Alex left Old Choxi that afternoon. She offered to let him spend the night and leave in the morning, but he felt that they would both be more comfortable if he wasn’t there. He thanked her for helping him heal and accepted the food she packed, as well as a sealed bag that he hung over his shoulder. He flew as far as his wings could carry him that first day, grateful for the energy in the lunch she provided, then walked along the ridge until sundown.
Choxi had given Alex a brown and white cape that covered his wings so he could stay warm while he walked. It also served to camouflage him against the rocky terrain. The old woman cautioned him about making a fire a night. He was to find shelter and use the cape to stay warm, and do nothing that could signal his position from the air.
Her instructions seemed strange. Alex didn’t hear or see anyone else during his journey, but he did as she asked. At night, he lay beneath the warm cape and nibbled on the biscuits and nuts she sent with him. He watched the stars overhead, trying to imagine what it would be like to finally meet his father.
Alex slept without dreams every night. He suspected it was something in the food Choxi gave him, but he was grateful all the same. Well rested, he woke before dawn each morning and continued his journey, though he still was not able to fly as much as he would have liked.
When the sun was high, Alex flew over the trees and hills to glide on the upper currents. With the sun at his back, he would be hard to spot from the ground, and he could coast to conserve his energy. The land that stretched below him was beautiful, but just as wild as the jungles around Jequn’s estate. At one point, Alex spotted a huge herd of woolly beasts with a single horn sprouting from their heads. They were massive, possibly as large as Hadasha had been, though they grazed from the grasses at their feet as they walked. Alex thought about getting closer, but he knew it was a distraction he couldn’t risk right now.
On the fourth full day of travel, just as the sun crested the mountain ridge, Alex found the river Old Choxi mentioned. He followed it upstream most the morning, growing increasingly nervous. If Choxi’s instructions were right, he would be there soon. What if this was a mistake? What if the man hated him? What if he was worse than Jequn?
Alex flew on. He had come this far, he had to at least see what he looked like. Maybe Choxi had sent him to the wrong person, and when Alex found him, he would instantly know it wasn’t his father, and he could leave without ever saying a word.
Maybe he would just keep going and fly right out of E’din.
Before noon, Alex saw the pine tree with the split top. He flew toward it and landed among the upper branches. His wings ached. He needed to rest anyway, so he perched there and gazed down at the valley tucked between the mountains and the edge of the forest. It was right where Choxi said it would be. The gentle brook sparkled through the green field, and in the center of it all was…
Was a house.
Alex crouched low on the branch and pulled his wings in tight as he examined the building. It was larger than Choxi’s cabin had been, but nowhere near as expansive as Jequn’s manor. The sides were made of stacked logs. Shuttered windows were open to the warm spring air. Smoke curled from the stone chimney, drifting lazily in the light breeze passing through the valley.
A plot of land on the southern side of the building had been cleared for a garden. There were wooden stakes supporting fragile green plants. Something moved between them, and Alex realized with a start that there was a person crouched among the vines. The boy caught a glimpse of white wings and black hair before he panicked and dove behind the trunk of the tree.
That was him.
Alex clutched at his chest, wishing he had his medallion to cling to. The sound of his heart pounded so loud, he was afraid it would echo off the nearby mountains. He pressed his back and wings against the sap-laced bark of the pine, not caring that it stuck to his feathers. He took fast, shallow breaths, trying to force himself to calm down.
“Papa, lunch is done!”
Alex stopped breathing entirely. He peeked back around the edge of the tree, black eyes wide.
There was a girl.
She couldn’t have been more than eight or nine. She had light brown skin and two thick, crooked braids. There were no wings on her back. She walked from the house to the garden, where a man stood to greet her.
“Thank you, Mieke. Here, take Molly inside with you.” The man handed the girl a gurgling, kicking baby. “She’s hungry. She tried to eat dirt.”
“So that’s why your face is so dirty!” the girl babbled at the baby as she took her and placed her on her hip. The two went back inside while the man turned and faced the brook.
“Girls!” he called, his voice resounding across the valley. “Come inside and wash up for lunch!”
There was giggling and splashing, and then three more young girls came racing across the field. They were wet and dirty, but grinning. Two of them appeared to be the same age, mirror images of each other, and the third was just slightly older. They ran up to the man and each handed him fistfuls of field daisies.
“Yes, these are lovely,” he told them with a warm smile, then the girls scampered inside the house.
For a moment, the man stood in the field alone, adjusting the flowers in his hand until he held them in a neat bundle. His large wings spread white and glorious behind him, sharply contrasted against the raven black of his long hair. He was very tall and very slim, and his dark blue eyes were looking right at Alex.
Alex ducked behind the tree again, but his foot slipped and he lost his balance. He crashed down through the branches and landed with a grunt on the pine needle strewn ground. He didn’t give himself time to dwell of the pain before he staggered to his feet and hid against the thick trunk.
