The Songbird

People gathered within the throne room to seek help. They had come from the village outside the castle. They were the common folk who lived and thrived in the land. They cultivated the fields and raised families, just as they took care of their flocks of sheep and herds of cattle. With them, the kingdom had reigned in peace and prosperity for many years. But this morning, they came in a massive crowd, demanding the princess to speak with them.

Her father and mother had taught her to listen to the people and to treat each of them like her own family. This was why Hummingsland had prospered for many years. Anyone who sat on the throne gave heed to the people’s concerns.

In the throne room that morning, she chose not to sit on the throne. She knew her time had not come yet – not that she was impatient to take the seat. But, as the only child, she was next in line. She was standing on a raised dais with the ruby tiara nestled on her head. Her bright golden hair cascaded all the way to her slender back. The strands were as bright as the yellow silk gown she was wearing. Behind her was the silver throne.

A young man, who was standing in the crowd’s first line, raised his hand. “Princess Maya! Your Majesty!”

“Come forth,” she said.

The crowd went silent as the young man stepped closer to the base of the dais steps. He unfolded a white sheet in front of Maya and knelt before her. The bright red stain on the sheet made her gasp.

“Princess, my father has been missing since yesterday morning. Today, I found this.” He raised the cloth higher. Murmurs mingled with people’s gasps. “This, along with five of our sheep with their guts open.” His shoulders trembled. He spread his arms wide with the cloth between them. The torn tunic hung beneath his fists. “This was my father’s.”

As the young man pressed the torn clothing against his chest, Maya felt her knees shaking. Hold your ground. Have courage for your people. Think about what’s best for them.

“They come like a thief in the night!” one woman screamed from the crowd. “They could jump over the fence and prey on our cattle!”

“They come in packs! Their eyes glowing like the fires of hell!” another man yelled.

“I can’t let my children go out of our cottage anymore!” another woman cried out.

“Princess, please help us!” a young girl pleaded.

Maya could hear her heart beating wildly within her chest. Suddenly, the weight of her tiara pushed her down. Her head started to ache as voices within the throne room spiraled out of control. Among all the words they spoke, only one was common. Wolves.

She raised her hand to gesture a moment of silence. The immense throne room, with its thick gray columns reaching towards the high marble ceiling, gradually grew silent again.

“I will…” she gulped, trying to find the right words to say as she eyed her guards standing on the steps of the dais. “We will do our very best to help you in this time of need.” She sighed, wondering if she said the right words. “We will deploy our troops throughout the village, so we can protect you from these creatures that disturb our peace.”

With these words, she saw many in the crowd nod. But she still did not know if she had decided what’s right for the people.

For as long as she could remember, Hummingsland had never been invaded. She had always been prepared for the problems that the people commonly encountered in the past. Droughts in summer led the people to ration the abundant harvest of their fields every spring. The unforgiving cold in winter made the castle’s doors open to provide a safe refuge for the people. At least, these were some of the solutions her father had given.

She had never known that wolves could come to these parts of the kingdom. She wanted to ask her mother. If only she was well in this time of need.

From the throne room, she went to the room in one of the castle’s towers that confined the queen. Upon entering, she saw a handful of her mother’s maiden servants keeping her company. They were sitting on velvet couches against the walls, either reading or knitting. They stood and curtsied when Maya passed through the double doors. Maya curtsied to them in return. The castle nurse sat on a stool beside her mother’s bed with a basin on her lap. Bright beams of light glared through the wall’s floor-to-ceiling windows. Swirls of faint white smoke rose from the basin.

“Is there any sign of healing?” Maya asked as she approached with slow steps towards her mother’s bed.

The nurse shook her head. “I am so sorry, Princess, but she still hasn’t awakened.” From the basin, she picked a wet kerchief and squeezed it. The drops glittered back into the container. Then the nurse placed the wet cloth onto the sleeping queen’s forehead.

When Maya stood beside the queen’s bed, the nurse offered her the stool where she could sit.

“It is okay, Nurse Gail,” Maya said, “I won’t be staying long. I just came to check on her and see how she’s doing.”

“It is bad, Princess,” the nurse said, nearly weeping. “I am afraid Her Majesty has grown weaker every day.”

It is bad. The words echoed in her head. She gazed over her mother, whose chest rose and descended slowly beneath the lavender sheets. Apart from royal blood, Maya had inherited her mother’s fair hair. But the strands, which had spread over her pillow like a spider’s web, had turned as pale as her skin. Green and purple veins were visible beneath her sunken cheeks. Lines around her eyes had deepened.

