NaNo 2011: Chapter 2 – The Eagle

The prisoner who spoke was Josiah Burroughs, also known as the Eagle.  He was one of the most infamous criminals in the White Kingdom, and yet most people actually knew very little about him.  Rumors abounded, of course, and some of them were true.  It was generally accepted, for example, that he was an exceedingly powerful warlock, but reports differed on the extent of his powers.  All manner of unexplainable crimes and weird happenings were attributed to him, but he could only ever be definitively linked to a few events – like that tragic business at the University, for instance.  Indeed, the Eagle took on a sort of legendary quality among the people in the White Kingdom; mothers would invoke the Eagle like the bogeyman to scare their children into obedience, but in fact precious few people even knew that Josiah Burroughs and the Eagle were the same person.  It would be many years before enough of the folklore and legend surrounding the Eagle could be sifted through to form a coherent picture of his life, but it was not until the famed historian and biographer Uthar Killion published The Eagle and the White King some thirty-five years after Josiah’s death that anyone knew anything about the Eagle’s early childhood.  The following is an excerpt from Uthar’s biography:

To truly understand the man named Josiah Burroughs, it is necessary to return to the place of his birth, the place where he spent much of his time in the six years following the tragedy at the Tao’lin University before re-emerging in the Kingdom as the Eagle.  I had many suspicions about what had occurred during those six mysterious years, but it was not until I learned the location of his birthplace that I was able to prove any of them.  So, after many years of careful investigation, and countless false leads and dead ends, I found myself standing on the harsh rocky shores of Rook Island, seasonal nesting grounds of the beautiful grey penguins, listening to the lonely cries of the seagulls perched on the cliffs and the hoarse calls of the penguin chicks from a faraway crèche, begging for food from their mothers.

Rook Island has never had a permanent human settlement during recorded history; it is too exposed to the wind and waves, and is buffeted yearly by powerful storms that sweep out of the south across the wild expanse of the Ashen Sea.  And yet, I could tell, from the instant that my foot left the boat and touched the shoreline, that the place had known people before.  Some impossible-to-define hint of old laughter, or a scent on the air, perhaps, waiting long for another human to breathe it in.  I knew at that instant that the Eagle had been here before, though I would find much more convincing proof later.

I stood watching the wind batter the scraggly vegetation that struggled valiantly to hang on to life, permanently bent to the side from decades of relentless onslaught.  I listened as it howled through the canyons with the voice of a demon from the nine hells, chilling my marrow to ice, and I wondered what living alone in this place would drive a man to do.  As I listened, I almost thought I heard a real voice calling among the wind, calling “Josiaaahhh…”

After some time, I found a narrow path leading up the steep cliff that barred my way into the interior of the island.  As I picked my way up the path, ever-conscious of the increasingly great distance I should fall were I too careless, I began to see other faint – but unmistakable! – traces that a human being had once existed on this island.  Faint scratches on the cliff, counting – what?  Days?  Months?  A small bone with distinctly human teeth marks.  Sheltered behind a rock, a small ring of stones – an old fire pit, perhaps.  Yes, and there, a small piece of charcoal trapped in the dirt and sand underneath the stones.

I spent many hours on that island scouring for clues before I found what I was looking for: in a deep canyon, sheltered from the wind and storms, a few dozen Tao plants struggling to survive.  And not far from there, partially covered by sand and rocks, the entrance to a small, dark cave.  After clearing away the rubble, I lit a torch, took a deep breath, and plunged inside.

It was apparent from the moment I entered that Josiah had lived here.  The stale odor of crushed Tao still lingered on the air; an old rotten sheet lay tossed aside on a slab of rock that must have served as a bed.  Diagrams and formulae that only a wizard could understand were etched into the rock walls.  I set my torch against a wall and excitedly pulled out my journal, scribbling notes to myself about the contents of the cave, as well as directions to return, as best as I could remember, from my landing site.  I copied down the diagrams on the walls, though I understood only their most broad meanings, and I prepared to leave, convinced that I had seen all there was to see, and satisfied that I had the evidence to prove my hypotheses correct.  But I was wrong.  Even now my heart trembles to think what I would have missed had I not paused one last second for one final glance into the heart of the cave.

“Who are you?” the woman asked in a soft, hollow voice.  I speak no untruth when I say that my heart stopped beating in my chest for ten full seconds in that instant.  There, next to the rotted sheet on Josiah’s old resting spot, was a woman.  A woman who was not there even but seconds before.  And yet, now she was in front of me.  Her pale grey eyes were sunk back deep into her skull, and her long white hair blew softly in an unfelt breeze.  She was dressed simply, in light brown robes, and her skin was old and mottled.

“I— I—”, I stammered.

“Do not be afraid,” the woman said in that same cold, hollow voice.  “I mean you no harm.  It has just been long… so long since anyone has come to visit me.  Did Josiah send you?”

My heart resumed its beating, now pounding along at a furious pace, each thump a powerful drumbeat in my chest.  I paused for a moment, unsure of how to respond, before saying, “In a way… yes, he did.”

