But some folks are having trouble with the download, so I`ll paste the excerpt here. A note on Acha: in the actual excerpt I was able to denote his thought-speech with the traditional carrot sign used in most sci-fi and fantasy, but this isn`t allowed in blogger, so here I have to use dashes -. Sorry about that; hopefully it won`t be too confusing when he`s thought-speaking. I guess I`ll get to India in my next post.
I will not survive this day.
That much is clear to me as I fly over the tents of The Kingdom’s most skilled warriors. I see tall, hairless Pyrans redirecting their own heat, setting objects about them ablaze. Fold-ear Glacians suck warmth from the ground, turning the grass to ice. Hunched, silent Noctans reach into each others minds to pull out their greatest fears and doubts. All eight Kingdom races and some sub-races are present. The very thought of it makes my wings…I mean my hands shake.
I sit at my desk, looking over an old, tattered manuscript until my black carrion-eater, Acha, (or Strong Beak as he refers to himself), glides in through the tower window and lands on my shoulder. He nibbles affectionately on my ear, trying to cheer me.
-Free Wind see soldiers through Strong Beak’s eyes?- By now I am so used to his thoughts that the images, sensations and emotions he sends me feel like my own.
-Strong Beak and Free Wind slashing and clawing throngs twice big in City Dazar’s streets.-
I chuckle in spite of myself. “I remember it differently.”
Acha cocks his head to one side. -Fresh, luscious smell of carrion coming sunrise.-
I stop laughing. “It’ll be us.”
Acha doesn’t reply. He knows as well as I that this is a suicide mission. We are to act as decoys while the Commander…well, it’s not my place to say. Something important for the Resistance. Many lives at stake.
We sit silently for a moment. The sounds of the others in the fortress begin to die away as they leave. Soon it will just be Acha and me. Like old times.
"How long until the enemy arrives?” I ask him.
“Just enough time to go over the final volume.”
I look down at the bundle of paper before me and stroke the pages. It seems silly that I bothered to write it; it’ll probably be destroyed during the siege. But just in case, I want to make sure I have the story right. After all, it is my history. Or our history, I should say.
Country Mit on Planet Hurma, the Hierarchy in the 221st year of Dictator’s reign
The day I met my best friend, he tried to eat me.
I still remember that day with the sharp, sensory detail of a bird soaring over a valley in search of its next meal. The early morning desert sun beat down on Mother’s dark hair, forming rivulets of sweat that trickled down her neck as she filled a yellow yacherath skin bag with water. She straightened, swinging the skin over her shoulder, a sling and bag of stones across the other.
“Please let me come!” I begged for the third time. “I just want to watch.”
Mother shook her head, pieces of her bun coming loose and flopping about. “A hunt is no place for a ten-year-old girl.”
“Vasaran’s ten and he’s going.”
She sighed. “Your Promised has been training for the hunt his whole life. You, however, have other things to attend to. Like your dance lesson today.”
My shoulders slumped. “I’ll never reach monseera while flouncing around with Kakra Braknee stepping on my heels.”
“Renagada, daughter of Hasar!” Her voice was sharp, but a small smile betrayed her amusement. She turned back to her saddlebags, packing them on the hairless, bluish-purple rump of her bulky bushyan. Its single eye stared at her, awaiting her next silent command. Until the bushyan received it, it was content to run its toothless sucker mouth over the ground, spitting out the sand and ingesting whatever tiny creatures it found. Something rattled in the metal cage lying in the sand beside Mother, but the bars were so close together I couldn’t tell what it was.
“Are you ready, Shira?” My father approached Mother from behind, examining her progress but not bothering to help.
I tried to use my “youngest daughter charm,” as Mother called it, while remaining respectful. “Papa, it would please me greatly to accompany you on the hunt. I promise I will only watch. Please let me!”
He stared past me at the family crest on our East Tower, just to the right of the King’s Tower. It was a common custom of his, perhaps a subconscious habit performed when reflecting on his responsibilities as Commander of the King’s Defenders and lord of our household.
“You may,” he said at last without looking at me.
