Chapter 3 – A Being Both Strange and Familiar
Fourth Day of Learning 1142 — Battle Song Eve
Prince Eric had slain a one-eyed giant! Dahr wouldn’t have believed it if he hadn’t seen it. Dahr had always looked up to Eric, but after seeing him fight a giant while wielding only a shield, he was in awe. He was Prince Eric’s servant, though he would soon be his brother. He wondered how he could ever live up to that after what he’d just witnessed. Though he would never say it aloud, he felt like King Terrence had made a mistake in offering to adopt him. Dahr could never see himself as a member of the royal family, even if he did see Eric as an older brother.
Dahr walked slightly behind Prince Eric, as they made their way past where the giant’s head should have ended up. He tried to look for it in the grass but couldn’t see it. He glanced back, and the giant’s body was gone, so most likely the head had disappeared as well.
Since this was a dream, anything could happen. Yet it wasn’t his dream. He shouldn’t have been here. That’s what Prince Eric had told him.
He considered that. Dahr’s understanding of dreams, limited as it was, didn’t allow for people visiting each other in them. A dream isn’t like a house. You can’t just pop over for a cup of tea. Which led him to think that maybe this wasn’t a dream after all. Maybe this was something else, though what, he couldn’t say.
What he did know was that Eric had gotten a shield out of that chest and had been busy defending him the whole time. Was that why he’d gotten the shield instead of some other weapon? Was Dahr’s presence in this place changing the prince’s destiny? That seemed like a lot of responsibility to take on. There was no way Dahr could know for certain, but the possibility bothered him immensely.
It wasn’t a dream. Of that he was certain, though he had no idea how. Dahr felt strange in this place. Different. Transformed. Was it a property of the place, or had something happened to him? How could he be here?
They walked for a long time, and Dahr ran everything that had happened through is mind. Prince Eric protecting him from creatures throwing rocks from above. Prince Eric protecting him from the giant. Wasn’t he the servant? Shouldn’t he be protecting the prince, placing himself in danger so the prince might live? After all, a mere servant wasn’t as important as a prince. Yet, the king had told Dahr he was to be adopted into the royal family. But that didn’t make him nobility. You can paint a dog yellow but that doesn’t make him a banana, after all.
Could Prince Eric die here? If he did, would he remain dead? Dahr had no idea. He didn’t learn much about transitions from his mother at the inn or in the kitchen he had been assigned to work in when he’d first arrived at the palace. While there had been the occasional story, he’d never heard of anyone dying. But there hadn’t been many stories. And would they even tell stories about the people who died? How would they even know what happened to those people if they never came back. Maybe if you died here, you died in real life? It could be possible. And if something did happen to Prince Eric, it definitely couldn’t be Dahr’s fault. He couldn’t live with that.
Dahr made a decision. He wouldn’t stay back next time, no matter what the prince asked. He wouldn’t allow the prince to sacrifice his destiny to protect him. Whatever happened after this, Dahr was still a servant, and Prince Eric was too important to sacrifice himself. That decided, Dahr felt better. He hurried a bit to catch up, walking beside the prince, instead of behind him.
After a while, when Dahr still hadn’t wakened, the queen decided it was time to move the boy to someplace more comfortable. She had a servant bring a sleeping mat to the throne room, like the ones Dahr used to sleep on when he worked in the kitchen. She then went to Dahr and picked him up gently, her warrior’s strength easily able to bear his weight even at fourteen. His breathing was even, but his dead weight and the way he didn’t stir as she lifted him disturbed her. She placed him down on the sleeping mat and watched him closely. She couldn’t say why, but something felt off about him. She glanced at her husband, who was busy reading one of the endless reports he received from scouts or the military. She decided not to disturb him. She shook Dahr gently. He didn’t stir.
She shook him harder. Nothing.
She didn’t raise her voice, or call out in panic, but the king was up in a moment and moved to where she stood above the boy.
“What is it?”
“It’s Dahr. I can’t wake him.”
Terrence leaned down and shook the boy, first gently, then harder. The child’s head lolled but his eyes remained closed and he remained dead weight. The king looked at a nearby servant.
“Fetch a healer. Hurry now.”
The servant ran off, but Treya didn’t watch him leave. Her eyes were locked on Dahr. She could see that he was still breathing. That was something at least. But it didn’t go far to allay her concerns that something was terribly wrong with the boy, and there was nothing she could do about it.
