With extreme care the artist polished the last of the flight feathers on the outspread wing. His fingers trembled with exhaustion, his arms and hands ached, and his legs were like rubber beneath him. He’d hardly eaten or slept since he’d begun, and by now he was famine thin; yet despite everything he’d suffered in the past weeks his spirit was singing with triumph, and a weak thread of music passed his lips as he applied the cream and worked it over the feather before buffing it up with a soft cloth.
He stood back to survey the gleaming crystal. At last it was finished; he’d achieved the impossible, and although, in addition to his physical suffering, he was now as poor as the beggars in the market-place, it was worth it!
It had begun over three months ago when he’d had the first dream. Without knowing how he’d got there he’d found himself standing on a ridge of the great Gohesh, the ice mountain at the centre of the Polar Island, and in the face of the glacier before him was the mouth of a cave. His first impulse was to go in and see what or who was there, but as if he heard a voice speaking to him, he realised it was forbidden, so he waited.
From the peak far above him the chill silence was broken by a shrill cry, a cry which pierced him to the heart and made him shudder with fear and longing. Looking up he was struck with horror and delight as a great eagle sprang outwards from the summit and came swooping and soaring towards him through the vastness of the air. It turned and glided over his head, its great talons almost touching his hair, and then with supreme precision and astonishing grace it landed on an outcropping of ice and fixed him with its penetrating deep blue eyes.
The artist in him was overcome with such awe that while he gazed at it he forgot to breathe; for this was the mighty Ice Eagle of ancient legends. Its gleaming feathers were pure white, with a crest of silver on its head, and beneath its wings soft down of an almost transparent ice-blue. It lifted its head and cried again, and again he shuddered at the sound. Although it had no words he felt the pain and sorrow, the desolation which was its source. With a mighty downbeat of its wings it lifted into the air and circled him twice more before returning to Gohesh’s summit with a last heart-rending cry.
Although it had been a balmy summer night, he’d woken shivering with cold, and found his pillow wet with tears. He rose and pulling on a warm jacket, made a hot drink, before going to his workroom to find a book which might tell him more than he could remember about Ice Eagles. All he knew came from the children’s fables his mother had told him when he was small. In those the Eagles were Kings of the air, ruling over the world and punishing other birds’ acts of evil with severity. Now he discovered that the birds had long been hunted for their feathers and talons. The former to decorate headdresses, hats, cloaks and trophies, the latter to be made into tools, since they were harder than any known metal or stone.
As soon as the day had properly begun he went into the city and in a dusty corner of the old museum he found an Ice Eagle in a glass case. Although it dwarfed all the other specimens it was sad and moth-eaten, and quite unexpectedly he’d been filled with rage at its needless death and now its shameful neglect. The curator could tell him little about it other than that they were now extinct; this was the last of the species having been shot by some Polar explorers twenty-five years before.
Despite his best efforts he discovered little more, and although he combed every gallery and bookshop he was unable to find one reliable picture of an Ice Eagle anywhere; they were all bland, prettified or made cartoonish. Eventually he gave up and returned home to attempt to work on his latest commission –
a statuette of the Governor’s daughter, which was to be given to him on his upcoming birthday. But he was consumed with restlessness, and the image of the Eagle kept coming between him and his work, and its haunting cry filled his ears even in the noisy bustle of city life.
By the time it was too dark to work he was more than usually tired, and went to bed early, hoping for a good night’s sleep. But it was not to be; the dream was repeated twice more that night, and every night that followed, until his friends began to remark how ill he looked, and advised him to get out of the city and have a rest. Somehow, he wasn’t sure how, he managed to complete the statuette – though he knew it wasn’t as good as it could have been, and felt ashamed at receiving the large amount of money the Governor’s wife paid him for it.
However, he didn’t pay it into the bank. Driven by his dreams, he took the money, withdrew everything from his account, and armed with both went in search of a large piece of crystal. He was met with disbelieving stares when he explained what he wanted, some merchants laughing at him and others, concerned by his thin grey face, advising him to go and see a doctor; but he persisted, and eventually an enormous piece of blue-white crystal was delivered to the courtyard outside his workshop and placed on the white granite plinth he’d prepared for it. It was as tall as a man and twice as wide, and when it was finally in place his exhilaration at having acquired it disappeared, and he stared at it in dismay, wondering how on earth he could transform it, and whether it could be worked with any tool he owned.
