the queen, she being truly warm and inviting. She could tell I was very nervous.
“There’s no need to be afraid. The king will be out shortly, and then we can begin our breakfast.” She said, grabbing my hand. No response could utter from my lips. Concerns over the uncertainty of my fate chipped away at any form of rational thinking I could have. It would be better if I remained quiet.
“Immaculate cheekbones, gorgeous brow structure, with phenomenally perky lips… And those eyes! If only you had a more chiseled nose and your face would be the definition of perfect.” The girl on the fourth seat across the table said. I didn’t know whether it was a backhanded compliment or a nicely worded insult. Maybe she didn’t know how to speak to people.
She was a gorgeous girl. She had a slightly darker than fair complexion with numerous freckles. Her hair was a dark brown, very wavy in some parts and curly in others. She had a very strong and thick brow ridge that gave way to soft and warm eyes. In between them was a cute little button nose, dotted with the same freckles that covered the rest of her face. I never saw a person with this combination of features. She maybe was multiracial.
“Thank you,” I said, stunned by her beauty like she was stunned by mine.
“You look like a hardy young man. What do you do for enjoyment?” The nobleman beside me asked.
“Um,” I responded having to gather my thoughts, “I’d go into town and visit the library and study English.”  
“So you’re a scholar?” He asked.
“No, a hunter. I hunt to make my living…” I answered.
“You’re too pretty to hunt.” The young woman said, sitting across the table. This must was the awkward young princess Mercury warned me about. It was quite difficult knowing how to respond to such crude remarks.
“You mean Barbary?” The nobleman asked, again forcing me to gather my thoughts.
“Yes… Well, the line has blurred in recent years so its a complicated answer. The Northern Barbers have moved much further south and now share many joined traditions with Illisans. But I do practice Barbary trade. I breed raptors; sell the offspring to the most respectable of tribesman. I do train them during the fledging months, and as stated hunt for a living.” I explained.
“You mean, that’s actually your living, hunting, breeding, training?” The nobleman asked, surprised.
“Well, we live simple lives, only taking what we need from our lands. The life of a hunter is exhilarating! You get to go on trips for days and weeks at a time, just you your stag or what ever riding animal you have and your raptor. You go after whatever your raptor is powerful enough to take down.”
“Whatever your raptor is powerful enough to take down… So what do you hunt?” He asked, truly intrigued. I pointed out to the field to a grazing gazelle. Everyone gasped in shock.
“You hunt those? How, they are so fast! You need a powerful and agile raptor to go after them.” I heard them all say.
“Yeah, well I used to hunt those… In my region they are becoming more and more scarce. I got reduced to hunting spring hares which can’t sustain my family…so I’m constantly on the hunt having to go further and wider each time.” I explained.
“How could you hunt gazelles? They are so beautiful and elegant!” The young woman across the table asked, full of crazed animal passion.
“Because, the boar we used to hunt vanished and we were reduced to hunting gazelle. They used to be in abundance but just upped and vanished as well… It’s all we can do to make a living, and it is not easy. Some people were forced to move to the cities because they just couldn’t make a living off of hunting anymore.” I said trying not to sound too defensive.
“Back to the raptors… What kind did you have?” The nobleman asked.
“I have two goshawks and a long wing.” I explained.
“How do you fly your goshawks?” He asked, completely interested.
“I used them for forest hawking on spring hares. My long wing is too big to fly in the forests. They also are good on fairly large fowl but those catches are generally long and dragged out…so I let my grandmother hunt with them and I keep my long wing.” Again, all jaws dropped.
“You let a woman do falconry?” The young man right across the table from me said. It was not one of unaproving shock but awe and wonder.
He sat next to the young woman with the freckles, the two sharing very similar features. Their bone structure, freckles and curly hair clearly showed they were siblings. These definitely were the twins Mercury warned me of. This boy was just as gorgeous as his sister, but not as polished looking. He definitely was a rough and tumble kid!
“No,” I said plainly, “Falconry is a game! Barbary is for those who use raptors to eke out a living.”
“You know what falconry is?” The young man asked.
“I saw you all with your black eagles lure coursing the birds on pulleys and hare fur, trying to beat each other’s times.” I responded, my tone becoming more biting than I’d want. All eyes fell to the door behind me. The king finally made his appearance, taking a seat on his breakfast throne. There was a sense of regalness with his presence, quite unlike anything I’ve experienced.
