Author's Notes: This is technically a polished draft of a story that I've been writing, off and on, for about 15 years. I started the rough draft for this one day as a high school sophomore, and it has slowly grown as I've pulled it out after years of fermentation, worked on it, then put it back. Any comments or criticisms are welcome, and if I get something wrong, let me know! Otherwise, Enjoy. :) - Pisceskat
Card exercised the hand he wore the hardened leather glove on, gladly preferring the stiffness in his hand to the sharpness of the falcon's claws. He tossed the arm high, releasing the bird into the autumn sky. A bitter wind rustled the changing leaves, playing with them as they fell to the ground. The promise of winter was in the whisper of the chill wind, but the sun was brilliant above him, easily seen through the thinning canopy of the trees. Beyond their peaks, he could see the falcon soaring freely. It was quiet out here away from people and traffic, a perfect place for his type of work.
He first found the falcon about a month ago, just off of a nature trail, and he thought it very strange to see this type of bird in the coastal plains of Georgia. He had the size and morphology of a gryfalcon, an arctic or alpine tundra breed of falcon, but also exhibited the traits of a peregrine, which was a species reintroduced to the area by conservationists. The bird had a broken wing and was hopping in circles until it saw him. The raptor was injured, and had it been a wild creature it would have avoided him at all cost. Oddly enough, however, it had come straight to him. He could only assume that the injured falcon was a lost or abandoned hybrid, possibly even glove-trained. As a forestry professor at Bowers Community College, he had taken the bird in for rehabilitation. After a month and a half of care, the raptor's wing was showing great progress. Now Card was in his favorite spot in the woods, allowing the falcon to test its abilities.
There were not many animals left in these woods, but the few that remained were hard at work getting ready for the coming frost. As the birds passed by on their steady trip southward, he watched a squirrel busy with acorn gathering, finding and then hiding them away in a nearby hollow tree trunk. The falcon also watched the squirrel closely from above, waiting for the perfect opportunity. Card sat back with his notepad and pressed the pencil to paper, making notes to himself that weren't really necessary. His memory had always been amazingly good, but he still thought it helped to put something to paper to see the whole picture. And so he quietly watched the falcon with the healing wing and wondered what more he could possibly do to help it.
The falcon dove in an attempt to catch its prey, but held back at the last moment, stumbling as he spread his wings to break the dive. The squirrel used the opportunity to escape certain death by running into a hole too small for the hapless falcon. The bird flew to a fallen limb and rested his healing wing. Card noted this and imagined the creature crestfallen. The bird's soreness was apparent as he shimmied across the branch, favoring his left wing. Card decided that the falcon still needed a little more time and exercise to be completely up to par.
"Oh, well. Looks like lab rats for dinner again tonight, my friend," Card said to the bird under his breath as he held out his well-protected forearm. The luckless falcon gave the bothersome forestry teacher a reproachful glare from one of his golden eyes, or at least that is how Card interpreted the bird's stare and refusal to fly to him. Animals, Card knew, sometimes acted more human than most humans.
He took back the proffered arm and rubbed the back of his short-cropped head. It still felt strange not to have the long hair that he had let grow untamed for the past year. He hadn't planned on cutting it until a fellow teacher commented on how wild his dark brown hair was starting to look. Perhaps he was going wild, Card thought. So what? It wasn't like he had a reason to dress up anymore. Animals aren't impressed by a suit and tie. Card smiled at the falcon as he preened his mottled feathers. "And who do you have to impress?" The bird looked up from its preoccupation and gave Card what he deemed a surveying once over, head to toe. "Yes, I mean you, you narcissistic little thing."
Card stood and turned at the soft sound of feet approaching up the well-worn path. Leaves crunched under the feet of the visitor despite her best efforts not to make a sound. "Class over already, Brianna?" Card called out, and then he whistled at his recovering patient, who flew grudgingly to the presented glove. A short woman with curly blond hair pushed her way through the thin trees and bushes that separated the trail from the clearing.
"Ah, there you are! I've been looking for you," she jovially replied, watching Card as he opened the door to the pet carrier. "And how is our fine feathered friend doing today, Dr. Doolittle? And don't think I didn't hear you talking to that bird of yours."
Card chuckled as he put the falcon into its temporary prison. "He's doing good, but still being too careful. He'll be getting a delicious cuisine of mice tonight, though." He clasped the catch shut then stood up.
