The Sylvan Horn

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Chapter Eighteen: Prince Corri and the Birds

He led them over the rocks toward a castle that stood on a hill overlooking the sea. They came to a decorous gate that was beautifully wrought with florid designs and entered a sunny courtyard. Towers stood green with ivy that curled up their grand heights so that barely an inch of the structures was visible beneath the lush strands that covered the edifices.

They were following the man across the yard toward one of the buildings when they heard a screeching. Turning their gaze up, they saw a bird was stuck in a tower. Its head was jammed in a window slit and its wings were flapping.

The man went toward the tower. “I believe we will find the prince here,” he said with haste. He took them up a spiraling stair to a chamber where a youthful man stood in a flowing white robe. His gaze was on the bird whose giant head stabbed into the chamber, but he did not appear startled, standing very still, as if his thoughts were elsewhere and he pondered some scholarly abstraction. He seemed aloof and detached from the strange, if not comical, scene. He turned to them and, in his right hand, Efkin noticed he held a white flute.

“Renthew, you’ve brought guests,” the youth said with apparent delight, crossing toward them with the bird screaming at his back. He halted then and his handsome eyes flashed with surprise as he saw that two of the visitors were elves.

“Well, this is quite unexpected,” said the youth. “Welcome, elven friends.” He turned to Colun with a curious glance. “And you, sir, must be a great knight or you would not be traveling with these mystic folk.”

The knight was about to reply when Renthew stepped forward to formally introduce the travelers, shouting above the noise of the snared bird.

“Before you stand Lord Efkin and Ebin of the Braey and Sir Colun of Lauress. I found them by the sea, pursuing some quest.”

“A quest,” the prince said with interest. “What is the nature of this quest?”

The bird was still working to free itself and Efkin took care that his gaze did not stray from the prince, lest he should glimpse the chirping creature jerking behind him and be seized by an unseemly fit of laughter.

“We are meeting someone,” Efkin said, “but what of that poor bird trapped in the window?”

The prince turned with surprise. “Oh, yes, I’d almost forgotten. I was playing my flute when the creature swept out of the air and came plunging toward me. Perhaps it was drawn by a note I played.”

“It is quite possible,” said Ebin.

They went toward the bird and Efkin was relieved the quest had been put aside for the moment. He grew wary of disclosing such things in these dark times when spies were lurking in every corner. Still, he perceived the prince was a stout man who would not betray any confidence he was given.

“How can we free the creature?” the prince wondered.

“We will push it out,” said Renthew. The man stepped forward and then flinched back as the bird snapped its beak. He looked at Ebin, inviting him to calm the creature with his elvish charm. Both elves attempted to still the wild bird, but the animal was too frightened to be affected by their arts.

And then a bright song was whistling in the air as the prince took up his pale flute and blew a merry tune that stilled the bird so that Renthew and the elves were able to approach it. They joined their strength and worked to liberate the creature from the window slit.

“The bird is plainly moved by the music!” Renthew said as he pressed his back against the animal. “I hope no other creatures are near, for I could not rescue more than one of these monsters!”

The bird was chirping in tune with the melody as they shoved the animal. When the creature was free, the prince ended his song, fearing it might trap itself again if he continued. The bird swept over a few startled onlookers in the courtyard, and then flew away toward the sea.

“That was curious,” said the prince. “I suppose I must find some other place to practice my flute.”

“The stable, perhaps,” said Renthew. “The creatures may be less hostile if they are soothed with music.”

Inspired, the prince turned to the man. “You are quite brilliant, Renthew. I have no doubt this plan of yours will help us to train the birds.”

“And if it does not?” asked Renthew. “What shall we do then?”

“Then we will find some other way to master the birds, of course,” the prince replied.

“Of course,” Renthew said with a labored smile.

The prince turned to the elves. “We are grooming these birds to guard our lands against invaders.”

“So we have heard,” said Efkin.

“They were discovered in the north, somewhere in distant Kesria,” the prince recalled. “It was barely a year ago, I glanced one sailing in the air, gliding past me as I stood on a ship’s deck. I knew at once I must gather these birds for our military to train and use in aerial combat against any who would threaten our land. Things are peaceful now, but the war comes.”

The prince fell silent for a moment, as if he reflected on some riddle or intrusive thought. The young man suddenly seemed older, like an elder statesman burdened by weighty matters.

“We are still training the animals,” the prince explained, “but in time, we will raise a great winged force, an army of avian mounts that no enemies will match.” He was animated now, waving his pale flute in the air as he spoke, articulating his grand designs with the spirited delivery of youth. “No ships will breach these shores with our birds in the skies, dropping rocks on the villains. Not even Mor’s armies will attack us once word of our superior forces has spread!”

“And what if reports that say the men of Mor ride dragons are true?” said Renthew.

