Stillon pulled the wide leather straps around his chest tight pulling his wings as flat against his body as he could stand. He then pulled on the thick, scratchy, woolen robe over his head to hide the lumps on his back. Once that was done he turned slowly in front of the mirror to make certain that there was nothing to draw attention to him. He then unlocked his door and stepped into the hallway that led to the main room of the inn.
He could hear the sound of the bard from down the hall but he ignored it. That his hearing was better than a humans was another one of the things he hid and he had gotten good at it. He hardly thought about the things he hid anymore. Instead he focused on the smell of baking bread and cheap ale as he sat down at the counter listening to the calming sound of music from they gray haired bard.
While he ate a small loaf of bread and drank two cups of ale while the bard finished his song. And as Stillon took the last bite of his bread. The bard took a bottle of wine and poured half a cup into his own glass and half a cup into Stillon's and asked, "What brings you to Gray Valley?"
"Traveling." Stillon said. Bards were a bit more open minded, but they were also more likely to notice things so it was best to stay invisible. That was how he survive and why he never stayed anywhere to long. Once people started to know you they started asking questions.
"I don't think you're traveling I think you are hiding," the bard said, he then looked around the room while taking a sip of his wine and in a conspiratorial whisper said, "My name is Jerome."
Stillon looked into his wine for a moment, unable to tell if he was being mocked then said, "I'm Stillon, and I'm not hiding anything."
"Then let us play a game of secrets. An easy game for you since you have nothing to lose," Jerome said.
Secrets was well known game among travelers that bards liked to play because while they paid for their meals with music and stories they earned their coins with information. A smart bard could visit a town for a few days and sell the information he gathered for enough to pay for room in an inn for a month.
The problem for Stillon was the same as everyone who was challenged to a game of secrets. Simply not playing the game told the bard that you had a secret. That was bad enough, but it also told everyone else he had a secret. But if he played he could win which would get him out of this and if he lost he would simply have to give proof of the answers the bard suggested was true and there was no way that he would expect him to be an Aveen. How could he out him as a member of a race so endangers that even as a member of that race Stillon had never met another.
"Fine, but you're not getting anything good out of me," Stillon said.
"I understand. Do you prefer to go first or second?"
"Is there any advantage to going second?" Stillon asked.
"None at all," the bard said and he pulled three small bone dice out of his pocket. Each of them had six sides with an X on half of the sides. The rules of the game were very simple. If you rolled 0 or 2 X's you won and the other person had to answer a question or tell a secret. You could end the game anytime you wanted by simply choosing not to roll the dice when it was your turn.
"Then I will roll first," Stillon said. He could theoretically choose not to roll, but that would do the same thing as saying he didn't want to play. He would have to play at least one round before he could walk away."
He put the three dice into one of the rough wooden cups shook it then tossed out the three dice. Two of them had an X while the third was blank. He had won but that didn't really matter. He didn't care about other people's secrets only his own.
"Did you have anything you'd like to ask?" the bard asked. The rules were simple enough. He could ask a question and the bard would be expected to answer honestly or he could simply asked for a secret and the bard would get to pick what secret he told.
"I don't know any questions that would be useful that you wouldn't answer honestly whether we were playing a game or not," Stillon said. He had traveled with bards before and they generally shared information free.
"Then I will choose one of my own. The priest of this town will give you a good meal and several copper for a bottle of cheap wine so long as you don't tell anyone you brought it," the bard said. It was the type of secret that he would have expected from a bard. One that was useful only so long as you also kept the secret and didn't really tell you anything about the bard.
"It's my turn," Jerome said, and he scooped the dice up and tossed it into the cup. He then spent time slowly shaking the dice while Stillon watched him and noticed the scars on his hands that appeared to have come from battle. He might be a bard now but those scars were the marks of a soldier.
Stillon once again considered just walking away. It was technically against the rules and the bard could complain or even cause some minor problems for him but nothing like being outed as a Aveen would cause. They might not try to enforce the old laws but at the least it seemed likely the news of a living Aveen would spread.