Maya reached for her mother’s hand and held it softly. She had not been awake for a month now, yet the nurse tried everything she could to heal her. It was bad enough for her mother to stay in bed for a long time. Her father, who brought all of the kingdom’s finest troops with him to search for a miraculous cure, still hadn’t returned. Now with the wolves preying on the people, she was afraid of what might come next.

“I am doing everything I can, Mother,” Maya whispered to the queen, before she bent over the frail body and planted a soft kiss over her mother’s creased forehead.

*             *             *

The common folk called it the Skybound Castle. But to Maya, the fortress by the sea was her home. High and grand, the castle had been standing for centuries. She had been taught that the earliest settlers of Hummingsland had carved this castle out of the mountain on the coast. With towers and steeples beyond count, the castle’s outer walls glistened like the ivory sand below. On some days, clouds passed through the towers.

Standing on the tallest tower made her remember those nights whenever nightmares triggered her to stay awake. Her father took her here to see the stars or tell her a story before she fell asleep again. She could never forget the time when he used to tell her the story about the magical bird that could heal the injured and the sick with its song.

Once in time, there was a king who returned home from battle, Maya recalled her father’s words as she stood on the topmost level with the blue sky directly above he. Her hair waving against the wind. Although he and his army emerged victorious against their foe, he had been gravely injured. The kingdom’s healers did all they could to cure his wounded arm. But the wound festered. Days passed, and the king grew terribly ill.

One day, his son decided to search far and wide to find a cure. He went as far beyond the kingdom’s borders just to find what he is looking for. When he entered the woods, beasts attacked him. He defended himself and was able to keep them away from him. But in return, they wounded him gravely. When he felt weak, he lay on the ground and prayed for his father to get well. Just then, a bird flew down from the branches, and sang a beautiful song. The prince regained his strength, and told the bird he wished for his father to get well soon. The bird offered help. So the prince rode the bird all the way back to his castle.  There, the bird sang to the king until the king was healed. This is what the bird had done. And this is what the bird would do for those who believe.

She looked around her and wished for a miracle. If only that bird was real, then her mother would rise again. She didn’t have to lose her father. But what if her father had gone for the same reason that the prince in the story did? What if the bird was true?

Clinging to fairy tales would not help her solve the kingdom’s problems.

From the topmost level of the highest tower, she could see the horizon line between the cerulean sea and the sky powdered with clouds. To the north behind her lay the brown cottage houses that comprised the village beneath the mountains, as well as the verdant fields of grain, wheat, and other crops that the people had been tending. Beyond, lay an open verdant expanse that stretched for miles beyond what the eyes could see. The Firefield, she remembered the place’s name. At night, that open expanse would light up like the stars in the sky. For whatever reason, she did not know, yet. She only knew that the end of that field marked the border of Hummingsland up north.

“You have called for me, Your Majesty?”

She was interrupted from her thoughts. She turned and saw a man clad in silver armor. Without his helm, his face was clear to her. He sported a black hair and was clean shaven, and skin that had seen too much sun over years of training. Broad-shouldered, he stood with his chest arched in front of her. But his green eyes remained unchanged. He was still the boy she had played with in the halls years ago before duties drew a barrier between them.

Maya straightened her dress and felt the corner of her lips rise. “Your Majesty seems a bit odd. I suppose I should address you as Sir Robin Nightswing?”

“If that’s what Your Majesty wishes.”

Maya sighed. “Oh please… There’s no need for formalities, Robin. It’s the least I can think of right now.”

“I understand.”

He was the son of the captain of her father’s kingsguard. Because of their fathers’ connection, they had grown up together within the castle. He was an inch taller than her now. It took a second to draw herself away from his gaze and look at the village beneath the castle.

“I believe standing in the throne room for hours, listening to the people, has worn you out,” he said. “After all, there’s always a first time for everything.”

“I am doing the best I can to help them,” she said. “Mother is sick. Father is out there and he hasn’t returned yet. Who else will be there for the people?” She walked towards the parapet and laid her hand over the smooth stone surface.

Robin’s boots clicked over the bricked ground as he stepped closer to Maya. “You’ve decided what’s best for them. That’s a start.”

“I am not sure if that is good enough.”

“You doubt our troops?”

“Well, Father brought with him the best men, right? Your father, Captain Heron, also went with him. They have not come back. Why shouldn’t I be worried? What remained of our troops may protect the people, but what if the wolves are beyond their…” She realized that doubting the troops, which Robin was now tasked to lead in his father’s absence, may be insulting her friend.

