The eagles were back.
They circled in a sky the color of bleached bone, black as omens and merciless as the desert sun. Some folk, educated folk, might have known them for eagles by the shape of their wings and tail; the bear folk might have smelled them even with the wind shredding their scent trails to tatters. Still others might have watched how the birds rode the air, and so known they weren’t buzzards or kites or whatever birds picked bones in this wretched land.
Marrok of the Wolves knew none of these things, but he knew they were eagles just the same.
The hafts of the heavy twin axes on his back creaked in their leather bindings as he set his fingers to the red cliff and climbed, climbed as he had for a month and more. The cliffs and canyons just went on and on, every butte higher and thinner than the one that had preceded it, as if he were climbing laboriously to the sun itself. He felt like a squirrel on these cliffs. His head ached from straining his ears, listening for the plummeting, shrieking dive of one of the eagles, and his back prickled constantly.
If you climbed as fast as a squirrel, maybe I could get my teeth in them this time, his wolf commented irritably, and Marrok laughed aloud, and hoped the eagles heard it. Let them come. First Fang would warn him and there would be another set of talons to add to his pouch.
In a land scorched bare by the sun and scouring wind, Marrok seemed to bring a breath of the north with him, as if he moved in his own small, personal climate. Tall and wide as the monoliths that ringed the hillforts of his home, he was also just now filthy as a boarman, the mud that protected his pale skin from the sun cracked and seamed in a thousand small riverbeds. His long blond hair in its topknot was tangled and dusty, sweat turning the silver strands to steel. The loose linen of his trousers and tunic felt strange to a man accustomed to leather and wool, but the merchants had been right. He would have died long ago if he had gone dressed like a northman into the desert.
“The heat! The heat!” Trader Baba Gorian had told him, holding up two plump hands as if horrified at the bare thought of it. Marrok had met the round-faced, potbellied little merchant on the Gray Gull, crossing the drowned sea between Dunning Town and Merellil. To his own surprise as much as anyone else’s, they had become fast friends. “Heat such as you have never felt, my northern friend, unless you climbed into the old fires of Mount Uora. You must dress as we do, light cloth to catch the wind and cover your head. Your furs,” the little man added with a covetous glance at the great silver wolfskin on Marrok’s back, “would more than pay for them.”
So Marrok had sold his spare leathers, woolens, and furs, but the wolfskin remained precisely where it was, even into the worst of the desert heat. Not for gold or rubies would he have parted with it. Better to have his hands cut off with his own axes.
He still missed his other furs and even clung a little sentimentally to his belt, boots, and the many pouches strung on his person; his mother and sisters had woven, beaded, or embroidered every inch of them, and they were all he had of home. His youngest sister Alodie wasn’t quite up to a working full pouch yet, but he kept the scrap of buckskin she had embroidered wrapped around his belt, a wolf howling under a full moon worked in small, ragged stitches.
He would have cheerfully parted with the string of blue stone beads hung on his belt, but those were duty, and signified his intentions in these lands for any with eyes to see.
Stone chips rattled in their hollows as his heavy boots thudded onward, the westering sun beating on his back and shoulders. He didn’t like this place. It was too empty, too open, too quiet. He hadn’t seen a tree in days, not even one of the dusty, twisted little shrubs that lined the caravan route. It felt like a dead place. At home the wind drifted through the branches of the trees and made them whisper among themselves, the tree-speech that was just this side of actual words. Here there was only wind, and dust, and silence.
It was easy to sink into a thoughtless haze in the heat. His mind roved forests sunk deep in silent snow, listened to the crackling of the hearth-fire and the distant thunder of the great falls of the Ciraferr River that never froze, even in the coldest weather.
First Fang was suddenly alert, as if the wolf’s ears had pricked up and his nose lifted, sniffing.
They’re coming, he said, an instant before Marrok heard the whistling of the wind in their wings.
No squirrel could have swarmed faster up the cliff face. He flung himself sideways, trusting the whole weight of his body to one hand, and heard the crack of the eagle’s scoring claws on the stone beside him, saw the wildly flapping shadows of its wings. There was no time even to turn his head. He picked another way up the cliff face with his eyes, his big hands moving, hauling him upward in huge lunges. In his ears First Fang shouted up, up, up!
Then he was at the top, rolling over and over with the shadow of another eagle falling on him like an eclipse. Another set of claws raked the dust beside his head, and the bird hissed at him, striking out again and again, flapping away as Marrok came to his feet. His hands leapt to the hafts of his axes and First Fang bounded free of his back in a shimmering haze of wolfskin. They whirled together with the same joyous, shouted thought: finally!