He was a wide man, wearing an elaborate gold chest plate with satin shoulder pads and cape. He took a seat, placing a napkin on his lap and another in the eave of the collar. The queen suddenly grabbed my arm, pulling me to my feet as everyone stood up to respect the king’s arrival. She placed her hand on my back, nudging me to bow.  
The king’s eyes fell upon a vacant chair beside the nobleman to his left. He scowled as he poured an excessive amount of salt onto his eggs.
“Where is that boy!” He snarled.
“He’s out in the raptor pins. He’s trying again with the Silver.” The  queen said, we all taking our seats. The king then looked at me with a smile. His black and rotting teeth were upsetting to my stomach.
“Pardon my manners. I didn’t even notice we had a guest. I’m king Bourgion, nice to meet you!” The king said getting to his feet to shake my hand. I stood up, shaking his hand surprised by how beefy a mitt he had. We took our seats and everyone bowed their heads. I simply watched as they said a prayer to bless their foods. The queen reached for my head and pushed it down while the king said his prayer.
“Amen.” He finished. He picked up his knife and fork, cutting into the cakes onto his plate, “You’ve come a long way didn’t you boy?”
“I did,” I smiled cautiously, “my grandmother is probably thinking I’m dead….”
“Can you give a detail description of what happened to you? You seem quite intelligent…” The king said, unsure how I ended up here. All ears tuned in to hear what I had to say.
“Yes your grace,” I nodded, “I was hunting, having to travel extra far because prey is scarce these days. Once I finally made a kill, I temporarily had my guard down while skinning the animal. My hunting stag was on edge for some reason and attacked some horse riders which are exceptionally rare in Illisia! I generally can restrain him but he escaped my grasp and that is when it took a turn. The stag killed several of the riders before they shot him dead. I um… the stag was the only way I could make a means of living and when he died I was quite upset! Then when one of the riders tried to behead him, I defended my stag’s honor… I mean they didn’t belong in Illisia so I tried to send them packing. It didn’t work as well as I thought and what ended up happening was I told them that since my stag was dead, my village would come after them and that they better leave. They decided that if I ended up missing there’d be no leads to trace and that’s how I ended up here.”
“Wow.” The young prince said from across the table.
“And they just took you?” The king asked, not liking the way it sounded.
“Yes your Grace. The altercation was broken up at first by their leader but when I warned them of the impending danger they were in, it started all over… The only reason it stopped was because a gun was pulled out on me.” I continued.
“And you think it was wise to tell them of the danger when they were complete and utter strangers?” The queen asked with a warm smile.
“No…” I giggled, her motherly energies pulling out joy.  
“So they took the boy to dodge conflict…” The king said, stroking his chin.
“And the boy’s stag did kill many of their own.” The king’s left nobleman said. The queen gave the man a smoldering eye.
“But it is illegal to take literate, common tongue speaking slaves! Something must be done!” The queen said in my defense.
“It was a true mistake.” The nobleman responded, “A misunderstanding that simply took a wrong turn… I think it’d be wise to let the slavers slide this once! Again, it was a mistake….”
“They tried to do this under the rug! They could have left the boy where he was or kept him long enough to get out of dodge! But no, they dragged this boy thousands of miles across desert to a region he’s not familiar with! If there wasn’t an audit, this boy would be in the slums doing unthinkable things! He deserves justice! The Slavers...should...be punished!” The queen said.
“Very well. I’ll bring down sanctions for the crimes…” The king said, his left nobleman not being very pleased. The queen rolled her eyes as well, not satisfied with mere sanctions. She clearly was against human trafficking.
“So back to… Your teeth!” He said, suddenly mesmerized, “So white and pristine! What do you do?” It truly caught me by surprise.
“Um, there is a plant called rumafung which has these fibers. Each morning after I wake up and each morning before I go to bed, I’d tear of a leaf a brush my teeth with them. Then I’d use some of the stringy fibers inside the bark of the tree to clean between my teeth. Lastly, I’d make a minty brine to freshen my breath.” I explained.
“Sounds like a lot…” He said as he stuffed his mouth with the cake.
“I was raised doing it so it makes all the difference.” I responded with a chuckle.
“So what is it like living in Illisia? I know its one beautiful place.” He asked, quite curious.
“It’s quiet even more so since many of the creatures have disappeared. Um, there is a lot of bustle on the coastal cities but it’s too much going on there so I don’t go unless I have to. I live in Boma, Illisia, a lot of grassy woodlands with sparse inhabitants. Its a very tough place to live, but I love it. The closer you get to the center of Illisia the more people hunt for a loving. I’m one of those people.” I explained.