“I am sorry,” she added, reaching for his gloved hand. “I shouldn’t have-”

“It’s all right, Maya,” Robin said. “As captain of your guard, I will make sure no wolves or any intruder would cause any harm to the people. This is Hummingsland. We have not engaged in any war for centuries, and yet we have survived and prospered. How can a pack of wild beasts ruin our kingdom?”

“I can never take chances,” she muttered.

He held her hand. “Everything is going to be fine, Your Majesty. Take my word on that.”

After their brief conversation, Maya decided to spend the rest of the day surveying the village. She wanted to make sure that the guards were at their designated places. One for each doorstep, and at least three guards mounted on horses for each field. The kingdom had trained a number of soldiers and knights for situations in case their kingdom gets attacked.

She had changed from her yellow dress to a more comfortable set of garments – a brown tunic and woolen trousers, with leather boots for riding. She mounted a brown mare from the stable outside the castle grounds. It was her father’s present on her fifteenth birthday. She named the mare Avian for she could run as fast as a bird soaring in the sky.

With Robin mounted on a white stallion, they went through the village, checked almost every household, and received gifts in return. Whenever they passed by a guard at his post, they would bow down to Maya, and she would encourage them to keep up the good work. Protecting the people was their primary focus.

The afternoon light waned by the time they ended surveying the village. They had stacked the goods given by the people into bags hanging over their saddles. Their gratitude included bread, treats, and woven blankets.

When the afternoon light waned, Maya decided it was best to return to the castle.

“Hold on,” Robin said before they took the route towards the portcullis. “I have to show you something.”

“What is it?” Maya wondered. She gazed at the sky. The clouds darkened as they gathered.

“You’ll see,” Robin urged. “Just follow me.” His stallion trotted towards the edge of the village where thickets grew wildly.

His stallion neighed after halting beside a jagged rock amidst the thickets. Maya slowed Avian down until the mare also stopped before the rock. Robin got down, as did Maya. But before she could ask further, she saw a hilt glinting over the tip of the rock.

“Odd, isn’t it?” Robin pointed, stepping onto the rock’s base. The rock reached his shoulders. Just behind the shining hilt, a slab stood. On the slab, words had been engraved. Moss coated the letters. But they appeared readable as the words stood out of the slab’s surface.

“This sword cometh from the Great Dove above,” Maya read the words out loud. “The one who created the world with goodness and love…” She took a step back, her boot crunching dried leaves on the ground. “Is this connected to the creation story?”

Robin shrugged. “I don’t know. But see this.” He reached for the hilt and pulled it. His face had turned red from the force. Still, the hilt did not budge.

“Are you out of your mind?” Maya said. “Why would you pull out a sword out of a rock?”

Robin let go of the hilt and drew in deep breaths. “Did you read everything on the inscription?”

Maya saw two more lines on the slab’s surface. “Whosoever pulleth it from this stone…” She stepped closer. “Is worthy to repel all evil that walks in flesh and bone.”

Robin had his hands on his knees, still panting. “You see?”

“It could be anything.” Maya rubbed her hands. “A blacksmith must have placed it here for fun.”

“I came across this during one of our trainings last year.”

“You were training, yes.” Maya knew growing up had challenged their bond. While she began to participate in her father and mother’s duties, Robin had to prepare to fit into his armor and fulfill his life’s calling – to protect the ruler. All soldiers had to undergo training.

“After a sprint, I stumbled upon this dead-end and found the hilt first. Then I had to cut all the vines and branches that covered this rock. I should have told you sooner. But we never got the chance to talk, again.”

“We’ve both been busy, Robin,” Maya said. “Duty calls.”

He raised both hands. “I know, I know. But here we are and this might interest you. So what if a blacksmith had placed it here? Don’t you want to vanquish evil by pulling out this sword?”

Maya groaned. “I really don’t have time for this. We must be getting back to the castle.” Around them, shadows of the thickets had mingled with the dusk. Far off in the distance, she heard a faint howling. But that could be the wind. Shivering, she wrapped her arms around her.

“Most of the men who trained with me had tried pulling out this sword, but…” Robin scratched his head, taking no heed of her response.

If it were truly a sword, Maya thought, then all its blade was plunged deep into the rock. It would be impossible to pull it out.