More eagles came in a rush that blotted out the sun, their claws outstretched and eyes glittering, their enormous wings swept back in their dive. It was the talons that Marrok always saw first, enormous, black, and cruel. He wasn’t sure what the eagle would do if it actually caught him—claw him to death? Rip him open with its beak? Carry him off to a high nest of hungry eaglets?—but he doubted he would be awake to protest. The strength of the eagles was in the initial attack, the stunning, blinding speed of their dive, backed by the full weight of the giant birds.
There was a single instant for him to turn and brace his feet, and then the first one was on him. He swung the axes up and planted them in the bird’s belly with a wet crunch, slamming the bird into the rusty earth. The wolf was a silver shadow behind the arc of the axes, snatching the second eagle by its talons and dragging it out of the air.
On the ground there was no contest. No bird could turn fast enough to pose a threat to a wolf, but the third eagle was still coming and the world was suddenly a flurry of wings and dust and screeching. A claw raked over his shoulder and First Fang snarled, lost in the buffeting of their wings as if he had plunged into a nightmare chicken coop.
His first eagle dead, Marrok whooped and charged, his axes singing as he chopped into the others, blood flying. First Fang bit and tore and spat feathers, blood and saliva spraying from his muzzle. They were chickens, he told Marrok fiercely, stupid, clucking chickens! Leaping away from the dead birds, he snarled up at the sky, his teeth yawning white and sharp as he looked at the dark shapes circling high above.
“Come down!” Marrok shouted gleefully. “Come down, there’s still room in my pouch for your claws!”
For a long moment he waited, but the eagles did nothing but circle, wide wings stretched in lazy arcs. He hadn’t expected them to. His skin tingled as if affirming itself alive and unscored, and First Fang quivered from nose to tail, his breath coming in harsh pants, fur bristling.
Not aeggacor, First Fang said finally, and pushed one of the dead birds with his nose. Not heart-brothers.
“We still can’t eat them.” If they had been beastlings like himself, eagles bound to a human as First Fang was bound to him, then they would have carried a human on their back, and Marrok would likely still be dodging a grief-maddened skewering. But then, if they’d been beastlings, they wouldn’t have attacked to begin with. The sickness was in the red lands too, then.
He felt a twinge of regret as he looked at the carcasses. The birds were beautiful, the plumage on their breasts snowy white, their wings and tails alternating hues of amber, honey brown, and a deep, glossy chestnut. Feathers littered the ground and he lifted one, marveling at the sheer size of it: nearly four feet long. There were a few whole and unbloodied feathers of similar size and he tied them in a bundle at his belt, where they hung oddly weightless.
He bent to take bloodier trophies next, methodically cutting off the talons one by one to add to his bloodstained pouch. At his side, First Fang watched the sky, blue eyes glaring, but his nose twitched at the scent of blood. The only fresh meat they had in days, he complained, and Marrok was going to leave it for the scavengers.
“Would you want me to skin a dead wolf for its fur? Even a wild one?” Marrok asked absently, and the wolf subsided.
It was good work. Bloody work, but he added twenty-four talons to his pouch and then paused, watching the sky for another long moment. The sun was well past its zenith and the shadows were lengthening, the long fingers of the peaks stretching like wavering, shadowy hands over the earth.
He turned and began to walk east once more.
First Fang padded after him for a few paces before he leaped again. The wolf floated in midair, arrested and shimmering, lost in a silver haze, and then he was wolfskin, snarling mouth and glaring eyes thrown back at the sky. For all the size of the size of his fur—and First Fang was a giant of a wolf, making his southern kin look like coyotes—he was almost weightless on Marrok’s back, as if the wolf was not hanging from his shoulders but hovering just above them. Always.
Well, so long as you don’t mean to stay in this place, First Fang amended.
* * *
The caverns of the stone dreamers were an eerie place.
With a rush of wings, Iolië landed lightly in the entrance of the tunnel, her bare feet kicking up puffs of fine red dust. She was small even for a maiden of the Eagles, lean and sinewy and light enough for her beast to bear in one claw, though Nuatolir would never be so careless. A whirlwind of feathers swept around her as soon as both feet were on the ground and a feathery mantle settled on her shoulders, topped by an open, screaming beak and fierce golden eyes. She was a beastling, and the headdress of her quavfarië was her pride and her heart.