“Hunting, what do you hunt with? Bows and arrows, rifles, spears?” He asked.
“We use raptors, bows and huntsmen blades.” I said.
“You use birds of prey to hunt?” The king asked, surprise.
“Yeah, its the Barbary way. Illisians have have been doing it for centuries.” I smiled.
“What is your raptor of choice?” The king continued.
“I have a giant long wing that can take down all sorts of prey ranging from a little song bird to a giant boar.” I expounded.  
“She sounds like quite the bird, utterly massive to be able to take down an animal that size.” The king said, his interest level growing.
“She is rather large, the largest raptor I ever dealt with and consequently the most fearsome.” I said, sounding too uneasy for my liking.
“Describe her.” He said.
“She’s about three feet at the hip, seven feet long from nose to tail tip, has a sixteen foot wingspan. She weighs an average of twenty five to thirty pounds, all over silver plumage except for a translucent band on her tail and primaries. Not only is she fast winged but she’s also fleet footed as well. She’s probably the most powerful raptor in the skies.” I described. All looked on in disbelief.
“She sounds like Silver.” The prince said.
“Silver?” I asked.
“We’ve searched lands far and wide for a raptor like Silver not knowing exactly what he was from.” The king noted, “Silver is a very large and un-trainable raptor which matches the description of your raptor perfectly.”
“So there is another silver long wing out there just like Bazahra.” I said to myself.
“That bird is wicked! He shredded my arm a year ago and my motor skills haven’t been the same since,” The king’s left nobleman said, “No one can touch it, or enter its pin. They risk serious injury upon entry! The only one who somehow manages to come out unscathed is the eldest prince and the most he can do is feed the damned bird.”
“I told that boy to leave that bird alone… it’s too dangerous!” The king said, pounding his fist on the table.
“Each raptor,” I began, “has their own temperament and that must be acknowledged! Not all raptors are as easy to train as a bay wing or a sparrowhawk. Not all raptors are dimwitted and unintelligible to human language. The fact that they must problem solve to make kills should be proof that these are highly intelligent creatures. When looking at a raptor, the least specialized they are, the more intelligent they tend to be. You have to take the time to understand your bird which can take months for a completely wild bird. That long wing, seems wild. From my experience with them, they are very high energy and need be flown every day, much like their smaller cousins the falcons. Unlike falcons though, they do well in high heat and can fly all day. They also are much more intelligent than falcons, having a capacity to understand and exact out complex commands. But, they are sensitive, easily upset, and none trusting. When they don’t have an outlet to channel their need to flex their wings, they become destructive. The last thing you want is a thirty pound creature with, six inch talons, a powerful lacerating beak and a destructive attitude.”
“We’ve tried breaking him in but its too vicious. It’ll drop down on is and chase us out of its enclosure. In fact it may have made him worse” The nobleman said. I looked at him, unsure what he meant by breaking-in. It didn’t sound good at all.
“Breaking him in?” I asked.
“It is how we train raptors, vigorous positive and negative reinforcement training until it does what we want it to do. But that raptor, is just unmanageable.” He explained.
“When you have such a powerful and intelligent creature,” I paused, a shadowing swoop passing meters over the table only to disappear from site. Everyone looked up, noticing it. Suddenly a gazelle was knocked more than thirty feet into the air, screaming wildly until it hit the ground, dead on impact. Whatever struck the gazelle had vanished.
“What the hell?” The king asked, standing up to look over the side of the deck. The fanning servants stopped too, unsure what killed the gazelle. Everyone stood up, unsure to look at the gazelle or up to the sky. The poor creature had fallen on its neck which had snapped under the force of the impact.
I knew it was Bazahra. She never killed a gazelle with one pass, always deciding to play with it before delivering the final blow. This, however, was very much odd! I looked around for any surrounding trees. She typically would perch after such a sudden kill, generally keeping a keen eye on her pret. The nearest trees were all in the distance hundreds of yards away. She wasn’t in any of them. However, up the stairs next to the stoop, nearly hidden from sight was a massive birch tree. Surely enough, perched in the top branches was Bazahra, looking at us all.
“Did it jump and land wrong?” The queen asked.
“No,” The right nobleman said, “Something came over us and knocked the living stew out of that thing! Whatever it was too damn fast to see.”
Everyone settled back down to the table, unnerved by the dead antelope. The king turned to the fanner behind him, standing on the stoop.