“He always was… such a nice boy,” the woman said in a weary voice.  “Do you know when he will come back to me?”

Again I hesitated.  “No, milady,” I finally respond, “I do not know when he will return.”  I faltered.  Did I dare ask my next question?  I plunged forward, throwing consequences to the wind.  “Are… are you Josiah’s mother?”

A strange expression passed over her face, as though she couldn’t decide whether or not to be pleased or hateful.  “Yes… yes, I suppose I am,” she said.  “Such a nice boy, he was… so nice…”

A part of me was screaming to run, run far away, to leave this island far behind and forget everything that I had seen, forget all about Josiah Burroughs, forget the Eagle, just forget everything!  But my will was stronger than that.  This was, perhaps, the one chance I would have – anyone would have! – to speak with Agatha Burroughs, mother of the Eagle, and I could not let it get away from me.  So it was with every last ounce of willpower in me that I took a step towards her, and asked, “May I sit down?  I’d like to talk to you for a while, if I may…”

“That… that would be nice,” she said, for the first time a bit of warmth entering her voice.  “It has been so long since anyone has come to see me…”

“Tell me about Josiah,” I said, sitting on the cold dirt floor, not three feet from the mother of the Eagle.  “What was he like as a boy?”

“Josiah… he was such a nice boy… he was born here, you know.  Right here in this cave!”  She smiled faintly at the memory.  “He never remembered that, of course, but he was always curious about this place growing up.  Always wanted to come back here, see what it was like… His father and I… well, there was the shipwreck, you see, we were going home when the storm hit, and it… just tossed him right over the side.  I screamed and screamed, but the waves were too high, and I never saw him again.”  This, at least, seemed accurate to me.  I knew that Josiah’s parents were returning from the Saragos Islands far to the south when a sudden storm hit their boat, destroying it.  As far as I have been able to ascertain, Agatha and Josiah were the only people who escaped the storm alive.

A single crystal-clear tear rolled down Agatha’s cheek.  “I don’t even remember how I survived the storm, but somehow I made it to this island.  I remember I could feel him coming, the storm had broken my water, and I was terrified that I wouldn’t be able to get to someplace safe before he came, but I was not going to lose a son and a husband in the same day, so I found this cave, and gave birth to him… it was here, right here,” she said, motioning wistfully at the rock bed.

“It was so painful, and I was so faint, but he was crying, and I knew he needed me.  I nearly died that day, many times, but my son kept me alive.  Every time I tried to roll over and just… slip away, he would cry out again, and that would bring me back again.  It must have gone on that way for hours.  Finally I reached down, and cut his cord with a sharp rock, and brought him to my breast to nurse.  And I felt such a strength flow into me as he nursed that I knew that we would survive, together.  I named him Josiah, just like his Daddy…”

She paused for a long time, so long that I thought she had forgotten about me.  I was about to ask her to continue, when she said, “It was like that later, when he brought me back here.  It was like giving birth to him again.  After… after…”

“After what?” I asked, already knowing the answer.

She fixed me with those cold grey sunken eyes.  “After I died.”

We sat in silence together for a long time after that.  The sun set, the moon rose, and the voices of mother penguins, having finally returned to feed their chicks, scolded loudly, echoing  in the cold, crisp evening air.  Finally Agatha spoke again.  “He’s not coming back, is he?” she said.

“No,” I whispered.  “I’m afraid he’s not.”

The night stood still.  The penguins grew quiet.  When she spoke again, it was with a voice overflowing with sorrow.  “When he was six years old, he told me… he said, ‘Mommy, I’m never going to let anything happen to you.  I’ll keep you safe.  I promise!’” She gave a quiet sob, and then said, “He tried so hard to keep that promise.  So hard… he was such a nice boy…”

I don’t remember falling asleep that night, but when I awoke the next morning, Agatha was gone.  I traced my way back to my boat, lost in thought, barely even registering my surroundings.  And as I was leaving, I heard it again, this time beyond a doubt: a cold, lonely voice echoing through the canyons in the wind.  “Jossssiaaahhhh…”

After The Eagle and the White King was published, a number of other well-respected historians, magicians, and psychologists made the arduous journey to Rook Island.  They all reported finding the small Tao plantation, as well as a cave that could have possibly been lived in at one point.  However, despite many collective days of searching, none of them ever saw anyone resembling the description of Agatha Burroughs portrayed by Uthar Killion, nor any conclusive evidence at all that the Eagle had ever been there.  Many people called into question Uthar’s sanity, especially given some of the later, more controversial sections of his book.  Despite that fact, The Eagle and the White King was the most popular and widely-read book about Josiah Burroughs ever written.

It is most unlikely, however, that even had Percival the Troll known or understood any of these details about the man in the prison cell who stood before him arrogantly demanding breakfast, that it would have changed Percival’s disposition towards him in the slightest.  Percival was a troll, after all, and one who did not care about people’s mothers or lonely islands thousands of miles from Castle Whitefall.  So Percival looked the Eagle in the eye, and said, “Talky man talk too much.  Talky man prisoner.  Talky man get breakfast when Percival done shoveling cow dung.”

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