“I don’t get why you’re so troubled with this,” Maya said. “This has nothing to do with what we’re dealing with right now. Vanquishing evil? Come on, Robin. It’s time to put serious matters first before make-belief.”

“Won’t you at least try pulling it out? You’re always up for a challenge.”

“Come on, Robin, it’s time to get back.”

The thickets shook. But Maya felt no wind pass by them.

“I want to try vanquishing evil,” Robin said. He held the hilt firmly again, and tried pulling off the sword, biting his lip and grunting with effort.

“You are the most immature captain of the guard in Hummingsland’s history. I don’t suppose you’re up for-”

Just then a black creature dashed out of the thickets. Yellow eyes stared at them with a grin revealing sharp fangs that glinted with spit. Avian and Robin’s stallion neighed. Maya took a step back.

Robin cursed, and he drew his sword from the scabbard hanging on his belt. “Princess, don’t move!”

This four-legged beast was covered in fur. There was no mistaking what it was. A wolf. Spit dripped over its teeth.

The wolf grinned wider. The fur on its back standing up. It aimed for Maya. But before it lunged, Robin swung his sword and aimed for its back. The wolf whimpered, and shifted its attention to Robin. Its tongue slithered to wipe off the dripping spit.

Another came from out of the thickets. Their horses ran in fright, leaving the pair alone on the edge of the village. Maya froze as the second wolf aimed at her. Its eyes burning yellow in the gathering darkness.

The thickets shook again, and more came out into the clearing.

“Maya, I’ll keep them away from you as long as I can,” Robin said as more wolves emerged. There were about ten of them now.

They growled like thunder. The people did not exaggerate what they witnessed. These wolves did come in packs, and it was possible to defeat them.

With their horses gone, Maya decided that it was futile to run.

One wolf tackled Robin. But the captain of her guard stood his ground, and punched the wolf's face instead. This angered the entire pack. Then they all lunged at Robin. Her friend swung his sword, but it was too late. One wolf aimed for his arm. Maya could hear teeth thrusting into steel.

She saw the hilt over the rock. She must have been out of her mind. She darted towards the weapon, and clutched the hilt firmly in her hand. Then she pulled the sword with all her strength.

The sword slid off the rock like feather gliding in the wind.

Maya could not believe herself. As she did so, the blade of the sword shone bright like a flame. Light flashed until it expanded into a wave that swept the wolves away. Many whimpered at the sight of it. Maya swung it. But before the sword could come into contact with the beasts, the wolves dove back into the thickets and were heard no more. Robin lay on the ground, catching his breath.

Maya knelt beside him. Horns blew from afar. She held his hand as he lay shivering. "Hold on, Robin," she said.

"You've pulled the sword, Maya," was all he could say before her troops reached the clearing. Their horses leading the way.

Maya kept the sword close to her as they went back to the castle.

*             *             *

Growing up, she had seen how knights fought and trained on their courtyard. She and Robin used to train by themselves, with wooden sticks back when they were still children. She had learned the basic moves. Swinging this sword for defense and attack was not entirely strange to her. What made it strange was how she had pulled it so easily while Robin struggled with all his might.

He was being treated by Gail and the other castle nurses in the infirmary. Thanks to his armor, the wolves' bites were not able to penetrate deep into his skin. Bur there were a few scratches on his face and neck which Gail said were treatable.

In her room before the fireplace, Maya examined the sword. It was three feet long, enough to put into a scabbard and hang it over her back. It was tradition in Hummingsland to possess any weapon you found. But even though it was Robin who discovered it, she was the one who took it off from the rock.

Whosoever pulleth it from this stone is worthy to repel all evil that dwells in flesh and bone, she muttered, trying to remember the words on the inscription. Its blade was narrow, with its tip shining with the flames. The light that emerged from it earlier had kept the wolves away.

Now in her silk white night robe, Maya sat on the edge of her bed. All the unexplained phenomena had been too much to think about. But the more she thought about the sword, she began to hear whispers around her.

"Princess... Princess... Princess..." came the voice.

"Who's there?" she stood and held the sword, preparing to defend herself.

"Look to the light... To the light... The light..." The flames in the fireplace within the wall facing her bed crackled.

Maya gasped as the flames formed into the shape of a tall slender woman. She pointed the sword towards her. "How did you-... Stay back or I'll-"

"There is no need for violence," the woman whose figure was made in flames said. "You are not capable of such, for you are worthy." Her voice echoed within the room.

“Who are you?”

“I have called you with what I am capable of doing. I am now far away. But I have reached you because you need to do what’s important.”