“Tell someone to clean up that mess and tell my son I sent for him.” He demanded. The woman bowed and flipped off the stoop, disappearing out of sight. I looked back at the tree to see Bazahra still perched, relatively out of sight, her silver feathers acting as solid camouflage in the grey canopy.
“How would you approach training the long wing?” The king asked.
“You have to show to it you’re not a threat, first off. Secondly, there needs to be bond. The easiest way to bond is by deciphering if the raptor is food motivated or chase motivated. High energy raptors tend to be very food motivated but there’s no telling. Each one is as different as a person. The next step to bonding is making it work for its food. With a raptor, there has to be a reason it wants to keep coming back despite being free to the open skies. Social bonds are the key to that in these intelligent ones but in the less intelligent ones, you know food is the major cause. The last and most important thing though, you have to know when the raptor is upset, when its riled up, happy, concerned, hungry, and when it simply want to sit on your lap with those big talons curled up and purr like an oversized kitten. It’s something you can’t rush.” I explained.
“I’ve seen this bird, its temperament and its power. I’m sorry but I stand a firm disbeliever that this bird can be tamed.” The left nobleman said.
“If you don’t mind,” I said to the king, “I’d like to call upon a friend.” The king looked to the birch tree with a smile.
“Sure.” He said. I whistled loudly, waiting for a return whistle. Seconds later I heard the bright reedy whistle of Bazahra and the pitter patter of talons clanking against stone. I turned around and could see her head crest making its way across the roof. She then jumped down, standing beside me. She looked at all the other people sitting at the table. They stared at her in the utmost of shock, surprised to see another silver long wing.
Bazahra chattered at the sight of all the people, unsure why they were staring at her.
“You know I can’t understand you when you do that.” I said to her. She then shrieked and bit at my leg for whatever reason.
“So she’s the sneaky little bastard that just killed one of my gazelles.” The king asked with a laugh. I fell to my knees, tickling the rowdy bird.
“I’m not even sure why she did it.” I laughed. She ruffled her feathers as my tickling dislodged quite an amount of dust.
“So this is your raptor.” The left nobleman asked, his voice jarring from a mix of emotions. I smiled at him.
“She’s on the timid side.” I said.
“And you trained her?” The king asked.
“Yes, it was a challenge. The biggest issue I had with her was often underestimating how smart she is.” I said.
“And how’d she find you?” The king asked.
“I’m not sure. I got here the day before yesterday and I saw her flying overhead. I guess she followed the slavers that took me all the way here. She was smart enough to know I was in trouble. The thing is, she has poor night time vision so she wouldn’t have been able to follow until sunrise. The caravans did not stop moving at night either so she had a tremendous amount of ground to cover!” I said, impressed with the bird.
“That’s one loyal ass bird! They don’t make them like that.” The left nobleman said.
“Rejon.” Bazahra squawked. To everyone else it sounded like the random noise making most birds did, “Is not dead.”  I looked at her in astonishment.
“What?” I asked her.
“Come.” She responded. Everyone looked at me, unsure why I was conversing with the bird. They could not discern her speech.
Bazahra walked towards the stoop, everyone giving her a wide girth. The bird hopped up, next to a fanning servant. Bazahra looked at the lady and hissed, the woman stepping away. I stood next to Bazahra looking over the horizon unsure why she summoned me.
“What are you trying to tell me?” I asked.
“Look!” She said, pointing her neck out. I looked at the outer perimeter, seeing nothing. Her eyes were obviously fixated on something I couldn’t see. I kept looking.
Suddenly a big black horse sized creature stood atop the perimeter. It was too far to discern what it was. Its feet touched down on the perimeter and it leapt down to the pasture below. The distinctive sound of bugling let me know exactly what this was. My eyes welled as I watched the huge black stag sprint as fast as its lean legs could carry it.

Soon, his two massive five foot horns, dense main and two long white stripes running down his flanks were visible. There was something tied around his neck.
“I can’t believe this…that’s my stag.” I said. He came up to the balcony looking up at me. The stag released a deafening bugle, everyone covering their ears. Bazahra, startled by the loudness squawked and took flight away.
“Didn’t you just say he was dead?” The king asked, “And why are all your animals so loyal? This thing managed to come all this way for you!”
“I’m as lost as you are! Can I go down and greet him, your Grace?” I asked.
“Sure, just don’t mount him and tail out of here.” The king responded, coming to the stoop to view the magnificent creature.