But it made more sense to just play. It was as likely as not that the bard would lose his roll and even if he won there was no way that the bard could know what he was. He had spent a lifetime hiding and was very good at it. Still, in some deep part of him he wanted the bard to guess correctly. He was tired of hiding who he was. He wanted to know what it was like to fly.
The bard flipped the cup over but he kept his hand on top of the wooden cup so neither of them could see it and said, "If you'd like to share without the game I'm willing to listen."
For a moment Stillon considered it. Did the bard already know? Or did he just sense someone who had a secret and was trying to bluff. It was one of the things that made the game of secrets interesting.
"I'm not giving anything away free today," Stillon said.
The bard nodded and then lifted the cup so both of them saw it at the same time. There were no X's showing. That meant that the bard had won. If he knew the secret he could force Stillon to admit the truth.
"I think," the bard said, stopping to look at Stillon, "That you are a hunchback."
Stillon tried not to show any signs of relief when the bard guessed wrong, but that lasted only a few seconds. He then realized what had just happened. He wasn't a hunchback so he couldn't say the bard had guessed right because that type of cheating could actually draw the ire of the gods and the bard could still ask for proof, but if he said it was untrue he would have to prove it. That would be easy enough, he would just have to take off the thick woolen robe. But that, of course, would reveal the real secret.
But if he knew the truth why was he pretending he didn't? Why ask the question in such a round about way. Why let Stillon lie? Did he think he could force him into bringing the anger of the gods down on himself and not be forced to kill him himself? If so he had misjudged something because it seemed clear to Stillon that the gods must already hate the Aveen. Why else would they have let the entire race die out and then have him killed by some random bard.
He sat silently trapped for several seconds and then the bard said, "I thought as much. But let us talk about it on the road. I assume you are traveling towards the mountains."
"Why would I be going there?" Stillon asked.
"That is where I am going," the bard said.
"Since I'm not going anywhere the mountains are a good a destination as any," Stillon said. He had typically stayed in areas where there were enough people to disappear into the crowd. In small villages people noticed strangers but there was something to be said for going someplace where there were less people. Mostly he just didn't have much choice. Whatever game the bard was playing he was winning.
"We will of course finish the game on the road," Jerome said as Stillon went up to collect his things from his room.
He didn't have all that much. He had spent most of his life carrying everything he owned and he wasn't as strong as a human.
What he did have was a large backpack. One that his stepmother had helped to make. If he was traveling for days it allowed him to stretch his wings a bit more without anyone being able to see it. It wasn't as good as at night when he could actually be comfortable but it was better than when he didn't have a good excuse for a large bulge on his back. So he loosened the thick leather straps and pulled the backpack up. He then Returned the small iron key to the man tending the bar and walked outside. The bard was already there. He had a small mule. Not big enough to carry the bard but it held had several packs. That would make traveling considerably easier.
Jerome took the reins of the mule and wrapped it lightly around his belt. He then began to walk down the path. The mule followed and after a few second Stillon did the same. They went almost a quarter of a mile before the bard said, "You're lucky I'm the one who found you. There are still plenty of people who believe in the Aveen's treasure."
"I'm not sure what you mean," Stillon said, though of course he did. The rumors were that the Aveen had a secret treasure that had been gathered by every member of the race and hidden away in a secret city.
"I think you do. But you're probably smart not to trust me. You've been taught your entire life to be ashamed of what you are. But there is nothing to be ashamed of. Your people are different and perhaps that scares people but there is nothing wrong with being different."
"I've never found that to be true," Stillon said, remaining noncommittal.
"I believe there might be some Aveen living deep in the mountains. There are places in the mountains that are almost impossible for humans to reach. You might have found them yourself if you ever tried flying over the mountains. But I suspect you can't even fly."
"And why would you help an Aveen?'
"I was on the wrong side of the last battle so when I saw the chance to fix something I decided to take it."
"You tried to help the Aveen during the purge?" Stillon asked. There had been humans who helped. His parents were two of them. They had hidden away the Aveen and even helped hatch eggs, but in the end all of their efforts had failed.
"It seems the game of secrets is starting again. Would you like to roll?" the bard said.
"We can skip the dice and I'll share if you will," Stillon said.