Eric stared around him at the grassy plain. Unnatural. There was no other word for it. Grass as far as the eye could see, but no hills, no dips. Flat as the surface of a still pond. No wind to move the grass. It was as if they were walking through a painting and the borders of it had been extended infinitely. The sky had no clouds either. Nothing to break the blue vastness. Not even a sun, he realized. How had he missed that before? Where was the light coming from? He couldn’t tell.
He’d had two trials so far, but the second had been a lot easier than the first, thanks to his skill. He had a second skill now, which he thought might have something to do with fighting things larger than he was. The Bigger They Are. The Bigger They Are what? It didn’t even make sense.
The bigger they are, the faster you move?
The bigger they are, the harder you hit?
The bigger they are, the more chance they’re going to maul you?
What was the good of a skill if he didn’t know what it would do? Was there some way to find out? The second encounter had allowed him to make use of the first skill, so maybe the next encounter would give him some indication of what the new skill did. He was thinking thus when something fell out of the sky and landed right on top of him. He fell hard to the ground, immediately trying to roll and position his shield, but he stopped dead. The thing that had fallen on him was…unusual. It was also lying on the ground gasping. It clearly hadn’t attacked him.
“What in the name of Sheba…”
The creature, whatever it was, cleared its throat, or tried to, in spite of having little breath left to accomplish it. It was humanoid, but its face was too round, too white and covered in what looked like soft, downy feathers. And it had a beak. It was like a bird man. A bird man wearing a loose tunic, leather breeches and very odd boots with holes cut into them from which claws jutted. Everything it wore was in shades of brown, strongly contrasting with the lighter feathers that covered the parts of the bird man he could see.
Again the creature cleared its throat, this time more successfully. When it spoke its voice was deep and resonant, as if the creature was on stage, performing a play. “Greetings. I am pleased to make your acquaintance.”
“And you are?”
“I’m your familiar.”
“What do you mean? I don’t have a familiar. I walk the path of the warrior. I’m no mage.”
“Oh dear. Are you not Prince Eric?”
“And the shy one, not saying anything, I assume that’s Dahr?”
“Wait a second, what to you want with Dahr?”
“I’m his familiar too…I think.”
“Wait, what? That’s not the way familiars work.”
Or was it? Prince Eric had a basic understanding of magic, but it wasn’t the focus of his studies. Could a familiar share two masters? He had never heard of such a thing. Eric shook his head, trying to come to terms with this new development.
“Okay, first things first, what are you?”
“I’m a were-owl, obviously.”
“A were-owl? I’ve never heard of that. I’ve heard of were-wolves.”
A pained expression crossed the owl-man’s flat face as he struggled to get to his feet, which he finally did. “Yes, well, all lycanthropes are the same you know. It’s a disease that crosses species. If you’re bitten by a werewolf you turn into one, yeah? But if you’re bitten by a carrier, one who carries lycanthropy but doesn’t turn himself, you turn into a cross between what you are and what they are.”
“So you were bitten by an owl?”
“No. I was bitten by a human.”
Eric blinked. Things like this simply didn’t happen, but then, this was just a dream. Go with it. It’s a test of some kind. He wondered then if he could believe anything the creature said. He made sure to keep his shield ready though he didn’t raise it.
“So you were an owl?”
“I was. You can’t imagine how inconvenient this all is.”
“You’re right. I can’t. Not even a little. How do you like being a were-owl?”
“It has its advantages, like being able to talk. However, not being able to fly is maddening.”
“You can’t fly?”
The were-owl looked at him astonished. “Do you really think that I’d have fallen on you if I could fly? As entrances go, mine was undignified. I wanted to make a good impression you know. You only get one chance to make a positive first impression.”
Eric raised a hand to the back of his head. “I think you made an impression on my skull, if that helps.”
“Not really no. I’m sorry, Master.”
“Okay, wait. I’m not comfortable with you calling me that.”
“What would you like me to call you?”
“My name is Eric.”
“My name is Kalutu. Is that acceptable to you?”
“It’s your name. How could it be anything but acceptable?”
“As my master, you can change my name if you wish.”
“It’s fine. Kalutu is fine. And you really need to call me Eric.”
“Are you certain? It’s wildly informal.”
It was at this point that Dahr finally spoke. He’d been standing silently watching the exchange, but now he stepped forward to join the conversation.
“It’s okay, Kalutu. You can call him Prince Eric. You can call me Dahr.”
“Just Dahr? Are you certain?”
“I am. And sorry about the fall. It was my first time summoning a familiar. I guess I need practice.”
Eric gaped, trying to digest this new information. “Wait, you summoned him?”