The prince dismissed this with a wave of his flute. “We must not be frightened by outlandish rumors. And even if such accounts are not wholly false, I doubt they have mastered more than a handful of the beasts. We will have hundreds of birds to deal with them if they come.”

“I cannot be sure, Prince, but I suspect a thousand birds would fare poorly against one dragon,” Renthew said wryly.

“Nonsense,” the prince argued. “A dragon is hardly a match for a flock of birds.”

Efkin almost laughed at this, amused by the prince’s attitude, which seemed to defy any reasoned view of the world. He wondered, though, if perhaps he was less assured than he seemed and his arrogant stance masked a fear he did not reveal to those near him.

“And we must remember,” the prince said, “there is always the chance the war will not reach our borders. We are far away from the conflicts of the East and it is possible we will be spared any fighting that ensues.”

“I doubt any lands will be spared,” said Renthew. “These men of Mor will seek to conquer all the lands of the earth.”

The prince shot the man a curt glance, but otherwise did not seem troubled, quickly resuming his inspired discourse.

“Our winged forces will be ready for any aggressors,” he said. “We will raise a militia of flying men that will be nigh invincible and their numbers will be such that all ships that pass this way will be shadowed by our flapping armies.” He was almost singing the words as he swept the air with his flute in a theatrical gesture. He glanced at Renthew’s frowning gaze and quickly ended his crooning rhetoric.

The prince eyed the man a moment before turning to the elves. “I have spent a sizable fortune acquiring these birds and I know there are many who say I am foolish, wasting gold that could be used to improve our fleets, believing our best defense against the armies of Mor will depend on conventional means.” He laughed. “If the men of Mor come, I doubt they will bring many conventional things with them.”

Efkin was surprised, for it seemed the prince knew something of the terrors of Mor.

“It is a curious fact of life,” the prince mused, “that a man can perceive a thing in a way that is wholly opposed to the collective wisdom of the times.” He sighed as he cast his pensive gaze out the window. “Men of vision must always transcend the common way of thinking. They must struggle against the stifling influence of public opinion to change our perception of the world, so I should not be surprised that few others see the birds as I do, perceiving they are nothing more than exotic pets. But I will not be dissuaded, for I know the birds will prove their worth in time, and then we will see what is said of the prince and his eccentric notions.” He twirled round and his pale robes swung with the movement as if blown by a sudden gale. “When our warriors sail through the clouds, we will see how many stand against me then!” A smile was upon him, but his voice revealed an utter defiance, if not contempt, for those who opposed his plans. “Their flapping ranks will fill the skies, and our enemies will scatter beneath their fluttering might, in fear of the winged host that assails them from the air! Then we will see!”

Despite the prince’s arrogant tone, Efkin found a laudable resolve in his haughty speech.

“We must adopt a new way of thinking,” the prince said, “if we are to survive the times.”

They heard horses trotting outside and the prince hastened to a window and gazed at the courtyard below.

“Come, my lords, you must see them!” he said excited.

The elves peered out the narrow slit and saw two horses pulling a long wagon that was littered with rows of golden orbs. The prince was counting them as they passed and, at once, a yellow beak stabbed out of one of the globes.

“A legend tells of a king who sold his kingdom for a thousand eggs,” said the prince, “thinking he gathered a fortune in gold, only to find his riches had flown away while he slept.”

“That is a sad tale,” Ebin said.

“It is quite a cheery fable actually, for the king learns that things are not always as they seem to be, and by the tale’s end he has not only gained wisdom, but recovered his kingdom as well.”

The prince paused with his gaze out the window. “They are precious creatures,” he said as he watched the eggs pass out of sight.

He turned then and Renthew met his glance with a strained smile as he spoke. “Tomorrow you will see, Renthew, once the birds are properly trained with music, you will see our warriors take to the skies astride their winged mounts!” His voice rose and he was animated again, brandishing his flute like a scepter as he capered across the floor almost dancing. “The finest musicians will be gathered to master the birds with music! We will assemble an entire orchestra that will pacify the animals with gentle tones, and each note that fills the air will bring us closer to the aerial supremacy that will make our forces invincible!”

The prince was lecturing them, wholly absorbed in his speech, when Efkin felt an elbow in his side. He turned to Ebin who pointed out the window, and then his eyes widened at the sight of the full moon.

The two elves looked at each other for a moment and then, without words, dashed across the chamber toward the stair.

“Excuse us, Prince, but our quest calls,” Efkin said, already disappearing down the steps.”

“Farewell, elven friends,” The prince said, plainly startled by their haste. “We hope you will find whatever you are seeking.” He looked at Colun as the knight hurried after the elves.

The prince stood silent with his gaze upon the stair as if he hoped the three travelers would return.

“I might think their haste discourteous,” he mused, “but, alas, they are elves.”

He turned then and resumed his crooning rhetoric as Renthew nodded dutifully and suppressed a yawn.

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