Adlar did not want to look up from his work in the garden when the visitor came around from the front of the small cottage. He did not want him to know he had seen him, and that perhaps in thinking that the man would leave. He did not. The visitor came beside Adlar and watched him work furiously with his hands, clawing out the weeds that threatened the crop of vegetables.
Adlar threw a clump of weeds into a pile beside him, roots and all. "What do you want?" he finally asked.
"It's time for you to come home," said his visitor.
"This is my home." And Adlar clenched his gloved hands into the earth.
"Living like just another peasant in the king's country?" The comment was laced with such marked disdain that he looked up with surprise into the aquiline features of his father's friend and confidant. He had always known Maynard for his even temper and open mind.
Still, Adlar resolved not to let the man throw another noose around him. The last one had kept him in the eyrie for a whole two years. He was a free man now--no longer a child, no longer subject to a father who cared more about birds than his family.
"I like living here," said Adlar, hoping his voice would show a conviction he did not feel. At best he knew he sounded peevish and bitter. "At least here I know what I'm doing."
"You won't know if you don't learn. Your father knew that, so he let you go, to experience life on your own as a young man."
Adlar stood up, swiping his hands against each other to remove the dirt. He was taller than most, and slender as well, but he might as well have been as broad as a boar compared to the lanky form of Maynard. "And what's changed now?" he asked, meeting Maynard's eyes with a piercing gaze. "He's decided I had enough? He's always been the one making the decisions." That was a childish blow, and Adlar knew it. His mother rarely spoke ill of the man she married, the man who seldom came home because he was always in the eyrie, but when she passed away and Adlar went to live with him he saw nothing but an obsessive soul who puttered about an assortment of cliffside nests at all hours of the day and night.
"He's dead," said Maynard. "That's all that's changed."
Adlar supposed he should have felt sad at the news, but he could not bring himself to experience anything but a hollow emptiness in his chest. He had never liked his father, but he hadn't wanted it to end like this, without another word —just gone.
"Then I suppose I'm going to have to take up his estate." It was meant to be a joke, but his tone came out flat. His father had owned only a meager cottage at the foot of the cliffs near the eyrie. It was little bigger than the one Adlar lived in now, the cottage he managed to build with his earnings as a planter. The last time he had seen his father's home the roof leaked and the rickety walls would barely stand against the wind. His father would not fix a thing so long as a bird needed his help.
"That's the idea," said Maynard. "I know you were stubborn and blind when you worked in the eyrie, but your father had a great many responsibilities he was training you for. Ready or not, now is the time for you to assume them."
Adlar snorted. "Responsibilities? What am I supposed to do? Clean all the eagles' nests and bring them food?"
"You know it was more than that."
"They're not even his birds anyway. They're wild."
Maynard turned his head in a decidedly birdlike fashion. "Perhaps 'wild' isn't the word for it. But they are free beings nonetheless. At least come with me to your father's grave. Of all things he's left behind, there is really only one he wished for you to have, though in accepting that you will inherit a great deal more."
Adlar knew Maynard expected him to ask what "more" might be, and he wasn't about to give the old man the pleasure of knowing he had piqued his curiosity. Yes, he would like to know what the one thing was, but far better to just visit the grave and be done with it. Even in death his father hounded him still.
"All right," said Adlar. "Let's go."
When Adlar had moved out of his father's home and wandered away he did not go far. Though he could not stand his father he loved the land he lived on and had little desire to leave it. As such his travels eventually brought him back to the same region in which he was born, if not to the same village. The journey back to his father's home took them the better part of three days, but it was easy travel. The king had ordered the cutting of many trees to widen the roads and increase the number of fields for crops. Adlar appreciated the space, but at the same time he longed for the wild beauty the forest possessed. As a child he had often heard the songs of the jays and sparrows from where they perched in the trees.
Now the air was dull and lifeless, dusty like the road, and the woodland chatter far from human ears. He knew too that the razing had cost many a bird its home, perhaps more than was wise. Many of the animals had taken to ravaging the king's fields in their quest for food, earning them the wrath of the farmers who had to guard their crops more vigilantly than ever.
Maynard told him of the king's most recent visit to the area, only a week before. He had hunted for sport and killed a great many things. The king was not all bad, for much of the meat was given to the poor, but he was a clod with little sensitivity for those who could not speak. He had speared an eagle with his arrow and crushed its head beneath his boot where it landed. The king took five white feathers for his crown and left the corpse behind. He only wanted them to add a semblance of righteous rule to his already elaborate regalia.
