The northern hills of Wyvern's Court were filled with the trills of tiny bells, the lilting words of storytellers and the songs of choruses. Enraptured children sat in front of me, waiting for me to begin the story of the first avian queen. Blatantly out of place among them was a friend of mine, a serpiente dancer named Urban, who was lounging near the back, managing to look bored and nervous at the same time.
"Many, many years ago, our ancestors were a collection of small tribes, each led by a different captain and each squabbling with its neighbors over food, water and shelter. When drought caused famine, they became afraid and so were more protective of their scarce belongings.
"In the middle of the worst winter, when early snows had destroyed too many of the crops, a woman named Aleya gave birth to a daughter. She loved her child, but she knew she could never take care of her. So Aleya brought the beautiful golden girl to the mountains and left her there, praying that the wild spirits would care for her.
"The infant began to cry, and soon a pair bond of hawks landed beside her. They cared for the child as one of their own, teaching her the language of the forest and giving her their most precious gift: the skies. They gave the girl some of their magic and taught her how to change from her human form into that of a golden hawk."
I paused there, looking into the wide eyes of my young audience. One of the children had moved closer to Urban and was trying to examine the silk scarf he had tied around his waist--a melos, one of the accessories worn by professional serpiente dancers. Urban glanced at her and she jumped.
"But there comes a time when every chick must leave its nest, and as she grew older, the hawk-girl began to wonder about her true mother. Finally, when she was thirteen, she returned to her homeland. She found her mother and her younger brother, whom she had never known, but was horrified by the conditions in which they lived, by the fear and anger that seemed ever present among humans.
"The girl led first her family and then the rest of her mother's tribe into the woods and taught them how to reach the skies. She showed them better ways to hunt, with a hawk's vision and talons, and so they became healthy and well fed once again.
"Later, other tribes joined them, and each took a form from the wilderness--ravens, crows and then sparrows. For the first time, these tribes lived peacefully together, led by the young queen they named Alasdair, which means protector."
The children clapped happily, making the bells hanging from their wrists jingle.
I smiled, enjoying the story almost as much as I had during my first Festival--until one of the adults who had been nearby noticed her child reaching for Urban's melos again and darted forward to scoop her up and away from Urban. Urban pretended not to notice, but I saw his back tense.
I had told the story of Alasdair the way my mother had used to tell it to me, but I knew that some of these children had learned a darker ending from their parents.
Just twenty years before, the myth always would have included the death of Alasdair at the hands of the serpiente. Tales such as these fueled avians' hatred from the cradle.
I tried not to let the avian mother's reaction to Urban ruin my mood. I knew that many people did not approve of his presence there; Urban was not just a serpent--an apprentice dancer, at that--he was widely known to be my foremost suitor among the serpiente. As such, he faced the wrath of mothers with eligible sons, and of course the jealousy of avian men our age, in addition to the general prejudice of avians against serpiente.
Still, I was glad he had come. Suitor or not, Urban was one of my closest friends. We had grown up together. It meant a lot to me that he was willing to be there even though he knew how the avians might react.
"Bit of a dull story," Urban remarked as he came to my side, trying to keep a careful distance between himself and the avians around us. "Lacks intrigue, danger, scandal."
"Well, I'm sorry that the way my ancestor saved her people from starvation and war isn't racy enough for you," I said, teasing.
Serpiente history--which, unlike the avian stories, was regarded as fact, not myth--involved the brave leader of a clan known as the Dasi seducing a powerful creature called Leben, who had impersonated one of their gods to demand their worship. The story, which was told each year in the dance named after the winter solstice holiday Namir-da, described how Leben had given all of Maeve's people second forms to try to win her favor. Maeve had been given the form of a white viper. Kiesha, the high priestess of Anhamirak, had been given the form of a king cobra. Seven others had been given serpent forms, and four, the followers of the god Ahnmik, had been given falcon forms.
The Namir-da did not tell the falcons' story. It also did not include the part about the Dasi being torn apart by a vicious civil war shortly after the gifts had been given. Maeve and the four falcons had been exiled on charges of black magic. The white vipers still lived on the fringes of our society even in modern day, while Cjarsa, Araceli, Syfka and Servos made up the royal house of the falcon empire. Kiesha's people became the serpiente; my family were her descendents.
"Unfortunately," Urban continued, his tone making clear that he found nothing unfortunate in it, "I need to run to the nest now. I'm hoping to catch Salem before he is surrounded by people." Only the full members of the dancer's nest had been invited to Salem's initiation ceremony, and though Urban had grown up in the nest, he had not yet taken his vows. However, the reception that night would be open to anyone who wanted to attend, including apprentices and wyverns. "You will be there later, right?"
"Of course. I think my parents have already headed over."From the Hardcover edition.
Excerpted from Wolfcry by Amelia Atwater-Rhodes. Copyright © 2006 by Amelia Atwater-Rhodes. Excerpted by permission of Delacorte Press, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.