Dahr nodded. “I think I did. I mean I didn’t realize I was doing it, but I was just walking along, and thinking about how you’ve been doing all the work and that I should be helping, but that I didn’t have any training or any weapon or any skills at all really, and I wanted to help. I didn’t want you wasting your time doing nothing but defending me.”
“Dahr.” Eric placed a hand on his shoulder. “Defending you isn’t a waste of time. You’re my friend. Soon you’ll be my brother. I already felt like you were. I’d lay down my life protecting you.”
“That’s the problem. You can’t. You can’t die defending me. I won’t let you. I needed to help, and so I summoned a familiar.”
“But how, Dahr? Are you a mage? Did something happen? And how is it that Kalutu thinks he’s my familiar?”
“You said it yourself,” said Dahr. “We’re like brothers. I mean I’d never have dared say that before now, but I’ve always felt it. What’s mine is yours. I guess that means my familiar too.”
“But Dahr, how did you do it?”
“I don’t know. I just… it just happened. By itself.”
“You can’t just summon a familiar accidentally. You must have done something.”
“I didn’t, I swear it.”
Kalutu stepped forward. “I’ve been summoned, it’s true. And instinctively, I know that you’re both my master. Though I’ve never heard of a were-anything being summoned as a familiar. Yet, somehow, I feel like I volunteered for the job. I mean, I feel like I’m exactly where I need to be.”
“This is insanity,” said Eric. “But there’s nothing to do now but continue forward.”
That was when the white wolf returned again with a scroll case. He sat, and as he’d done twice before, Prince Eric took the silver scroll from the wolf’s mouth. It evaporated in a cloud of green and he heard the goddess’s voice from all around him.
“This didn’t go as planned, so I’m ending your trial early. You will be returned to the real world. I owe you a skill, but that can wait. There is much to consider before I complete your transition.”
Eric looked stunned. What did it mean? Did it mean he wasn’t a man yet? Would he have to come back and do it again? What did Sheba mean by saying it didn’t go as planned? She was a goddess. How was that even possible?
From the expression on Dahr’s face, he could see that they’d all heard the message. He was about to comment on it, when the world started losing color, fading, slowly at first, then more quickly and… Eric was back in the temple. Standing beside the sleeping mat was Kalutu, who looked surprised. In time, Eric would learn that his familiar always looked that way. Something to do with his eyes being so round.
Dahr watched Eric fade away, leaving him alone with the white wolf. He looked at it only briefly before speaking.
“I know you’re a goddess and all, but I don’t think that was very nice.”
Almost immediately the wolf was gone and a beautiful woman with honey blonde hair, tan skin, and light brown eyes stood before him. Her hair was in a long ponytail behind her. She was tall, dressed in riding leathers and had a longbow on her back.
“How long have you known that I was the wolf?” she asked, her voice disappointingly normal. She was pretty, but for a goddess she seemed quite ordinary. Then again, she could look any way she wanted. She probably wanted him to feel comfortable.
“From the first time I saw you.”
“That shouldn’t be possible,” she said, gently. “Can you tell me how you knew?”
He thought for a second. “It was obvious. I thought Eric knew too.”
She smiled at him and knelt, adjusting her height so her head was level with his. “You’re a very unusual boy, Dahr, did you know that?”
“No, ma’am. I’m just a servant.”
“A servant who accidentally summoned a familiar which he then shared. Do you want to know a secret?”
“That’s never happened before in all of history.”
“Yes. And that makes you most unusual. I need you to keep this meeting between us. Can you do that?”
“Yes, ma’am. And I wouldn’t lie to you. You’re the goddess of honor, so I’m pretty sure lying to you would be bad.”
“Yes, well, that’s true. Now I’m going to put you to sleep and examine you. When you wake, you’ll be back at the palace.”
“When I get older, I’m going to pledge myself to you,” said Dahr, earnestly.
Sheba smiled fondly. “I wish it were so, Dahr, but that’s not possible. Another has already claimed you, even though you don’t know it.
Dahr looked stunned. “Who? I didn’t choose anyone.”
“It can happen like that sometimes. A god or goddess or some other being can mark a mortal. When that happens, the mortal will be linked to that being.”
“Someone marked me?”
“Yes. I’ll know more when I examine you. Now close your eyes and…”
The boy sagged to the ground, but before the goddess could begin the examination, he slowly faded from the Other Realm.
Sheba watched him go. She stared at the place where the boy had lain just moments before and smiled. She had had doubts that the gambit would work, but Iorana had been correct. There was nothing to do now but wait.