Maya shook her head. “I don’t understand.”

"Soon, you will. But I have to tell you that Hummingsland is in grave danger, for the Intruder had come."

Maya trembled. "What do you mean?"

"The wolves are merely his spawns," the woman said. "Invading my home is just the beginning."

"Your home?"

"He had come from afar... from the lands of eternal shadows where all good things could not live. You need to protect your home before it's too late."

Maya stepped closer to the fireplace. “What is all this? Who… Who are you?”

"Everything I shall show you will let you know." The woman turned within the flames, and a smokescreen emerged. Through the smokescreen, Maya saw a forest. Roots tangled on the ground, and thick branches covered in vines and moss stood amidst the darkness. Then there was a figure cloaked in black strolling along in the woods. The image then showed a bird, with  rainbow plumage, spreading its wings and flapping them against the cloaked figure. The figure’s fist now illuminated the vicinity with a ball of purple flame. The figure threw this to the bird, and it struck its neck. The bird fell down as the vines around the forest constricted it. The image then shifted to the bird trapped in a gigantic spherical cage made of vines within the woods. As the bird struggled to break free, it lost all strength and passed out within the cage. As the bird lay unconscious, it turned into a woman - the same woman who was speaking to Maya now.

Then the image further changed. This time, it showed the cloaked figure standing on the base of a protruding rock within the woods. He raised his hand before a pack of wolves. Suddenly, their eyes glowed yellow. With a snap, they bowed to the cloaked figure. In a chorus, they howled and charged out of the woods.

“Kill all in your path!” the cloaked figure declared. “Hummingsland is mine for the taking!”

No! Maya nearly stumbled as the flames devoured the smokescreen. The flaming woman appeared again. "The Great Dove, our master, has deemed you worthy, after you took the sword to save your friend. May your sword, Brightwing, protect you from this foe. Just as I have saved you when you were but a wee baby will you also save this land from evil."

"Saved me?"

The flames glowed brighter as the woman transformed into the bird she had seen earlier. As it flapped its wings, it sang a song, a beautiful melody that revived all of her good memories.

"You are..."

"The Songbird," the bird changed back into the woman. Now, her robe blazed with iridescent colors. "When you were born, you wouldn't have lived if your father had not asked for my help. You were breathing weakly when you came out of your mother's womb. But because I was made to help, I flew all the way from my home to your castle to sing you well. Now, fifteen years have gone and look how you've grown.”

"So you do exist!" Maya exclaimed.

"Relish the wonder later, Princess. You now wield the sword, and only you can stop Vultor from spreading his malice and corruption. He has now reached the Claw Woods. This forest used to be my home, but now I am held captive. Vultor now sets his eyes over your kingdom."

"The Claw Woods?" Maya recalled the lay of the land. "Isn't that the forest between the Twin Beaks?" It may be beyond the border of their kingdom, with only the immense Firefields between them, but if the wolves had reached the village, she did not wish to delay any further.

"If all of this is real, then my father must have been searching for you to heal my mother," she said.

The woman bowed her head. "There is no telling what Vultor can do, Princess. If he could keep me prisoner, then how could a mortal king and his queen stand against his sorcery?"

That cloaked figure must have possessed power beyond imagining. If her father and his troops were out there with the wolves running wild, then it was possible that her father may have encountered him.

"The grace of the Great Dove is with you, Princess. May you triumph over this evil before everything is too late."

But before she could ask anything further, the woman’s apparition faded into smoke.

In the warmth of her room, May decided what was the best thing to do.

*             *             *

The halls within the castle displayed carvings of the world's timeline. The Great Dove, as white as a summer cloud and as brilliant as the sun, began the creation of the world by singing a song that brought all creatures to life. After pecking the barren land, water flowed out of the hole until the world took its shape. Then the Great Dove created the Songbirds - angelic beings which could transform from a bird with magnificent plumage to a human form. They sustained the song to bring life and healing to the land. But the world's balance had been threatened when one of the Songbirds devised a new melody to the Dove's lifesong, creating conflicts, confusion, and even death. When the Great Dove found out about this, the deity banished the rebel, throwing it into the lava pit. In the generations that followed, the volcano that held it in captivity erupted, and out of it came the Defiant Dragon.

It wasn't until tonight when Maya started believing in the tale. One of the Songbirds had made contact, and she was bound to save Hummingsland from the prevailing threats.