Like a child in delight, I ran down the stairs and hugged Rejon around his neck. He cringed, giving a light laryngeal whistle showing he was still in pain. I went around his deer-like body seeing that someone had stapled his wounds and they were still healing. He was in no condition to be ridden for now but would be soon. The pouch around his neck was made from premium leather. There was a letter inside! It read:
We heard the gunshots from miles away running! You were gone but we found Rejon lying on the ground bleeding out and your springhare and gazelle kills. We’re not sure what happened to you but everyone for miles around became worried with gunshots! With guns being seldom used, we thought it was an accident and came rushing to the sound! A few other neighboring villagers helped us load Rejon onto a trolley so we could bring him back and see what could be done for him. As soon as I was able to get him the slightest bit of his strength back, he struggled and bugled to the top his lungs, desperate to go and find you. The animal was already distressed so I wrote this up quickly, and going to put this around his neck and let him go free. Rejon is a smart animal and it seems he believes you’re alive. If you are, I know he’ll find you! It’s the only thing I could do from here! If you two find each other, write me back! I need to know that where ever you are, you’re safe.
Sincerely, your grandmother,

All I could do was stand there and cry. Rejon brushed against me, wincing in pain as he shifted weight to the the injured leg. I hugged him tightly, realizing this was quite the turn of luck. Now with the fastest thing on four legs, I could eventually leave but it’d be an undertaking… home was thousands of miles away.
“Stay, Rejon…” I said heading back up the balcony, “My grandmother wasn’t too far away from my location when she and other villagers heard the gunshots. Gunshots are rare in the region so everyone became and went to track down the source. They only found Rejon who I presumed was dead due to his wounds. They began nursing him back to health, closing the gunshot wounds. Not long after he was able to stand again and was begging to be released, so my grandmother did so. Before she did, she wrote a letter, hoping Rejon could somehow find me and he managed to do so.”
“So the stag survived gunshot wounds then traversed thousands of miles of desert to save its owner? How are you all breeding your animals over there? What are we doing wrong because our creatures are not this loyal?” The left nobleman chuckled.
“I don’t know much about Rejon’s breed. I got him by fluke a long time ago. All I know is that his species is from the Kalahari to the south.” I laughed.
“So it is a desert creature…” The left nobleman said.
“Yes.” I smiled.
A boy roughly my age came through the double archway. He was fairly tall, taller than me at least. I couldn’t make out his face very much. Shaggy and very curly hair came down over it. He wore elegant furs and leather tights, obviously used to riding horseback. From the dense hair, glimpses of honey toned eyes peeped through. The king grabbed the boy, pulling him close. The boy seemed tense, so much reluctance in his body.
“Kijus this is my eldest son, prince Roi.” The king said grabbing his son’s hand, extending it out to shake mine. I hesitantly shook his hand, catching a full glimpse of Roi’s eyes. His eyes vered to Bazahra as she landed on the balcony. Her beak was covered in blood and her crop was full.
“And that is his long wing…silver long wing, one he trained to do incredible things.” The king added. Roi watched in disbelief as Bazahra preened without any regards.
“I must ask much of you now. We have several unruly raptors in the aviaries. If you train them, we’ll treat you like an honored distant relative, give you the finest of luxuries for as long as you like. Just please, train our raptors for us and I’ll give you riches!” The king begged.
All eyes fell upon me. Even Bazahra waited for my response. Truly I loved raptors and would love to train them, but raptors weren’t going to be the issue. It would be these people. Nonetheless, this was a once in a life time opportunity and I would rather put up with these foreigners just so I could be with raptors from every land.
“Sure. But, it’s not just birds I’ll have to train. I’ll have to train the handlers as well! The raptor is only as reliable as the handler and a groggy handler means a ten times groggier raptor.” I said.
“Lepei,” The king called out, calling to the fanner just behind me, “Show him to our finest guest suite.” She leapt down, closing the fan and attaching it to her back. Bazhara leapt onto my shoulder, careful not to dig her five inch talons into me.
I followed Lepei into the palace and was nonetheless stunned by its beauty. She led me down the hall, walking to a central lobby filled with fine furniture. We walked up a flight of stairs to the second floor. The beauty carried to this level as well! We stopped at a door, Lepei opening it, revealing a wondrous abode. An entire Illisian mansion could fit in the suite. Never was there a day I thought I’d end up living in a place like this.
“These will be your accommodations, sir!” She said in a thick Far Eastern accent. She then vanished down the hall with flips and tumbles.


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