“Hasar!” Mother fixed her eyes on him, worried, pleading, but he didn’t look at her either.
“I have my reasons, Shira.”
I wanted to run to him and throw my arms around his waist, but knowing this would be inappropriate, I curtsied low and gave the traditional response.
“I thank you most sincerely for your favor, Father. I will always seek to serve you better than your other daughters.”
He nodded, then returned to his bushyan beside the king, whispering something in his ear. The king gave a dismissive gesture with his hand that I took to mean, Do as you wish.
“Hurry and prepare,” Mother instructed, her voice soft and subdued. “The king will wait for no one.” She walked away, probably to check on the other women. A light, fluttering feeling filled my stomach as I drew water from the well into a rough yacherath skin and strapped a knife to my belt. Just a precaution. I didn’t consider the cause of Mother’s concern until several years later. I was her only child and she tended to be overprotective to the point of absurdity. My father, though I’m sure he loved me in his own way, had twenty other children by two other wives. He provided well and cared for us as best he knew how, but unlike many fathers, he refused to pick favorites. With his busy schedule, he treated us all with the same distant affection.
“Why is Weird Eyes allowed to go?” I heard Girma, my fifteen-year-old cousin, whine behind me.
Because I'm smarter than you. I almost turned and said this to her face, but my aunt spoke up for me. “She's a bit young, but I don’t see why she shouldn’t go. She is Kakra Hasar's daughter and Vasaran's Promised, after all. Hunting will most likely be her fate someday.”
Girma sniffed. “Vasaran's bride maybe, but Hasar's daughter? I remember when she was just a babe and one of her eyes turned gray instead of brown, and the other? I hardly know what to call that color. Poor Hasar ordered the religious kakra to ask the gods if she really was his daughter. Maybe they said the wrong prayer. Funny how her mother hasn't had any other children.”
It took all my will to keep my eyes on my preparations and not smack her. Girma never tired of telling that story, but everyone knew I was Hasar's daughter. Full blooded nobility. I could recite my family lineage back fifty generations, better than her. I couldn't help but glare at Girma from the corner of my eye.
She must have taken the look as some kind of confession, for she smirked. “I’ll bet Hasar just let her come along to teach her a lesson, show her she’s not ready for the hunt so she’ll stop nagging him to let her go.” She sighed. “But I suppose they’ll eventually have to let her become good at something useful. Might as well be hunting since the military will never take her. What with her eyes, they'd probably think she was a halfer. Maybe her real father was from The Kingdom.”
“Don't say such things!” my aunt cried, making a sign to ward off evil. “Those Pale Skin demons haven't attacked this castle in over a hundred years. There's no enemy blood running through anyone's veins here. You keep quiet, Girma, and give respect where respect is due.” When my aunt turned her back, I flashed Girma a triumphant grin and she narrowed her beady brown eyes at me.
Mother came back just as I was hoisting myself onto a young bushyan. She saw Girma, gave a curt nod and a dismissive wave of her hand. It was no secret she didn't like her sister's youngest daughter, and Girma had no choice but to obey her and go back to the castle. “Remember, you are only an observer,” Mother told me.
“Leave the real hunting to those of us with experience.”
“What are you stalking today?” I asked.
“Birds.” She reached into the cage beside her and took out a star-diver. It cried out in a shrill voice and tried to fly away but Mother held tightly to the chain around its leg. “Today we’re hunting birds with birds.”
Looking at the star-diver perched on her gloved arm caused the old conflict inside me to flare up again. I remembered the time Mother returned from a hunt with two dead monarants, the animals she used to entertain and protect the king. They looked like bloody heaps dragging behind the hunting party. Mother skinned them for their leather hides. In the desert, nothing can be wasted. I thought Mother’s willingness to sacrifice the lives of her monarants was beyond cruel. But what could I say? If we did not hunt, we’d have no food, and I wanted to share Mother’s fate, the fate of all monara, to control these powerful creatures. So far, though, no beast-bond had occurred for me. I felt as if I had a timepiece filled with sand hanging around my neck. If I didn’t reach monseera by the time I turned fifteen, there would be no hope for me to ever gain a place of honor in the king’s court.