"Too bad he's not completely healed yet. He is a beautiful creature. Have you given him a name yet?"
It was like her to ask such questions. Card supposed it was in the job description for a history professor to be inquisitive, and Brianna was certainly of a very inquisitive nature. He had gotten her the position at Bowers, knowing that it would suit her well while she sought her doctorate. She was the closest thing to family that he had. Both were orphans and had even shared the same foster home once long ago. They had been told before that they were like day and night: Card was tall with dark hair and an austere outlook and Brianna was short and fair colored with a rather easy going perspective on life. Despite their differences, they had still adopted each other as siblings. Card picked up the carrier and began walking back to his truck, answering her question as he did. "No, I don't usually name the animals I take care of. Sometimes the students do, but I think they've been too busy studying for their finals."
"You've had him for over a month already, haven't you? Why don't you just go ahead and name him, yourself? Save the kids some time, and give me a name to put with that face," Brianna replied as she tried with a little bit of difficulty to keep up with Card. "And slow down a little, while you're at it."
"Ha, ha! If you are going to be that insistent, I will. Let's see" he consented, looking down thoughtfully at the caged raptor. A month ago, he had been covered in mud and his feathers had been ruffled in almost every direction. Now, after being cleaned and cared for, he was a nice looking bird. Gold and silver hues dotted the grey motley of the rest of his feathers. As they walked, Card's thoughts wandered to the bird's quiet intelligence and his definite sense of stubborn personality.
"I am so relieved to finally have all of those finals graded," Brianna intervened, never being one to let a space of more than two minutes go unused. "How are yours going?"
"Zephyr," Card answered suddenly, throwing Brianna off track.
She answered in confusion, "What?"
"His name is Zephyr," He clarified.
Brianna puzzled over this for a second. "Oh, the name. Odd name for a bird though isn't it? Why 'Zephyr'?"
Card smiled. "It's the name of the west wind. I think that any bird would love to be named after the wind." They reached the end of the path and walked on to the parking lot. "Besides, it just seemed to fit him."
Brianna laughed. "That is very poetic. I think we might be able to do something with you after all." She teased, and shrugged, "I would have named him Merlin, though."
Card stopped next to his truck and opened the door. "I see nothing wrong with the name I picked, and he is too large to be a merlin. I think he's a mix of gyrfalcon and peregrine." Zephyr trilled in his cage. Card laughed. "See, he likes the name I gave him better."
"That's only because he's a silly bird. And I said Merlin, as in the wizard. Not the type of bird," the she replied. She held the truck door open so that Card could load Zephyr into the passenger seat.
"Tell you what," Card announced, making his way around to the driver's seat, "You can come with me for a beer and some pool, and I'll let you complain all you like. But for now let me take the falcon…"
"Zephyr…," Brianna interrupted.
"…Zephyr, back to his pen at the university. That way I can at least give my ears a few moments rest from you teasing me."
She smiled. "That's what little sisters are for, right?"
The phone rang, waking Card from yet another unsettling dream. It was always the same: a woman was standing on the other side of a dark chasm, calling out for him, but he couldn't reach her. He'd had similar dreams ever since he was little, but it had been his mother when he was younger. Now the woman was younger, with long auburn hair that looked warm to the touch. He knew she needed him, but she was always beyond his reach, buried deep in the swallowing darkness beyond the chasm. The phone rang again, reminding him that the woman, along with the danger to her, was not real. His head was pounding from the night before. Drinking with Brianna was hazardous at best. She could drink any man under the table, any day of the week. He picked up the receiver and groggily mouthed a greeting. "'Ello?"
"Andrew! Were you asleep? It's four in the afternoon!" the elderly voice berated. He hated his first name. The sisters of St. Catherine's Home for Boys were the only ones who still insisted on calling him by his first name. He felt that they did it out of spite.
He recognized that chastisement right away. "Oh, hello, Sister Margaret," he answered, sitting up on the couch that he has passed out on and stretching out his stiff muscles. "How are you doing?"
"Fine, dear, fine. Enough chitchat though," the Sister answered with the sound of anticipation in her voice. "Someone has just come to our doorstep that I think you may want to meet. You might want to come down to St. Catherine's as soon as possible."