The bard tried to laugh, but it was a sad gruff sound. He said, "I was fourteen when the first plague hit. I was convinced, along with a lot of others, that the Aveen caused it. I was seventeen when the attacks started and I joined them. Some escaped but most didn't even try. They trusted us and we slaughtered them for that. But I hadn't joined the fight. I joined the hunting parties that looked for those who had escaped and I was good at it. That's how I spotted you."
Stillon almost ran, but Stillon wasn't strong enough to fly and on the ground almost any human could run faster than him.
"And now you're going after the treasure of the Aveen or at least one last bounty," he said.
"There are no more bounties. There is no point. Everyone thinks you're all dead. And even if the treasure isn't a myth you clearly have no idea where it is."
"Aren't you afraid of the plague?"
"There were never that many Aveen and lots of places got the plague where your people never went and it didn't stop after most of you were killed. It was an excuse. But by the time I figured that out I was an adult that was only good at one thing. So I continued long after I knew it was wrong."
"What changed your mind?"
"We found a town with about fifty Aveens. They were hiding and no threat to anyone. They barely left the town. My commander ordered us to simply start shooting crossbows. No one questioned the order but I saw the eggs and children. The adults could could have flown away but the children couldn't so they stayed and fought. Humans are faster on the ground than Aveen and much stronger."
"So you quit?"
"I didn't have to. So far as I knew those were the last Aveens. There were rumors from time to time but nothing more. That was when I changed careers. I began to learn the songs of your history as well as mine and from those songs I know where they would go if there were any Aveen left."
"I don't understand."
"Your people have never had any kingdoms or even armies. What they had were the mountains. They had a city in the mountains. All I know is that it's a remove valley with a huge cliff. The songs say there is no way to get to the valley except to fly and the cliff has caves that your people used as homes. If there is anyone left that is where they would be."
"So you have no idea if anyone is there."
"I know it's somewhere in the mountains and with the amount of people who have went into those mountains looking for the Aveen treasure it has to be someplace that humans can't get to. That means whether there are any Aveen there and whether there are any treasure it's at least safe," Jerome said.
"So I can live out my life alone," Stillon said.
"Or help the last of your people rebuild your entire race. There just isn't any good way to know unless you fly up and look around," Jerome said.
The mountains were at the northern most edge of the kingdom and it took three weeks of hard traveling. That was far harder than anything that Stillon had ever done before, but then he had never had a good reason to travel or someone to travel with and while it took some time Stillon began to trust Jerome and found him a good companion who was happy to teach him the songs and stories of his people. Most of them he had never heard because he avoided any mention of them for fear someone would notice him.
At the base of the mountains they found a small dirty mining town. It was the heart of what small civilization had grown up around the mountains. A group of hunting and farming villages that supplied the miners who dug out metal of all types. But what was important to Stillon was the warning that Jerome game him. If anyone would know what a Aveen looked like it would be these people, and they did give him odd glances from time to time, though it was hard to tell if that was because he was an Aveen or just because he was a stranger.
Jerome paid for their room with song. He gathered a crowd quickly every time he began to sing. Bard were rare this far away from the main roads but the rest of his money went quickly. Things here were far more expensive than most places. Still, Jerome seemed quite content to spend what he had.
The road had been difficult, helped by the small mule who carried most everything but the mountains were far harder. Even following the well worn paths into the foothills of the mountains there were times when Stillon had to hold onto the mule and let it pull him up the steeper parts of the trail.
But after a week they reached the small mountain lake where men of the town went to hunt. Once it seemed certain that no one else was there Stillon did something he had never done in his life. He took off his backpack and shirt in front of someone else and spread his wings. They were smaller than they should be but they were still longer than his arms and covered with short brown feathers.
"Shouldn't those feathers be much longer," Jerome said.
"I pull them so that it is easier to hide," Stillon said. It was part of his nightly ritual. He would take them one at a time and pull them from his wings to keep them short. Most nights he would pull thirty or forty feathers each more painful than the last as the skin became irritated.
Jerome looked at him and then said, "It's going to take a while for those wings to heal and you'll have to build up strength in them,," Jerome said. There was a small log hut that the hunters used but they had moved to the far side of the lake and Jerome had already began to build a more permanent camp while Stillon helped by gathering food, water and kindling so that the other man could focus.