You always find something to be unsettled about, I scolded myself. Just be happy.
I took my place at the back of the hunting party, staying beside Mother’s lumbering bushyan. Being head monara, she always rode behind the other monara to keep an eye on their monarants and take control if necessary. A religious kakra stretched out his arms and chanted to Hizan, the god of the hunt, and we were off, trotting at a good pace.
As we traveled from our oasis, the dirt became sandy and the tall palm trees gave way to cacti and shrubs. There wasn’t much in the way of civilization. Just old rocks stacked on more old rocks that used to be part of a thriving castle town before some ancient siege destroyed it.
I counted the people in the hunting party. Seventeen in all; a fairly large group. Only one of the three divisions of kakra were present, the landed. No, wait, there was one war kakra also, on leave from his commanding duties at some distant battlefield. He seemed a bit sulky, maybe because he wasn’t leading the party. That task fell to the king, my father, and Kakra Vasa. Vasa was Master Hunter and the father of my future husband, Vasaran, who rode beside him. I wished for a brief moment that I could ride near Vasaran and my father, but quickly banished the thought, as women always ride in back of the hunting party. Mother could have easily led the group and found the prey with her monarants, but that would be too easy. It was far more fun, my father often said, to look for the signs and symbols animals leave behind and track them that way. I had no idea what “signs and symbols” accompanied birds, nor would my father ever teach me. Tracking was for men, just as training monarants was for women.
My excitement waned as the searing sun rose higher in the sky. By midday I’d drunk most of my water and there was still no sign of our prey. I felt dizzy from the heat and slackened my pace. It’s hard work to ride a bushyan. Their curved, slick backs and stubby necks make it difficult to find a secure grip. By now my thighs and bottom were sore. Not for the first time in my life, I wished for the old days the story tellers spoke of, when people rode smoothly on hunks of metal that could glide in the air faster than the fastest bird, but those days were long gone. I hated to whine, but I couldn’t help it.
“Mother, how much longer?”
“I don’t know,” she replied.
“It’s not uncommon for a hunt to last all day. You know that.”
I did, but I hadn’t realized how tiring it was. Even worse, I had forgotten to relieve myself before I left the castle. Each bounce on the bushyan made my bladder feel closer to bursting. I lagged further and further behind. Mother tried to stay with me but my father kept calling her, obliging her to keep up with the rest. Finally, Vasa blew a yazar horn, the signal for sighted prey, and everyone bolted forward. I tried to muster my energy and heel my bushyan faster, but it must have sensed my weakness. It stopped by an outcrop of cacti, dug its three hooves into the sand, uncurled the long proboscis above its toothless mouth and stabbed the sharp end into a needle-free part. It drank greedily.
“Go!” I kicked my leather boots into its sides. “Come on now!” But it just kept slurping away.
“Mother, Father!” My throat was so parched the words didn’t carry.
Sliding off the bushyan, I squatted behind the rocks. But relieving my bladder didn’t relieve my anxiety. How could they leave me behind? Don’t they realize I’m missing?
I thought about going back to the castle, but didn’t know where I was. The wind swept our tracks away and there were no distinguishing landmarks. Looking around, my father's “landed” kakra status seemed silly. He may have owned much of the desert surrounding the castle, but what good were piles and piles of sand?
The bushyan started to wander off. “Come back!” I cried. It glanced at me with its lazy eye, then continued on its meandering way. I consider following it but feared I would only become more lost. Bushyans never return to the castle unless they're led back. They would rather roam free, looking for moss to eat.
My throat felt as if I’d swallowed sand. I drank the last bit of my water, which only took the edge off my thirst. The water skin slipping from my fingers, I sat beside a rock. Tears blurred my vision and I lay down.
I’m going to die, I realized.
I felt sick to my stomach. Waves of heat swept over me until their heaviness slid over my eyelids. I saw nothing but darkness.
Something sharp pocked my arm. I jerked awake.