If they dream the future, shouldn’t someone be expecting us? Nuatolir remarked satirically, his voice a reedy, whistling tenor in her mind. He would have preferred to walk on his own legs, but the ceilings were far too low to accommodate one of the great eagles.
They ought to have servants at least. Blinking in the dimness, she peered down the tunnels. It was much cooler inside, with sunlight spilling through angled shafts in the ceiling to illuminate the entrance in a gentle golden light. Over the years the wind had scooped out fantastically colored hollows in the stone, red and pink and yellow in striations like the ribbon candies sold in the Highhome markets. The colors and odd angles deceived the eye; it was hard to guess at depth and distance. After a moment of pained silence, she called aloud.
The only reply was the low moan of the wind. No, not a moan; something else echoed through the tunnels. Breathing. It sounded like the deep, slow inhalation and exhalation of a sleeper, as though some giant were dreaming far below the earth.
“Hello?!” She called again, her black brows drawing together in displeasure. She stamped her foot. She would not be insulted, left to wait like some petitioner. “I am Princess Iolië Highheart, and you will come when I call!”
The breathing stopped. From her left she could hear a dusty sort of shuffling, and the breathing resumed as a small shape appeared, clad in a shapeless robe that had been a pale blue or gray before its wearer rolled around in the red dust. The dreamer moved with the slow and careful hobble of the very very old, and after a moment, Iolië went to meet her, more from impatience than compassion.
The dreamer was a woman, her bent head silver with age and as well-dusted as her robe, her face seamed and wrinkled as the desiccated riverbed of the lost Ünamayat. Her eyes were half-lidded and sleepy, drifting past Iolië to the tunnel opposite, to the ceiling, and then slowly settling on her face.
“Tea.” She said, with a vague note of accusation. “You didn’t bring any tea.”
“I am here for my dream,” Iolië said stiffly. She was wearing the imperial white, which was forbidden to all but the Emperor’s immediate relations; surely even a dotty old woman wouldn’t mistake her for a serving girl. “I and my eagle, the Lord Nuatolir, have flown two days for it.”
“Oh? Your Lordship.” The old woman bobbed a courtesy to Iolië’s headdress and wandered past her as if she hadn’t heard any of the rest of it, her mutters drifting behind her. “Have to fetch the tea myself, I suppose. Never remember the tea, and if they do, no sugar.”
Iolië watched her go, flummoxed. Automatically she glanced down the other tunnels in the vain hope that someone else might be coming, and then strode after the old woman, breaking into a trot when she shuffled around a corner. In a place like this it wouldn’t take more than a few paces to lose her altogether, and she seemed entirely capable of meandering outside and over a cliff, or falling down a privy closet.
So she nearly ran the old lady down as she turned the corner, halting so abruptly she rose on tiptoe. The dreamer carried a full cup of tea in each hand and pursed her wrinkled lips to puff away the steam, depositing one cup in Iolië’s hand.
“Hot,” she warned, shuffling past. The cup was steaming hot, the tea a foaming green the color of jade, and Iolië peered down the empty tunnel. There was no fire or kettle in sight. Setting the cup down on the floor, she darted after the old woman.
“You summoned me,” she said, planting herself in front of the dreamer. “The stone dreamed of me. This is how you treat the daughter of Emperor Catalqua, sister of Emperor Virahual?”
The old woman squinted at her, sipped, and then pointed with her cup.
“You aren’t the tea girl.”
“I am your Princess!” Iolië erupted, and Mirovië had the effrontery to interrupt her.
“I know who you are.” She lifted a hand to touch Iolië’s cheek, and Iolië was uncertain enough to permit it, flinching. The old woman’s hand was warm from her tea cup, the pads of her fingers worn away to baby softness. “Bastard Princess of the lowest arch. Iolië Halfheart.”
Iolië jerked her head back and stepped away, Nuatolir’s golden feathers ruffling on her shoulders. Wholeheart. Highheart, her eagle hissed fiercely. Child of Quahir who was First.
“Highheart,” Iolië hissed, her dark eyes flashing. “I could have your heart for daring to say such a thing, lowborn.”
“You could, you could. Would you though?” The old woman knuckled her eyes and said around a jaw-cracking yawn, “Highborn. Lowborn. C-copper kettles and silver spoons, it’s all nonsense.”