With such things on his mind, Adlar reached his father's homely cottage at the foot of the cliffs, just out of sight of the nearest village. The rocky bluffs rose even higher than in his memory; an indomitable force with scooped ledges and craggy bowls all along the narrow path to the top. A pair of eagles soared overhead, but when he gazed in their direction they swept out of sight, silent and distant. He lowered his eyes and took a step towards the battered door as though to knock, but he remembered that no one lived here now, not unless he chose to.
"Around back," said Maynard.
Adlar followed him and saw the mound of earth, still freshly turned and waiting for the autumn rains to mold it back to the ground. Scattered feathers of black, brown, and white, whisked up in the breeze and sailed away. There was no marker save a small bush, recently planted in its new location. Something soft draped over one branch, long enough to reach the ground beneath, and it fluttered in the wind. Adlar had no idea what to say, but as he waited, outwardly focused on the grave, something came to him.
"What did he die from?" he asked.
"His duty," said Maynard. "He had always worked hard for us, even though you refused to see it."
Adlar shook his head as he looked at his father's friend. The wind mercifully blew a lock of hair over his eyes. "That doesn't tell me anything. He could have fallen off the cliff while tending the eagles and you could still call it his duty."
Maynard's face became sad. "The king killed him, unwittingly and unknowingly. You saw the destruction of the forest on your way here, and though you understand it is necessary for human progress you know that the birds need it as well. Your father wanted to help, to find the medium between which man and bird can coexist. He was watching the king's actions when his majesty shot him down, and over such a trivial matter as well."
"The eagle," said Adlar, his voice soft with understanding. "That's why you told me about it."
"We are without our leader now," said Maynard, "so I was asked to bring you back. You are the only one we can turn to." His voice was pleading, and Maynard raised his arms in a curious position, bent at the elbow but limp at the wrists. He gestured to the bush. "Your father's cape is there. That is what he left you."
Adlar hesitated, but approached the branch and saw the soft brown cape flung over it. It was of fine material, but dyed with blood near the nape. The long brown wing feathers of an eagle were sewn over every inch of its surface. He felt a tingling sensation as he reached for it and dropped back his hand. This cape had let his father take the form of an eagle, but for what purpose? He remembered his lessons in the eyrie. They weren't for feeding and cleaning like one would do for a pet. They were for helping, guiding, as the parent who teaches the child to become independent--or as a king to his subjects.
"The human king watches over his subjects, appeases them, leads them," said Maynard. "He is order and strength. We need a king as well."
Adlar couldn't look at him. This was too much. He didn't remember enough. All his memories were of complaining and resentment, stubbornly yelling and refusing his father's wishes. But he also remembered how the birds never hurt him, how they regarded him brightly whenever they saw him.
He looked back over his shoulder at his father's friend. "Why don't you take it or another eagle rule?"
"I can't," said Maynard. "Adlar, I am your father's age. The birds need a young leader now, one who's fit and strong and ready to take them through another generation of rule. Surely you know that the eagles reign over all the birds, and it is all birds at risk. Yet only a human can understand the danger they face and why, so it is now more important than ever that a human be the one to protect them."
He didn't want to be his father, but perhaps his father was a different man. Perhaps if his father had only told him what was at stake he would have felt differently. Or maybe he had, and Adlar never listened. He didn't want a future without trees and only fields, a place where the feathered folk were pets or trophies. He thought of the king, high in his palace, with a crown of five feathers plucked from his father's body. How easy had death been? How long had been the pain? Adlar took the cape in his hands and held it close. He might have never really known his father, but he could learn. He could try to see what had made his father love the eyrie so much that he all but left his wife and child behind.
He could try.
Adlar donned the cape of feathers and felt a giddy sensation come over him for the first time; of his body melding into that of the cape. His eyes became keen and sharp, his thoughts swift as arrows. He spread his great wings and let out a clarion cry of mourning. Then he beat his wings and took to the air. When he looked back over his shoulder for Maynard he saw only another eagle. Only then did he realize that that was what Maynard had always been and would always be.
Flying closely by his side, Maynard spoke with the voice of birds and said, "Come, my lord, there is still much you have to learn."
They caught an updraft above the village, circling around as they spoke of many things, and then they were gone, northward towards the eyrie. The humans below heard only the calls of eagles.