“Acha!” Shrieking, a large black bird hopped off of me, yellow eyes wide. It had a thin layer of gray feathers on its wrinkled head and a curved black beak spattered with little drops of blood. My arm ached and I glanced at it to see a small, shallow wound where the bird tried to dig into my flesh.
“A carrion-eater!” I scooted back. “I’m not dead! Don't touch me!”
The bird stopped “acha-ing” and cocked its head to one side.
-Girl attacking black bird. Fear!-
The image and emotion seemed to be fed to me via some invisible string, traveling from the bird’s head and penetrating my mind.
I shook my head hard. The picture faded but the sensation did not.
“By the gods,” I whispered. “I’ve reached monseera. You’re my monarant!” For an instant my excitement made me forget how feared carrion-eaters were by my people, but I quickly remembered this, waving my arms. “Evil! Go away!”
My gestures, weak as they were, scared the bird. It tried to fly but only managed to flap one wing, while the other remained limp. Its shoulder looked raw, bloody.
I felt a strange, burning sensation in my right shoulder. It was faint, but it caused a surge of empathy to rise within me. Something outside myself seemed to compel me. I felt its pain; how could I not help it? I reached out to it, but it hopped away, snapping its beak.
-Monara whipping birds. Chains. Pain!-
“No, I’m not like that.” I focused on the image of me repairing its wing, tried to send the picture to it by the invisible line between us. The bird stopped hopping, but continued to stare at me with unblinking yellow eyes. How strange! Most carrion-eaters have black eyes, but not this one. It reminded me of my own strange eyes, one amber and the other misty gray, instead of both being dark brown like everyone else’s. I wondered if the other birds made fun of it like my cousins made fun of me.
In mental pictures, I showed it the hunt and me being left behind. With these thoughts, my thirst returned and I slumped against the rock behind me.
The bird looked at me with something akin to sympathy. I couldn’t read any emotion in its eyes, but could sense the bird radiating the feeling at me.
-Black bird wounded above right wing. Trying to fly, looking up at nest and nest mates in palm trees with longing. Compassion.-
I had the impression the bird understood how I felt and wanted to help me.
“How? You can’t fly up and scout out the hunting party.”
It must have sensed my doubt, but it didn’t reply for a moment. Then it looked to the pile of rocks beside us.
This reminded me that birds have excellent eyesight. “Good idea!” When I stood, the top of the bird’s head came just past my knees. Pretty big for a bird, but when I reached out my hand and it hopped on, it was surprisingly light. It didn’t have curved talons like birds of prey, but its nails were still sharp and pierced my bare skin, making me cringe. Something like remorse radiated from it, but I formed the image of it staying perched on my hand, so it didn’t move.
I lifted the bird high above my head. Through its eyes I saw a line of tiny dots in the distance coming back. One of the dots, probably Mother, hurried ahead of the rest.
“Praise be to Hizan,” I whispered to the god of the hunt. All we had to do was wait for them.
I let the bird down and sat beside it on the rock. To keep my mind off my thirst and fatigue, I asked “What’s your name?”
It cocked its head to one side, not understanding my spoken language.
“Oh, um…” I thought about my own name and its meaning. Renagada. Free Spirit or Free Wind; spirit and wind were the same word in the old language. I showed him a mental picture of myself running over the dunes with the wind blowing my hair behind me.
-Understanding. Chick pecking open its shell and leaping out.-
I realized this must be its name. I couldn’t translate it exactly, some combination of “early bird” “determined” and “strong beak.”
“Can I just call you Acha?”
Pointing to the bird, I repeated the word “Acha” several times. It caught on surprisingly fast, for it repeated its name, then added “Rena, Rena!”
I smiled. “Sure, you can call me Rena. By the way, are you a boy bird or girl bird?”
This was harder to articulate in pictures, as I didn’t know the anatomy of a male person, let alone a male bird. I tried different images for a long, frustrated moment. Acha didn’t seem to understand at all, then I finally realized it was my reason for asking that confused it, not my question. I sensed annoyance, as if I were asking something silly like whether it preferred its dinner to have fur or no fur. Acha showed me two birds staring each other down while puffing up their feathers to make themselves look bigger, then two different birds tussling on top of each other.