He yawned away from the phone. He looked at it for a moment calculating his choices. He didn't look forward to returning to St. Catherine's, especially since he had left the Catholic Church as soon as he could after gaining his independence at eighteen. The sisters called every now and then to check on him and to beg for his immortal soul. He sighed. "Who is it? Could they meet me somewhere else?"
"Well, he showed up here a little while ago looking for a young man and his mother who had gone missing about twenty five years ago." She answered his first question, completely ignoring the second. "His description fit you and your mother, God rest her soul, almost to a tee."
Card remained silent. He didn't know what to say. There were very few possibilities as to what this could pertain to. He had always had the feeling that his mother was running from something when he was younger. If she'd had friends or family to turn to, she never would have brought him to Saint Catherine's. He wasn't sure if he wanted to deal with it at the moment, especially since going back to the Catholic Boy's Home would incite a nun-frenzy.
"Oh, and dear? He says he was sent by your father." She added, putting the proverbial carrot before the horse.
Card was silent. He remembered his mother, but he had never heard a word about his father before. Hearing the phrase "your father" when not prefaced by "heavenly" sounded unnaturally wrong. He was orphaned when he was three, and now, twenty five years later, someone had tracked him down for his supposed father? He clenched his jaw. "I'll be there in half an hour," he replied, and then hung up.
Card walked quietly down the hall, watching the pools of colored late afternoon light cast from the stained glass windows above to his feet. It had been years since he had last walked this path along the halls of St. Catherine's Home for Boys. A group of teenagers walked past him, talking quietly on the way back to their rooms. It reminded him of his time here, between the foster homes and before college. He was one of the few who, like those boys, had never been adopted. None of the foster homes had worked out, not even the one that he had shared with Brianna. The foster parents always felt that he was too cold and stand-offish. Once a couple had used the term "failed to assimilate" to describe him. The rest of the time, he had lived inside this building of white plaster and brick since his mother died, leaving him alone in the care of the Sisters, but it had never been his home.
He rounded the corner, stepping aside to allow two Sisters to pass. "Hello, Sister Darlene, Sister Tobie," he quickly said as they neared him, hoping that they would just let him pass with a simple greeting. He was disappointed.
"Andrew! How nice of you to come by to see us," the slender woman named Sister Darlene admonished brightly. She stopped completely and pulled the robe of the heavier set sister beside her. "Look, Tobie, its little Andrew. Hasn't he grown so handsome?"
The two older Sisters fussed over him for a few moments, recalling his rambunctious childhood to themselves as they gleefully reminded him of every frog, bug, and prank committed, and how many times he had spent the entire evening atoning.
"Sisters, if you will please excuse me…?"
"Oh, yes! The Mother Superior wanted you to see her today, didn't she!" exclaimed the jubilant Sister Tobie. "How terrible of us to keep you. Well, be on your way, shoo!" She gave him a little nudge and they turned to walk their own way. "And don't be a stranger!" the sisters called in unison to his retreating back.
He made his way through the polished hallway until he reached the Mother Superior's office. The door was open just a crack. He was about to knock when the sound of an unfamiliar voice came from the room. He realized that he had not been seen, and listened.
Sister Margaret Claire, head mistress and Mother Superior of St. Catherine's, sat in her office fiddling with an ink pen. Across from her sat an older man, advanced in years with graying hair and kind, though wrinkled, features. Card listened in as Sister Margaret spoke, "He was brought to us after his mother had died. He was about four at the time. I doubt he even remembers it," she put down the pen. "We raised him here, gave him the best education and discipline that we could. Then he went off to college, and left the Catholic Church," She added disapprovingly. He didn't take it too personally. He was used to the judgmentalism Sister Margaret so often displayed.
"Don't forget to tell him about how you pray for my eternal soul every day," Card answered from the doorway, making his presence clear. "I know I hear it often enough."
"Oh, Card, how long have you been standing there? Come, have a seat," inquired Sister Margaret.
"Long enough, Sister Margaret." He walked in and sat in one of the hard wood chairs in front of the desk. "So, what's all this about?" he asked impatiently. He was ready to leave.
"Dear, this is Xaras Laestrom. He was a friend of your father's." Xaras held out his hand, which Card reflexively shook in greeting.
"My, you look so much like your father," he professed with an accent that Card couldn't place. It almost sounded European, but it wasn't one that he recognized.