As if the Eagle were in the courtyard with him, its desolate cry echoed in his mind, and he turned and hurried to the dusty museum where he’d seen the sad, neglected specimen. He found the curator and persuaded him to search the many drawers and boxes in the backroom stores. After several hours they were rewarded. Lying in a tray was a full set of Ice Eagle talons, protected by old greying wool. He seized them, and despite all the curator’s remonstrations took them away with him to a wood and metalworker friend of his. And two days later he laid out on his table a set of eight tools made from Ice Eagle talons. They would surely do the job.
That night he went to sleep hoping he would dream again, for now instead of dread, he was filled with energy and hope. He knew it was pointless to make his usual preparatory sketches or clay models; this time the work must spring from within himself, and only the Ice Eagle of Gohesh could give him what he needed.
He dreamed, but not the dream he’d had before. As though the Ice Eagle understood his determination to achieve this task, its cry was filled with triumph, and landing much closer than before, he stood patiently while the artist walked round him and studied him in detail. He even lifted his wings wide, to show the patterning of the feathers on their underside. Finally he flew into the cave, and landing on a low ledge looked back for a second before stepping slowly further in. The artist followed, until he saw, scattered across the floor, the bones and feathers of another Eagle, and entangled with them a steel tipped arrow. All at once he understood, and going down on his knees, touched the feathers gently and with reverence. However, when he rose and turned away the Ice Eagle picked one up and brought it to him. Placing it at his feet he gave a sad, crooning cry and flew out of the cave and away to his lonely eyrie on the summit.
Opening his eyes next morning, the artist was shocked to see a long, silver-white flight-feather lying on his bedcover. He sat up, trembling, not just with cold, but with excitement. He didn’t bother with food, but dressing in haste went down to the courtyard, feather in hand, and, after locking the tall wooden gates against all interruptions, began to carve the crystal. It was hard work; even with the talon tools it was slow and wearisome, and he knew there would be no second chances – it had to be right first time. But it was as if his hands were guided, the images in his mind were as clear as if he were seeing them with his waking eyes, and the shape had grown day by day.
That had been seven weeks ago, and fuelled only by his obsession he had worked almost continually, refusing to admit visitors, or to leave his workshop for more than a moment or two at a time, unless it was to fall onto his bed and dream of the lone Ice Eagle in the far south.
Now he stood back, amazed at what they’d created between them. There, perfect in the detail of every feather, shining in all her glory was the Ice Eagle’s mate, wings spread, ready to soar into the sky. He touched her head gently, looking into the sapphire eyes, then he turned away and slowly made his way to his room and lay down on his bed, his heart and mind at last at peace.
It was a week later that one of his friends came looking for him, and receiving no reply to his knocking, broke in. His apartment was cold and empty, and no sign of him could be found, only a silver-white feather lay on his pillow. The most rigorous search produced nothing except mysteries, and he was finally listed as missing, presumed dead. His works were sold – for the highest prices, his unexpected and unsolved disappearance having pushed their value higher than they’d ever been in his lifetime – but of the crystal eagle there was no sign; not that anyone looked for it, since no-one had seen or heard of it. His friends tried to guess what the white plinth had been intended for, and the merchant who’d sold him the crystal wondered what had become of it.
Ten years later a scientific expedition was mounted to Gohesh, and its members came back full of wonder. They’d found the missing artist laid peacefully in an ice tomb on the mountain’s summit, and guarded by six Ice Eagles, two adults and four youngsters of varying ages. They’d been permitted to come close enough to look at him, and then been firmly escorted away. And one and all said they would never forget the sound of their triumphant cries as they soared together above the mighty peak.
It was decided that Gohesh would forever remain the realm of the Ice Eagles, untrodden by any human foot, its great glacier standing as an eternal memorial to the artist who gave his life to restore theirs.