“All right, I understand! Gender only matters to you in dominance and mating. I was just curious.” I would soon learn that carrion-eaters detest trivial details, though out of respect Acha often humored me. Now was one of those times.
-Strong Beak feeding grown bird and young.-
After puzzling over this and what I knew about some birds, I translated “male” as “food giver” and “female” as “protector.” Acha must be a boy.
How were you separated from your nest mates?
I expected this to make him sad, and though it did, I was surprised by the level of acceptance he felt.
-Monara with sling hurling stone at Strong Beak. Stone striking Strong Beak. Hunters following a wounded bird back to nest and killing nest mates. Many, many birds like Strong Beak sharing nests in palm trees. Strong Beak staying on ground, not returning to them.-
“How noble.” I will tend your wing, protect you, be your nest mate, I promised. But you will always fly free. I will never cage you.
-Mother bird defending chicks from giant fanged yerishma lizard.-
I felt a powerful emotion radiating from him, one of the most intense I’d ever experienced, yet strangely tender. -Honor.-
I knew then he was making a pledge to me: his strength, his talents. His life. Deeply moved, I bowed to him, sending back the same image. Mother bird defending her chicks.
I looked up. The hunting party was in plain sight now, moving with the sluggishness of people returning from a long journey and battle, dragging the carcasses of birds behind them. All except Mother, who heeled her mount ahead of the rest. As she came closer she waved, her hair tousled and her red robe covered with dust. She smiled until she saw Acha perched beside me on the rock.
“I thought I killed that cursed creature!” She pointed at Acha, no doubt commanding the bird on her arm to attack him.
“Stop!” I picked Acha up, letting him rest on my shoulder while ignoring his sharp nails digging into my skin. “It was you, Mother? Acha’s a good bird-- he saved me. How could you want to hurt him?”
“Have you lost your senses?” Mother continued to stare at Acha as if he might attack me any moment. “Carrion-eaters are disdained by the gods!”
“What’s all this noise?” My father came up behind Mother, his clothes and hair dusty and disheveled as well, but he sat straight as ever on the back of his bushyan.
My heart beat in my throat so hard I could barely speak, but I managed to compose myself enough to bow to him. “I have reached monseera, Papa.”
“Why, that’s a fine thing! No need to be upset, Shira.”
Mother took a deep breath, her face a whirlwind of emotion. “It certainly is a fine thing, but we must finish the job I started and kill the carrion-eater now. They attack those who try to control them. Anyone who goes near them dies of horrible diseases and--”
“Nonsense.” My father smiled at me, a gesture typically foreign to his face. Pride swelled within me until he added, “This bird is just a phase, her first monarant. Once she gains others, she will forget the disgusting creature and move on to greater things.”
Country Mit on Planet Hurma, the Hierarchy in the 226th year of Dictator’s reign
I ran over the dunes, the crescent moon’s dim light barely preventing me from tripping over the jagged rocks that lay in wait beneath the sand. My feet and sides burned; I had to stop. Acha flew up behind me and landed on my outstretched leather gauntlet, shuffling up my arm to perch on my padded shoulder. I sensed his pain.
“Sorry.” We’d run nearly half the night. Age, accompanied by its minions of stiff and sore, crept into his joints. Acha’s wounded shoulder had healed long ago, though his wings hung lopsided now, the right lower than the left. Like most carrion-eaters, he couldn’t fly fast or flap for long, but preferred to soar in circles on warm air currents. There weren’t many of these at night, so he had to beat his wings more than he liked. The aches and shortness of breath that plagued him recently only made flying harder.
Now what? I wondered. My first instinct was to head for one of the other Hierarchy planets, but that seemed a bit reactionary. Besides, how could I get there before Father found me? There were no portals I could personally access around here; nothing but cactus and shrubs for that matter. It reminded me of the day I met Acha. Had I been the same insecure ten-year-old I was then, I would have broken into tears. But I was fifteen, a woman now. Or tomorrow I’d be, anyway.
Think, I told myself. If only I could see better…
“Acha, will you fly up?”