Iolië stiffened as the old woman’s eyes lifted to her face, a face that was too dark, with the coarse wide features of a peasant. Her father the Emperor had once loved a farmer’s widow, a lowborn woman whose complexion too clearly spoke of generations of laborers darkened by the sun, and given birth to a daughter nearly as copper-skinned as she. It was proof that the Emperor had loved her mother that he had acknowledged his daughter and given her the Highheart name, but among the pale, pinch-faced highborn of the Cloud Court, Iolië stood out like a scorch mark.
“Mmm, you would.” The old woman pursed her lips and nodded, answering her own earlier question. “You would take the heart of anyone who struck you wrong, or right, as may be. You’re half a Highheart, Princess, but you don’t have to be a Halfheart forever, you know.”
“My dream,” Iolië snapped.
“Yes, yes. I’m Mirovië, of the House of Dunes. I’ll take you to see it.”
It was good to have a name. Iolië seethed as she followed the dreamer down into the darkness. To be summoned by a stone dreamer was rare; it meant the earth itself had taken notice of her. Nuatolir had swelled like a peacock when the messenger came for them. But she—they, Nuatolir corrected—hadn’t flown over half the red lands to be insulted by a dusty old lunatic.
In the dark and twisting tunnels, Iolië soon lost all sense of direction, moving from one pool of flickering torchlight to the next. Soon it seemed they were pools, that she was wading through the blackness like deep water, her limbs caught in slow currents until she broke the surface and breathed in the light.
The sound of breathing was deep and thunderous, louder and greater inhalations than any she had ever drawn. She inhaled with it and felt the air fill her to her fingertips, as if she were a container for whatever cool and gentle breezes moved in this dark place. She was sinking, she was sleeping, she was the dark, wrapped in the dreams of the sleeping stone. She was the stone, dreaming under a blanket of earth and grass. The sun was a distant warmth and below it was the raucous calls and endless beating steps of everything that moved, fleet and light, heavy and ponderous. There was the song of birds and the call of beasts, the dying struggle of an antelope in the jaws of a lion, the mute agony of a doe brought down by a wolf. It was the killing season. Later would be the time of births.
In places the soil ran thin and the stone was bared to the sun, naked shoulders the angry red of a man laboring at midday, his skin stinging in the heat. Here the stone was most nearly awake and listening, alive to the touch of wind and sand, scoured and shaped by them. She felt it as the shaping of herself. Hollow places, rough edges, arid regions where nothing grew and change came only with the wearing away of endless years.
Barefoot, she stood in a city the years were working upon, its towers cast down and its buildings roofless, the sun stretching long shadows of its desolation across the baked red earth. Sand drifted through empty streets and blew gently past her, ruffling the skirt of her white bari. Nuatolir was with her, she could see the shadow of his beak over her head and feel his feathers on her shoulders, but he was a distant presence and no more part of her than her bangles or girdle.
For a long time she waited while the sun beat upon her shoulders and the sand drifted, watching the eastern horizon. There was something there, an enormous shape with a humped, furry back. She felt a moment of revulsion until she realized it was a wolfskin, nearly as big as the man that wore it.
He hadn’t been one for long. He was just so tall, and broad as few Eagle men were, the People of the Air tending to a lean and wiry build that was no burden to their beasts. There was a little boyish softness around his eyes and jaw, but the toys strapped to his back were men’s toys, the glittering axe blades wider than her forearms.
He was also filthy.
She turned as he approached, falling into step beside him. Her head rose only to the slope of his shoulder and she could see the dirt, the mud, the sweat running down his bare chest and arms in streams. He stank. His jaw was covered in a patchy stubble that might one day connect into a full beard, and his eyes were so pale she wondered if he could see properly. His long hair was a tangled knot on top of his head, shot with tiny braids, ragged and unkempt. The worst kind of barbarian.
They walked. Somehow she kept pace with his long strides, and he never stopped, never flagged, the ground rolling away beneath them and the sun circling overhead. The horizon changed and grasses broke through the earth, long and golden, a place that was nowhere in the empire of the Eagles. This was a place of thundering hooves and vast herds that swept over the grassy sea like waves, meeting the foaming swells of a distant ocean. So far, some inner Iolië marveled, an Iolië that knew maps and distances and delighted in tracing the outlines of distant lands with her fingertip.
The barbarian was still beside her as they crossed oceans and rivers and finally stood in the gentle surf of a sandy beach, the water lapping at her bare toes. Before them rose trees so tall, it seemed they must rival the pillars of the city of Highhome. Their trunks were smooth and silver-gray and their roots fanned out in ridges that would have risen even over Nuatolir’s head. In the distance, she saw a giant among giants, a tree whose top must have scraped the ceiling of the sky, whose roots surely sank to the bedrock of the world.