"Is that so?" replied Card, in a more caustic tone.
Sister Margaret cleared her throat. "I'll just leave you two to talk in private," she declared as she rose from her seat.
"Thank you," he replied blandly as she left. He looked at the wizened man in front of him and was at a loss for words.
He was very grateful when Xaras started the conversation. "I fear that I probably know more about you than you do about me." He picked up his cup and took a sip of the chilling coffee. He crinkled his face and lowered the cup, running a finger over the edge. "Let me introduce myself again, formally. I am Xaras Laestrom, and I was indeed a very good friend of your father's, as the Sister said." A light steam began to rise out of the mug, barely discernible, and he took a sip. "Well, I'm sure that there are many questions that you would like to ask me. So lets begin, shall we?"
Card looked at the mug in Xaras's hand, and dismissed it as a trick of the eyes. He couldn't have seen steam rising from a mug that moments ago had been apparently cold. Besides, at the moment, all he really cared about was finding out why Xaras had been looking for him and his mother. He looked Xaras in his grey eyes, "Begin what?"
A look of remorse crossed over the old man's face. "Your father passed away about twenty years ago, and on my honor, I am here to tell you about your inheritance," he paused, "and yourself."
It was too strange, Card thought. "I don't remember much of my mother, but at least I can remember her face. So all I want to know right now, is who is this father that you keep talking about, and why should I even care that I had a father? My mother died alone in a hospital. How do I know it wasn't his fault in the first place?"
Xaras sighed. "I should have known that this was not going to be easy." He took a folded envelope out of his coat pocket. It looked very old and had a brown wax seal on the back. The image on the seal looked like a crest of some sort, but Card could not make out the image. "Your mother's name was Mariah, correct?" Card nodded once. "I didn't know her at all, but I had heard that she was a wonderful woman. Her absence makes telling you this even harder. I am sorry to hear that she had passed." The older man sounded very sincere in that sentiment, with a sad frown on his face. "Your father told me much about her. His name was Zachariah Craden. They were both from a distant place called Mordiva. Have you ever heard of it?"
Card shook his head. "Never in my life. Where is it?" he asked.
Xaras handed the envelope to Card. Now that he could see it clearly, the image on the seal was a crest sporting the figure of a dragon."Your father had," he paused for a moment, "holdings in Ireland. I didn't think you would have heard of it. Not many have, since it isn't on any maps. In any case, I met your father during the war. He didn't make it back." He stopped and emptied his cup. "Go ahead and open it," he said, gesturing to the envelope now in Card's hand.
Card looked up at him. "What war? The only war I can think of twenty years ago is the Cold War. Was Ireland even in on that?" It was an honest question. Brianna would have known the answer, but Card had never been a world history buff.
Xaras sipped his coffee. "Missionaries," He answered with one word. "Please, open the letter."
Card sighed, guessing that the answer was reasonable enough for now, but he would be fact-checking later. He flipped the envelope over and ran a finger under the wax seal. The paper he pulled out was yellowed with age and stained. It was a hand written letter.
To my beloved Mariah and my son, Andros,
It has been many years since I have seen your faces, and not a day goes by that I have not thought of you. If you are reading this letter, then that means that I have perished in a war from which I cannot escape. The lands belong to you, now, and I pray to the powers that you will hold them safe, and they you. Know that I have always loved you both and that I only regret leaving so soon.
I have entrusted this letter to a trustworthy and honorable friend. There is so much that I wish I could tell you, but time runs short. I pray that he finds you safe.
My heart is with you for eternity,
Card read the letter a few times over, unsure about how he felt about it. The words were so few, but they spoke volumes. Unfortunately, he had a hard time believing most of them. "Andros is my real name?" he asked.
The older man nodded. "Indeed. I am sure beyond reasonable doubt that you are Andros Craden, son of Mariah and Zachariah Craden, and now, the current Lord of Havendome Castle."
Card looked at him for a moment, obviously shocked. "You have got to be kidding me," he said in disbelief. "Being Irish would explain why my mom left me at a god forsaken Catholic church, so I can sort of buy that one. But a Lord? Don't believe it. Sorry."
Xaras sat back and sighed. "Tell me, how did you come to be here?"