I pointed to the sky and formed the mental image of him surveying the desert for people. He immediately did so, forgetting his pain. Birds worship duty, and sometimes he was so diligent I had to stop him from hurting himself.
“Not so high. I want to catch you if you fall.”
Seeing through Acha’s eyes always excited me. To him the world was ten times sharper and twice as colorful. I could see the pale yellow air drafts, which he caught to rise higher. Carrion-eaters are also some of the few birds that have a better sense of smell than people and a whole world of fragrances came alive to me-- distant desert flowers, a twinge of salt in the rocks, the acrid fear of a rodent being crushed by a legless.
After he’d circled a hundred spans up, we could see and smell in fine detail three pack bushyans and an old man and middle-aged woman just north of us. Probably traveling at night to avoid the day’s heat. The middle-aged traveler wore the red of a married woman and a long white scarf that covered her whole face except her eyes, to protect her from sand and wind. But her husband dressed in the billowy pants and tight-fitting, ornate vest of a treasure trader.
I held back. The memory of Mother’s voice warned, “Commoners, not to be trusted.” And to make matters worse, treasure traders. They traveled from planet to planet “collecting” rare items and selling them at outrageous prices. Everyone knew they were nothing better than thieves and vagabonds.
Acha swooped down and perched on my shoulder, chastising me with a sharp “cha!” and nipping my ear. Carrion-eaters have no concept of social class except in terms of territory, who eats first, and who’s allowed to mate with whom. They’re all for banding together to protect themselves.
-Wild boars and fanged lizards attacking Free Wind and Strong Beak.-
“Fine,” I relented, batting his beak away. “We’ll travel with them, but I have to act my status or they’ll be suspicious.” I showed him the image of us heading toward them, followed by me acting friendly and the treasure traders looking at me strangely. He settled back on my shoulder, accepting this compromise without further debate.
I hurried in their direction, but as soon as we drew near enough to see each other’s faces, I slowed to a saunter, head held high and back straight, trying to conceal my nervous trembling.
“The stars' blessing on you, travelers,” I greeted them. “Where are you headed?”
Taking in my blue zeeara, fastened at the shoulder with a silver brooch, the golden bangles lining my arms and all my other jewelry, the old man addressed me with the noble’s title. “The stars' blessing, Kakra. We are on our way to City Trabin.”
“Splendid . I am…not aristocracy, actually, but a traveling performer for kakra. My troupe woke and broke camp this evening, leaving while I still slept. Accidentally, of course. They were headed for City Trabin…so, for safety purposes, may I travel with you?”
“Are you a monara?”
The scratchy voice startled me at first, until I realized it came from the woman. I took a deep breath, trying to ignore the flies that seemed to be buzzing in my stomach. Many people distrusted monara because of their power and the dangerous authority games they play. She probably wouldn’t believe me if I told her Acha was my only monarant.
“A monara?” I laughed. “I hate the fiends! No, I’m just a lowly performer…lowly compared to the kakra, I mean.”
“Then why is that disgusting carrion-eater perched on your shoulder?” she snapped.
“Oh, Acha? He’s just part of my act. He talks. Say something, Acha!”
“Pretty lady, pretty lady!” -Stupid, squawking bird in cage. Embarrassment.-
I smoothed back the feathers around his ear holes to calm him and let him know I appreciated it.
The woman examined us, as if still not quite trusting, then her scowl turned up in a smile.
“Yes, I see now. Forgive me for being suspicious; travelers can't be too careful. We live in City Trabin, actually, when we’re not abroad. What say you, Balan? Shall we let her spend the night with us?”
The old man looked surprised. “She is certainly welcome, but won’t she want to look for her troupe as soon as she arrives?”
“Not at night,” I replied, surprised but relieved by the woman's hospitality. “Lots of trouble makers about.” Too late to room at an inn, I realized. Best to stay hidden, anyway. “I would be honor…pleased to stay with you until sunrise.”
The woman nodded. “You see, Balan? Come then, we’re wasting the night.”
I followed them, unable to concentrate on anything. The events that had driven me from my home were still too fresh to reflect on.
End of excerpt
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