A dry branch cracked under a boot as the man entered the forest. Alex grabbed the cape Choxi gave him and threw it over his head and wings. He wanted to flee, but he had come this far. Even if he was afraid, he couldn’t run away.
“Show yourself,” the man called. He was close, just on the other side of the tree.
Alex slid around the trunk, trying to keep it between them. He took every step with as much care as he would if he were trying to stay hidden from Jequn.
The man stopped and examined the place Alex landed when he fell from the tree. He looked around. “I don’t appreciate visitors spying on me from the forest,” he said. “It’s rude.”
Alex clung to the cape shielding him and took a deep breath. He had to do this. He stepped out from around the tree and faced the man who might be his real father.
“I’m sorry,” Alex said softly. “I didn’t mean to spy.” He kept his gaze lowered.
The man tilted his head and looked at Alex, all covered in sap and twigs, hiding beneath a well worn brown and white cape. “Oh,” he laughed. “You’re just a boy.” He smiled and stepped forward. “You’re an awful long way from home. Did you fly all the way here?”
“Yes, sir,” Alex muttered. He couldn’t bring himself to look at the man.
“You must be hungry, then. My name is Sachiel. Would you like to come inside and share a meal with my family?”
Tears filled Alex’s eyes. He was too overcome with emotion to speak, so he just sniffled and nodded, then followed the man across the valley and into his home.
Five little girls sat at the dining table inside the house, and five sets of eyes stared at Alex when he entered. They were clearly sisters, all with the same light brown skin and thick black hair as the oldest. The baby continued squishing oatmeal into her cheeks as she watched him, but none of the others moved.
“Go ahead and place your things by the door,” Sachiel said. “Mieke, please set another place for our guest.”
“Yes, Papa.” The oldest girl got up and took another plate from the cupboard. She sat it on the table while Sachiel put the bundle of wildflowers in a vase by the open window.
Alex stood by the door, uncertain. He felt like an intruder in their home. Maybe it would be best if he left, before he did something he would regret.
Sachiel came over and smiled at him. “It’s okay. We have enough to share.”
Alex nodded and inhaled deeply. He removed the cloak over his wings with trembling fingers. While he folded it and placed it on the floor, one of the twin girls giggled and whispered to the other, “Look at his wings!”
Sachiel gave them a look with a raised eyebrow, and they quieted.
Alex took the bag Choxi had given him and held it out to Sachiel. “Here,” he mumbled. “For you.”
“For me?” Sachiel took the bag and carried it over to the counter. “Oh, it’s from Old Choxi. You met her?” He glanced back. “Is she doing well?”
Alex nodded and shuffled his feet, remaining by the door. The girls were all still watching him. He wished he had spent a little more time mending his torn shirt. He tried to smooth his hair down, but the sap and pine needles made that difficult.
Sachiel opened the bag and laid the contents out on the counter. There was a little book, a package of wheat flour, a bundle of fabric, and some mixed spices. There were also several hard little maple candies, which Sachiel showed to the girls. It was the only thing that turned their attention away from Alex.
“Papa, can we eat them now?” the second oldest asked excitedly.
“After dinner tonight,” he promised. “As long as you don’t argue with each other for the rest of the day.”
“We promise!” the twins squeaked in unison.
“Thank you for bringing this,” Sachiel told Alex. “Choxi doesn’t often send guests my way, but if she trusts you, then so do I. These are my daughters, Mieke, Millie, twins Malia and Mulin, and baby Molly. Girls this is… Well, I didn’t catch your name.”
“Alex,” he whispered.
“Just Alex?” Sachiel asked, glancing briefly at the boy’s wings.
“Alexiel,” he said, “b-but Alex is fine.”
Sachiel lifted the wooden bowl of boiled roots from the counter and placed it on the table. The four older girls immediately started to eat, while the baby continued smushing oatmeal into her mouth with her little fists. Sachiel tucked his long black hair behind his ear and smiled fondly at his daughters. Then he looked to Alex. “Come sit with us, Alex. I’m curious to hear what brings you out this far.”
Alex bit his lip and took a step closer. He tugged at the frayed edge of his sleeves, wishing he could just disappear.
This was too hard.
What had he been thinking?
Every voice in his head told him to run away, but he forced himself to look up at Sachiel’s dark blue eyes. Alex swallowed hard, and before his courage could abandon him, blurted, “You’re my father.”
For several moments, no one made a sound, except the baby, who continued sucking oatmeal off her hands. Sachiel opened his mouth to speak, then closed it, licked his lips, and tried again. “You think I’m your father?” he asked. His brow creased in confusion. “Why would you think that?”
“My mother told me a-about a man. Siel. That’s you… right?”
“I- well, yes, but that was only an alias.” Sachiel sighed and rubbed the back of his neck. He could see that Alex was on the verge of tears, so he spoke gently. “You mother might have me confused with someone else. What is her name?”