It seemed like an odd segue, but Card put the letter back in the envelope and answered. "Well, I remember that my Mom was sick. She came here and the nuns took her in for a short while. She had told them my name was Andrew Card, and that she had no family. They put her in the hospital, and kept me while she was there. She died, and I stayed here," he finished weakly.
"You have no earlier memories than that? Like coming to America, perhaps?" Xaras inquired.
Card shook his head. "No, those are the earliest memories I have." It wasn't a pleasant memory, and not one that he really cared to share in detail. He remembered playing with other boys during free time and being pulled aside by a nun, and told that his mom had passed away. He never saw his mom again. They had not even taken him to the funeral. "Why did my mother come here? If she was from such an affluent family, why did she die penniless and alone in an American hospital?"
There was a knock on the door, and Sister Margaret came back in. "Prayer will begin soon, if you would care to join us," she offered. It didn't sound like a request so much as a declaration that they should.
Card gave her a half smile. "Sorry, sister, but it isn't my religion anymore," he replied. "Besides, I don't think our business is over," he added, looking at Xaras, who nodded in agreement.
Sister Margaret visibly fumed. "God is going to judge you, my Son. And it breaks all of our hearts to see you damning your soul in the eternal pit of Hell through your disobedience." She crossed herself and said a prayer under her breath.
Card rolled his eyes and stood up. "Don't worry, Sister Margaret. I'm not going to interrupt your service, but I am going to visit my mother." He held out his hand to Xaras. "It was nice to meet you, but I think that is my cue to leave. Feel free to join me, if you don't mind talking in a cemetary."
Xaras shook his hand and grabbed his cane to stand. "I would like to pay my respects as well, if you do not mind showing me the way."
"Sure," Card replied.
Sister Margaret stepped aside to let them pass, but told them, "I will be praying for God to show you the righteous path once more! Don't stay lost forever!"
Card smirked, replying as he walked away, "Wasn't that the whole point of me coming here? To be found?"
Xaras chuckled and followed him as they left the flustered nun behind. "She certainly is relentless in spreading her faith, isn't she?"
"You have no idea," Card replied with ire.
Card silently led Xaras through St. Catherine's and out to the cemetery, contemplating his situation. His first instinct was to call up Brianna, which was exactly what he was going to do once he left. However, it was customary for him to visit his mother's grave every time he came by the church, so he had to do that first. Besides, in a way it seemed fitting that he and Xaras would finish their conversation with her there, in a sense.
The daylight was fading away as they walked between the rows of angels, crosses, and markers. In the back surrounded by simple tombstones, Card stopped in front of a plain tombstone with only one thing etched into its surface, Mariah Card. There were no birth or death dates, and no epitaphs, simply her name. He looked down at it in silence, hands in his pockets. Xaras pointed at the miniature rose bush planted next to it. "Was this from you?" he asked.
Card nodded. "Yeah. I haven't been able to come by as often as I used to, so I planted it right before I quit being a mandatory catholic." He looked at Xaras. The older man looked contemplative, and a bit enraged as he stared at the rose bush and his mother's grave.
He saw the muscle in Xaras's jaw clench before he spoke, "Andrew…"
"Card." He interrupted. "I go by the name 'Card'."
"Card, then," Xaras accepted with a nod. Card could see the apprehension on his face as he continued, "I have spent many years looking for you and your mother, but I never did learn the exact reason why she ran away with you." He stepped forward and placed a hand on the tombstone. "She was an important woman. Her death should have been marked more grandly than this, though I don't think that she could ask for any greater a tribute than roses planted out of love by her own son." Xaras bent down, leaning heavily on his cane, and laid a hand on the smooth stone underneath the name. Card stared in confusion as a faint light shown around the edges of Xaras' hand. He removed his hand and stood back, leaving behind the freshly etched crest of the Craden family. It was still glowing red.
"How…" Card managed to say in confusion, bending down to run his fingers over the new etching. It was real.
Xaras leaned against his cane, appearing a little tired. "I couldn't resist. The queen's grave was worth the extra use of power," he sighed heavily and looked at the stunned Card. "Lad, there are a few things I need to tell you."
Footnote: So what did you think? A funny tidbit about this version versus my high school rough draft: I had actually originally named Zephyr "Merlin", and kept that line of dialogue as an inside joke with myself. I'm prone to talking to myself, so me, myself, and I often get a good chuckle when we reread this. Thanks for sticking with me!