The strangest part of moving with his wings free, besides the lack of pain, was that his wings moved naturally as he walked. It was as if his body wanted to fly, but as it was they were barely enough to pull upward and they wouldn't even do that well until the feathers grew in. Still, it made walking easier. Jerome said him trying to fly was like someone who hadn't walked for years trying to stand up. But given time and effort he he was convinced that Stillon would fly.
As the feathers grew out Stillon had to resist the urge to pull them out. He had lived so long hiding who he was it felt dirty to allow anyone to see the wings, but Jerome assured him that they were in no way ugly and helped by singing songs of the Aveen each night. He spoke of the great exodus that led them out of the mountains and stories of the great treasure that every Aveen for a hundred years contributed to but the bard continued to insist that Stillon should learn them all.
By the time Stillon lifted off the ground for the first time they had two small log cabins in the clearing and had placed the thirty traps that Jerome had bought which supplied most of their food.
"I am safe now. You don't need to stay," Stillon said, one day as the bard was working on a fishing pole.
The bard looked at him and said,"I've stayed alive for the sole purpose of trying to fix my mistakes. I have no interest in leaving."
That was the last they spoke of Jerome leaving as Stillon began to test the limits of his flight. He still got tired after only a few minutes but he was able to pick fruit from higher branches on the trees and reach patches of berries that were otherwise very difficult to reach.
It also meant that it was time to begin to explore the mountains. He would have to walk most of the way of course, but he could still fly over any major obstacles so he left, promising to come back and visit once he found something.
Even with the ability to fly over the largest of the ridges and lift himself up steep hills it was slow and difficult moving through the mountains. That difficulty was a comfort to Stillon. Even if the humans knew his people were here they would never be able to bring an army against them.
After crossing the third ridge of the mountains he found the first hint that he was in lands that may have once been his people's. It was a circle of stone. He even understood why it was here now that he had began to fly. His people didn't need roads but from time to time it was difficult to find a good place to land. Even now the stone kept anything large from growing so he was able to jump to it far easier than walking.
He camped at the circle for three nights watching the sky in hopes that he might see one of his people but there was no sign of any of anyone. But even if his people were here there wouldn't be many. Still, just being on the stone made him feel closer to his people than he has ever been.
Once convinced he wasn't going to find anything he began to travel again. And after three more days he crossed the next mountain. There he found a lake far larger than the one that Jerome would still be by. But that wasn't what drew his attention. Along the far side was a mountain taller than any he had seen. Tall enough that the peak still held snow in the middle of the summer.
On the side of the mountain was a cliff that was taller than many of the mountains and even from across the valley he could see great openings dotting the sides of the cliff. This was it. The hidden city of his people. The valley was many miles across and it took two days of walking and short flights to cross the valley. As he walked he imagined finding his people, but it became more clear that this place had been abandoned so he began to imagine the treasure. He didn't know how many of his people were left hiding in the world but with enough money he might be able to find and save a few.
Reaching the cliff he found no ladders or stairs like you would in a human fort. It was at least three hundred feet up to the first of the entrances and it too much of his strength to reach the opening but his wings were getting stronger and at least getting down would be easy.
Walking into what must have once been a great city he felt as if he were entering a tome. This was a city of death. But as he stood at the edge and looked out he had to admit that it was beautiful and if he was the last of his people he could at least die in their home without the need to hide who he was.
Then he walked into the next of the rooms. There were shelves on three of the walls and each of those shelves had three rows with four eggs on each. That was thirty-six eggs and while Stillon had never seen an egg before he had heard the stories. The eggs of a Aveen would survive for hundreds of years waiting for the right conditions to hatch and thirty six was enough that the race might just survive. While he considered that he walked into the next of the rooms. It was the same size as the previous room and had another thirty six eggs and he began to understand. There were hundreds of rooms many of them larger than the one he was in and each of them had eggs.
The songs spoke of the great treasure of the Aveen hidden away. A treasure every Aveen had helped to supply. The eggs were the treasure. They had left their treasure here so that someday their race would return and while Stillon might be the last Aveen alive he wouldn't be the last for long.