The barbarian’s lips moved soundlessly, shaping the words, the lonely tree. He looked down at her and extended his hands. In one he held a string of beads the color of aquamarine, polished and big around as her thumb. In the other he offered a bundle of eagle feathers nearly as tall as she was, and blood welled from their tips like red ink.
These two objects wavered in her sight and Nuatolir woke with a screech. Blue beads! Iolië screamed at him in her mind, even as he shrieked, feathers! Pinions of the People of the Air!
Then the wind rose in a howl that drowned them both out, high and deafening, blowing away the trees and the sun and the sky and all the light. They were in the dark and the stone was suffocating, driving them back through tunnels where all the torches had gone out. Nuatolir’s talons clutched her shoulders and his mighty wings swept open to catch them both.
She opened her eyes and she was standing in the entrance of the cavern of the stone dreamers, the sun streaming gently onto walls polished as delicately as the curved insides of a seashell. Before her, Mirovië took another slow sip of tea.
“It was a dream,” Iolië said stupidly, and thrust away the tea cup that had somehow reappeared in her hand. “That was my dream? That—it was a dream, wasn’t it? Was it the tea?”
“How could it be? You didn’t drink any,” the old woman pointed out, aggrieved. “Gave you a full cup and you pushed it away twice without so much as a sip. It’s no way to go through life.”
“That was my dream. I saw it.” Iolië had scarcely heard her, speaking though numbed lips. “He had blue beads. And a wolfskin.”
“Oh, like one of the old stories,” Mirovië said, with a sigh at the romance. “Oxatlü and Roswein. Rengar and Jarixuani. Ütuacal and Gwinna. Though I suppose that didn’t turn out so well. Whenever the need is great, the Eagle and the Wolf are called together.”
“The wolf murdered one of the great eagles!” Iolië exploded. “He was carrying a bundle of its feathers!”
“Many eagles,” Mirovië corrected. “He cut off their talons as trophies.”
Which rendered even Nuatolir speechless.
“It’s a warning.” Iolië’s eyes burned, and it was an effort to steady her voice. There was only one reason that a man of the Wolves would be coming, bearing the beads that represented the ancient alliance between their two peoples, and oh, how the Cloud Court would rock with laughter when they heard. “The stone has dreamed of the danger and is warning that he’s coming, the killer of eagles.”
She was a proud girl, but a girl nonetheless, and it would have taken a dreamer more deeply asleep than Mirovië to miss it.
“I expect you don’t need an old woman to tell you what the dream meant, Your Highness.” The old woman knuckled her eyes, stifled another yawn, and generally gave the girl time to gather herself. The gleam of tears had evaporated as thoroughly as water in the desert by the time she looked up again. “Warn your brother the Emperor of the wolf’s coming, but mind you ask what he knows of the murder of eagles, and see what he says.”
“Why? What will he say?”
“Stone didn’t dream that part. Just the bit about the blue beads, the joining, the lonely tree…” While she spoke, she slid off her stool and dusted off her ancient backside, leaving Iolië to wonder in a wave of unreality where the stool had come from and whether she was still dreaming. Maybe she was still in her bed in Highhome and the whole journey had been a dream.
“What’s the lonely tree?”
“I speak stone, not tree.” Mirovië bent to pick up Iolië’s cup, setting it beside her own on the seat of the stool, and then lifted the lot. “You’ve got your dream, then. Good? Traditional to make an offering for the continued wisdom of the stone dreamers. Ten gold pieces is customary. Safe journey.”
The last few words trailed over her shoulder as she shuffled back the way she had come, and Iolië watched her go, stricken. Then she whirled and ran, flinging the pouch of gold she’d bought into a little alcove by the cavern mouth as she passed and bursting into the sunlight. It was as bright and hot as if it had only been moments since she entered the caverns, and maybe it had been. Her bare feet pounded over the red, stony earth, and the cliff yawned over open air ahead of her. Without hesitation, she stretched out her arms and flung herself into the wind.
“Take me away, Nuatolir!”
His enormous wings spread and his talons caught her arms, closing tight, rising with a jerk that told her he was as angry as she was, and as afraid.
Copyright 2017-2018 Melissa J. Cave. All Rights Reserved. All characters, locations, and content remain exclusively the property of their creator and are not to be duplicated elsewhere except under fair use conditions.