"Everything we know about the tales is true," Maya said. She was sitting on a stool beside the bed where Robin lay. He had been confined in the castle's infirmary, after they had rescued him from the wolves' attack. The walls held lit sconces, so his bandaged face was clear to her.

She told him everything she had witnessed in her room that night.

"But Maya, you shouldn't go on alone," Robin said. He grimaced as he tried to prop himself up beneath the sheets. "Your father hasn't returned. Your mother is not well. Your people need you."

"Which is why I must put an end to these dangers," Maya said.

"Then let me come with you. I can order the troops and-"

She placed her forefinger gently above his lips. "No. You are needed here." She caressed his cheek, her fingers brushing over the cotton bandages stained with his blood. "I command you to lead our troops in protecting our people. When things don't go the way we plan, we have the sea beyond the shore where we can set sail and seek a better place."

A tear cascaded down her cheek and he reached to wipe it off. "I will do as you say, Princess."

She left at dawn after she ordered the troops to ready Avian and her provisions. Now clad in armor with her hair tied in a bun, she mounted the brown mare. She hung Brightwing in a fitting scabbard over her back. Then she headed north, crossing the Firefield towards the border of her kingdom. Further beyond, the Claw Woods grew between the two gray mountains shaped like beaks and covered in fog.

The Firefield was not literally burning. Just as the Twin Beaks were not literal beaks, the vast expanse covered in lush grass could make the illusion that the field was burning by the flowers that bloomed yellow by day and glowed golden by night.

Riding was not a challenge for Maya. As the heir to the throne, she had learned all the duties her father had taught her. She led Avian all the way as they crossed the field. Whenever they stopped to rest, Maya let her mare nibble on the abundant grass around them while she found a spot to take a bite from the bread she received from the villagers.

She plucked a flower when she thought about her mother. It was shaped like an inverted bell, with its stem as soft as a feather. She promised to herself that she would give it to her mother once she returned from this quest. She tied the stem over Brightwing's hilt, before she resumed the journey with Avian.

*             *             *

The field ended as soon as the gnarled roots protruded on the gray earth. She pulled the reins and Avian halted. When the mare stomped her hooves, dust rose from the ground.

"This is it," Maya said. "We have reached this far, Avian. We have reached the border of Hummingsland."

It had taken her a day's journey with Avian's swiftness to reach the farthest destination she’d ever been from home. She looked behind, but white mist began to settle on the field. Now, the sky began to change from blue to black. Outside of the kingdom, silence reigned. But she could feel the earth trembling.

What lay before her were trees with thick and wrinkled trunks. The roots coiled above the ground like snakes in their pit. Their branches tangled with vines. This was only the entrance to the Claw Woods.

"Come on, girl," she urged Avian to continue. But her mare stood still, neighing aggressively before the woods.

"Come on, Avian," she said. "We're not turning back. We have to-"

The ground's trembling grew stronger. An orchestrated march resounded in the air.

She dismounted her mare. As the last light withdrew from the sky, yellow orbs, like balls of fire, began glowing from within the trees' gaps.

Growls resonated with the trembling. She drew Brightwing from its scabbard and brandished it before her. The flower tied around its hilt now blazed. It dangled at the tip of the hilt as she clutched the handle with her gloved hand.

"I am not afraid of you," she addressed the glowing orbs as she took her steps. The sword was shaking as she pointed it to the suspicious lights before her.

Avian continued stomping her hooves, neighing nervously. Mist trailed her breaths through her snout.

The thunderous growling escalated as one of the wolves stepped out into the clearing. Their eyes were all blazing.

One wolf came fully out of hiding. Then another followed. Then another and another. Their teeth bared and their eyes shining. The pack grew to a number beyond count.

Maya raised her sword higher. Avian neighed.

The wolf that came out first steadied its haunches. Its ears perked up. Mist blew out of its bare sharp grin.

Maya stood her ground.

The wolf lunged. But before Maya could swing her sword, an arrow landed on the ground. It startled the wolf. The beast halted before the pinned arrow.

Maya turned. The mist on the field had risen as a row of armored horses marched on. The ground trembled by their hooves. Maya could not believe her eyes. Mounted over these horses were soldiers clad in silver shining armors. They raised their swords high in the air. Others readied arrows with their bows. Their shields bore the Hummingsland insignia - the white dove spreading wide its wings.

Avian galloped towards the line of soldiers and met the white stallion in the middle. Over the stallion, the man in armor took off his helm.

"Maya!" Robin called as the horses sped up.