With a sniff, Alex said, “Liliel.”
Sachiel blinked. His wings spread as he slumped back against the counter for support. “Liliel?” he whispered, blue eyes wide. He touched his fingertips to his lips, lost in thought. “Lily… I haven’t seen her since…” He looked at Alex again. “How old are you?”
“Tw-” Sachiel’s eyes lost focus and his lips silently moved as he calculated. He broke from the daze after a moment and stammered, “B-B-But she was married. Why would- How did- It’s not-” He covered his mouth and just stared at Alex for a moment. “Are you really Lily’s son?”
Alex nodded and lowered his black eyes. “Yes. She told me everything.”
“Papa, is it true?” asked the oldest girl sitting at the table.
The second oldest scoffed. “Of course it’s true, Mieke. He’s got Papa’s hair and wings.”
Mieke turned on her sibling. “Lots of people have black hair and wings, Millie,” she retorted. “Doesn’t mean they’re all Papa’s children.”
Millie stuck out her tongue. “Not all. Just this one,” she said. “Look at his face. Papa would look just like that if he cried all the time.”
“Huh,” said Mieke. “You’re right.”
Alex’s cheeks flushed under the scrutiny.
“Girls,” Sachiel scolded. “Be nice.”
“Sorry, Papa.” The little girls attempted to appear apologetic, but they had made up their minds. The twins looked between their older sisters and Alex, trying to figure out what they missed.
Sachiel exhaled slowly, blowing a strand of hair back from his face as he did. He examined Alex again, then said, “You really are my son, aren’t you?”
Alex nodded and swiped his palm across his eyes before he could really start crying. “I am.”
Without warning, Sachiel stepped forward and pulled Alex into a tight hug. It was startling, but there was nothing malicious or expectant about the embrace.
For the first time Alex could remember, he felt comfortable being touched. He pressed his face against his father’s chest as tears poured from his eyes and his shoulders shook with repressed sobs.
“Welcome home, Alex,” Sachiel murmured while he stroked his son’s black hair. “Welcome home.”
Eventually Alex was able to stop crying. He joined his father and sisters at the table. He was too overcome with emotions he didn’t know how to process to speak, but none of them seemed to mind. One of the twins slid closer to him throughout the meal, until she was practically tucked under his wing. She looked up with bright, happy eyes. “I always wanted a brother,” she said, and hugged his arm. She clung to him for the rest of the meal.
That afternoon, Alex sat beside the garden with baby Molly while Sachiel and Mieke tended the new plants. Millie and the twins kept running off and finding flowers or interesting rocks to bring back to Alex, but they were too full of energy to stay in one place long. The baby attempted to eat nearly everything within reach, so Alex spent most of the time just holding her up and listening to her babble.
Sachiel sent Mieke off to play with her sisters when the little girl accidentally uprooted a carrot rather than a weed. He got the new shoot planted again, then brushed the dirt off his hands and came over to Alex. He lounged in the grass beside him, and held his arms out for Molly. The squirming baby tottered over to Sachiel and used his long black hair to pull herself up close to his face. She grabbed and pinched at his nose and ears, but Sachiel barely appeared to notice.
“You’re probably wondering about their mother,” he said while little fingers tugged at his cheek.
Alex nodded. He was, but it didn’t seem like something he could ask.
“She died,” Sachiel said. “Nearly a year ago, just after Molly was born.”
“I’m sorry,” said Alex.
Sachiel nodded. “We all miss her. Mara was an amazing woman.”
Alex pulled a blade of grass from the ground. “Was she… was she a Homm?”
“Yes,” said Sachiel. “She was beautiful and strong, just like our daughters.” He smiled at Alex. “I think she would have liked you.”
It was hard to look at Sachiel when he was being so kind. Alex focused on plucking more grass from the ground at his side. “Is it really okay if I stay?”
“Well… Won’t your mother be worried about you?”
Alex shook his head, but didn’t say anything. He wove the long strands of grass together with the flowers the girls brought him.
Sachiel quietly watched Alex while Molly continued pulling his hair and pinching his cheeks. He only moved his head away once, when she tried to put a finger in his eye. After a while, the baby teetered around Sachiel’s side and wiggled under his wing. He raised it enough for her to fit, then pulled it tight around her, cradling her in the warmth of his feathers. She nestled against his back and began sucking her thumb. She was asleep almost instantly.
Alex finished weaving a flower crown of yellow blossoms. He sat it aside and glanced at Sachiel. The man gave him a warm smile.
“You can stay with us for a while,” Sachiel said, “but I’ll warn you that when the girls see what you’ve made, they’re not going to leave you alone until they each have one.”
The corner of Alex’s mouth tugged up. He started work on the next flower crown while he sat beside his father and listened to the peaceful sounds of the valley.