Garrion made a grab for the net, but it was too late. The bird rose above them, filling the air with raucous calls.
“Look at the size of it!” exclaimed Gerlatch. “It has the span of an eagle!”
“Is it indeed a falcon?” asked Creath.
‘Yes, but not the one that drew us here,” began Garrion. “This one is–“
He was interrupted by the bird’s strange behavior. Though it should have escaped, it showed no signs of retreating. It hovered in the air, then dove downward, heading first for Anjhest’s red beard. Anjhest ducked, but the bird managed to rake the top of his head with its talons. Blinded by blood, Anjhest cursed and raised a fist in the air. The bird wasn’t deterred. It dove again and again, eluding the nets, dodging the arrows, forcing each man to acknowledge the cold fury in its eyes.
“Is it guarding a nest?” asked Dinnisee, ducking a talon.
“Kill it! Kill it!” William roared.
The bird changed tactics, flying well above the trees. As it circled, a fine mist began to rise from the ground. The vapor thickened into smoke, though there was no smell of fire.
Curiously, it had a calming effect on the horses and they fell asleep on their feet. The men groped the air, lost to each other. The bird gave one final shriek and the air grew still.
“What is happening?” asked Dinnisee. His voice sounded as though it came from the center.
“This is the first part of the Twinning Roads,” Already, Anjhest sounded dead. “We’ll never escape.”
“Never?” Creath’s voice was tight with fear. “But we must escape. There must be some way to—“
“Quiet!” commanded William. “We will face this like men.”
The smoke wrapped around them like a worn blanket, memorizing each form. Then, ever so slightly, a breeze began to blow. Bit by bit, the men began to see outlines of one another, the horses and the trees. A sudden gust cleared the air but for a few wisps, floating like yarn about the horses’ feet. In the blink of an eye, that was gone as well.
A man stood before them.
He was slightly built and of indeterminate years, clad simply in a bluish gray robe. His eyes were gray, just a shade darker than the cloak he wore, and dispassionately noted the agitation of the men.
Finally, he focused on William and nodded his head, as if granting him permission to speak. William, with his usual diplomacy, thundered, “Are you responsible for this? I’ll have your head!”
“In that case, let me be brief,” His tone was light but there was no humor in his expression. He faced the six squarely. “You are trespassing in a sikestra. You must leave before it’s too late.”
“But the path is gone!” cried Anjhest. “We can’t find our way out of this bloody place.”
“Silence!” William, for all his rashness, was no coward. He shot Anjhest a withering look. “I’m in charge here.”
“I thought as much. You look familiar.” The man sounded mildly curious.
“I am your King!”