Robin? I am not alone, she thought. She turned back to the wolves now forming their own line at the distance before her. She raised Brightwing once again. Its blade glinted. She remembered the young man in the throne room who had mourned for the death of his father. She remembered the people who had lost their sheep and cattle. It was time to end the predators' vicious stride.

"For Hummingsland!" She charged with the mounted soldiers behind her.

The battle lasted longer than she thought. As soon as the lines met, the wolves blocked her forces with their fangs and claws. Maya, on the other hand, swung Brightwing against any wolf that attacked her. Many growled and snarled in their tenacious bites and lunges. Some of the wolves had dismounted a handful of soldiers. They lunged at them and pushed them off their horses. Others snapped their teeth on the horses' legs, tipping their balance. Once the horses were brought down, the wolves took their chances to dig their teeth over the horses' necks or their riders'. Some of the horses stepped over the wolves. With their hooves, they cracked the beasts’ skull and bones as they stomped over them.

The soldiers also hacked the wolves that came their way. In the middle of the battle, Robin fought alongside Maya. He had chosen to dismount because fighting on foot gave him advantage.

"You had to follow me, didn't you?" Maya said, in the middle of advancing towards the woods.

"Can't let you down, can I?" Robin hacked a rabid wolf that reached for his thigh.

"Since when did you decide to do all this?" she asked.

"Since you left."

“I thought we agreed on you staying in the castle.”

“The people need you more than anyone guarding there. You’re in more danger than you think you know.”

He stepped over a protruding root and stumbled over. She held his hand to raise him up. The wolves had all gone to battle now, and no beast was blocking their way into the woods.

"I have to find it and set it free," Maya said.

"The Songbird?"

She nodded.

"I am coming with you."

"If you wish."

They ran through the gaps of the trees, swords in hand and their armor protecting them from what lay beyond.

*             *             *

The Claw Woods were exactly what Maya had seen when she first saw it through the flames in her room - darkness was all around them. She and Robin trod over dead leaves. Twigs snapped. But the light from the flower with its stem tied around Brightwing's hilt gave minimal vision of the jagged rocks, thick dangling vines over branches, and moss speckling over the trunks. The rocks stood with pointy edges, and most of them curved upwards like claws.

Maya raised Brightwing higher. Then far off before them, within tangled vines that formed like a spherical cage over jagged rocks, a figure emerged. Translucent, it radiated light within the dark forest. Maya heard Robin gasp.

"So it's true, isn't it?" Robin muttered. "That is..."

"It could be the Songbird," Maya said.

As the pair got closer, they noticed that the figure was that of a woman. Garbed in a gown of rainbow feathers, she appeared lying deep in her sleep within the cage.

They reached the base of the rocks.

"I have come!" Maya said, hoping for the woman to hear her. But the woman remained unmoving.

"She will only awaken to my command," said a voice from behind them.

Maya spun. Robin drew his sword.

Across them, a cloaked figure hovered over the tangled roots. Balls of purple flames formed on each of its hands.

Maya realized that this was the same cloaked figure that appeared in the image through the flames, the creature that held the Songbird in captivity.

"Who is that?" Robin whispered.

"Vultor," Princess Maya uttered the name clearly.

The cloaked figure raised his head. His eyes glowed deep indigo. As he lifted both his hands, wolves appeared from behind the trees.

"It appears you have come to see me instead, Princess," Vultor bellowed, his voice echoing within the woods. "I have been planning to see you. But not really in these woods. I was expecting to surprise you in your castle. I would have wanted you to see the blood of your people painting its walls. Perhaps, you wouldn't last to see that day to come."

"What do you want?" Maya stepped forth, brandishing Brightwing before her. Howls and growls echoed around them.

The cloaked figure cackled. "I am the advocate of the Defiant Dragon. I have come to destroy all the good things the Great Dove has created." The flames around his hands burned brighter. "I have come from far away to get here, but that Songbird," he pointed to the captive within the cage, "has become an obstacle to my plans. Now all I'm need to do is to absorb all of its powers so I can be unstoppable!"

Vultor's cloak unfurled, turning into shadows over his back. The light of the flames revealed a man-like creature with scaled gray skin and claws for feet. Then, the shadows over his back lengthened to form the shape of two webbed wings. They flapped as he hovered in midair.

"I will kill all in my path!" Vultor roared, "just as I have killed the men who attempted to slay me!" He snapped his fingers. From the trees’ branches, bodies fell, but they dangled in midair with vines tied around their necks. The men wore the silver armor, but not the glossy material worn by the soldiers that came to Maya's aid.

"Father!" Robin cried as he pointed to one of the dangling men. The pale face had its eyes closed, but when Maya caught sight of him, she realized that the resemblance was uncanny. The same black hair mirrored that of Robin’s. It was Captain Heron, or what remained of him.

One of them men wore a red cape. Her fears had been confirmed. The man with the red cape and a golden suit was her father.

"No!" she screamed.

Vultor cackled. "Yes! Like you, they had reached these woods to try to find the Songbird. But instead, they found me!"

Maya felt fear and anger rushing through her all at once. Robin silently wept.

She gripped the sword tightly. "I shall vanquish evil." She remembered the words on the slab’s inscription.

"Now, meet the same fate!" Vultor descended to the ground. As soon as he snapped his fingers again, the wolves charged at them. Maya didn't know if these were the same wolves fighting against her troops earlier. Had they all been defeated? Her father had reached this far trying to find the Songbird so it could heal her mother just as it healed Maya when she was a helpless child. Now, here she was fighting the advocate of darkness alongside her friend.

"Let them come," Robin said. "I will kill all these beasts to avenge my father."

As they were fast approaching, Maya grabbed Robin's hand and dragged him to the base of the rock.

"What are you doing?" he asked.

"There are too many of them," Maya said. "We can't fight them all. We need help."

"From whom?"

"Who else?"

All the while, Vultor had been standing where he landed, cackling as the wolves darted toward them. But, quickly, Maya led the climb towards the cage. They stepped on the rocks’ rough, uneven edges. High enough to reach a vine, they climbed, and the wolves failed to catch them.

Now on top of the rock, Maya halted before the vines that served as the cage's outer wall. Whatever spell Vultor had used had been tainted with evil intention.

She swung Brightwing in the air and sliced the vines open.

"No!" Vultor screamed within the woods. "What have you done?!"

The vines where the sword hit snapped open. The woman within the cage awakened. Her captivity had been broken. Amidst the commotion, she transformed herself into a massive bird with iridescent plumage. Light radiated from her, snapping all the vines that made up her cage. Maya had set her free. Beneath, the wolves began to retreat. More light came out of the bird, spreading throughout the woods, the bird’s brilliance warding off the darkness.

Maya and Robin descended from the rock and charged at their foe. Vultor formed balls of flames with his hands. Every time he threw the flames at them, they would quench when exposed to the light.

As soon as Maya reached Vultor, the creature flapped his wings. He attempted to fly, screaming and screeching and clawing at the air. But Robin threw his shield at the creature. The steel object spun before it hit Vultor's head.

The creature crashed onto the ground. Taking her chance, Maya plunged Brightwing deep into the creature's chest as he lay without defense. The sword pierced through his flesh as easily as she had pulled it from its rock. The creature made a piercing cry. As Maya pulled the sword back to her, she retreated. Black flames lit up from the creature’s deep wound. The flames engulfed Vultor, devouring him as he writhed on the ground. Then his cries ended and he was no more.

*             *             *

In the following days, Hummingsland mourned and rejoiced. The Songbird had finally revealed herself to the people. After her rescuers defeated her captor, the Songbird healed the troops who had been fatally wounded in battle with her song. Then she offered to bring Robin and Maya back to their home. 

The people saw the majestic bird soaring in the sky before descending over the topmost tower. The Songbird sang to the queen, whose weak body had been brought to the top of the tower after the Songbird had arrived. Maya reunited with her mother not long after.

The grave news about the king's death and that of his troops, led by the former captain of the kingsguard, was issued throughout the kingdom. As a tradition, the masons fashioned rafts in the shape of swans containing their remains. They drifted out to sea after the funeral ceremony by the shore.

Hummingsland saw no beasts disturb their peace after that. But every morning, Maya sits beside her mother within the throne room, listening to the people's concerns. Their problems were manageable, and often ranged from dilapidated cottages to new hay for their horses. On some days, she would train with Robin in their courtyard, with Brightwing as her sword. Then, on nights when she couldn't sleep, she would spend some time over the highest tower and watch the Songbird glide over the kingdom. Everything seemed fine.

 

Angelo Lorenzo (he/him) is a writer based in Cagayan de Oro City, Philippines. His short stories have appeared on the Wellington Street Review, InQluded Pop Fiction, and New Pop Lit. Currently, he is pursuing his Master's Degree in Literature at Xavier University - Ateneo de Cagayan.

Angelo Lorenzo